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William Watson on post-secondary education

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On Wednesday, William Watson wrote a comment piece in the Financial Post in which he was critical of Armine Yalnizyan's recent essay on inequality. In his piece, Mr. Watson alleges that Armine "is guilty of fantastical reminiscence," particularly with respect to her take on post-secondary education (PSE). Among other things, Mr. Watson points to the fact that PSE enrolment has increased very substantially over the past half-century in Canada. He also states: "Inequality may be ravaging Canadians' living standards and consciences, but it sure hasn't hurt university enrolments."

Mr. Watson also asks the following:

"But does anyone seriously disagree that a university education brings a financial payoff to those who get it? If so, why is it a problem for 'fairness and social justice' if those who will receive far and away the bulk of the benefit of their education are asked to help pay more of its cost?"

Allow me to take a crack at answering the second question. Consider the following:

- The increases in university enrolment to which Mr. Watson alludes are taking place as federal funding is decreasing. Between 1985-1986 and 2007-2008, annual federal cash transfers to Ontario for PSE (in constant 2007 dollars) decreased from roughly $1.4 billion to just under $1 billion. During that same 22-year period, PSE enrolment in Ontario increased by more than 60 per cent.

- Class sizes are increasing. The ratio of full-time equivalent (FTE) students per full-time faculty member at Ontario universities increased by 47 per cent between 1987-1988 and 2007-2008. During that same period, FTE enrolments per full-time academic staff at Ontario's community colleges almost doubled.

- Student debt is increasing. For a four-year degree in Ontario, it has risen by roughly 175 per cent in roughly the past 15 years.

- As David Macdonald and Erika Shaker have recently argued, in light of rising levels of household debt, Canadian households are not in the same position to take on new debt today as they were 20 years ago.

- Rising student debt affects students from racialized groups especially hard, as they are more likely to require student loans and more likely to have higher student debt upon graduation. This exacerbates inequities between groups.

In light of all of the points I've just outlined, I would argue that Mr. Watson's analysis of PSE could benefit from a bit more nuance.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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