October President’s Message:  We Are Not Alone

Dr. Julia M. Wright, President, Dalhousie Faculty Association (posted October 17, 2019)

“In Nova Scotia, universities are the third largest export revenue sector.” (Association of Atlantic Universities)

“The contribution of universities to Nova Scotia’s economic growth and development” includes “economic output [of over] $2 billion” (Universities: Partners for a Prosperous Nova Scotia 2013)

“Canada is 27th out of 32 OECD countries in public funding for post-secondary education” (CAUT)

Next week, Canadians go to the polls to elect our next federal government. I’m not going to take sides here, and not only because it isn’t my role to do so. The sorry fact of the matter is this: we’ve taken huge hits from every party that has been in government this century, nationally and provincially, in a combined push to de-fund education in Canada. Our province has been especially hard hit. For some time now we have had some of the highest tuition fees in the country while we struggle to maintain more and more of our programs.

We don’t want to see universities squeezed like this, of course. Neither does the rest of the public. I say “rest of” because we are part of the public, too. There’s been a tendency in our sector to put universities on one side and “the public” on another (see here for an example). This suggests that we are outsiders, beyond the reach of government responsibility (to the public) and benefit (the public good).  But we are part of the public and so are our students and graduates.

Polling suggests that our understanding of the importance of universities is much more mainstream than governments would have us believe. In 2017, Abacus Data conducted a national survey for Universities Canada. Their conclusions are worth quoting at length:

The large majority (78%) of Canadians express a positive overall feeling towards universities, with only 3% expressing a negative view. This is consistent with our findings from an earlier study 2 years ago.

Two-thirds or more of those interviewed believe that Canada’s universities are friendly (77%), conduct valuable research (77%), are practical (73%), up to date (73%), open-minded (68%), dynamic (67%) and have a great future ahead of them (71%). A significant majority (63%) also consider our universities to be “world class”. Canadians are split on whether universities are adequately funded …

86% say the government of Canada should spend more on university research because the upside for Canada is tremendous. (Abacus)

We are not alone in believing in the importance of university teaching and research.

The Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers conducted a poll last year, and found that “95% of Nova Scotians think post-secondary education (PSE) should be a high priority for the Nova Scotian provincial government” and “88% of those polled support reducing tuition fees.” The latter number has risen slightly since 2010, when polling by a coalition of unions and student groups in Nova Scotia showed that 83% supported reducing tuition fees.

And yet, despite polling, and protests, and evidence-based arguments on economic benefits, and even emergency funding for universities it has pushed to the brink, the Nova Scotia government last month again pegged university funding increases below inflation (1%/year) while allowing tuition to increase above the inflation rate. The DFA and DSU issued a joint media release outlining why this is so damaging. Federal election polling is adding to the evidence for our concerns.

“Affordability” is emerging as a key issue in the 2019 federal election, and a recent poll by Abacus found that 38% of those polled said that this was a “major problem.” Of those, fully half said that tuition was a “factor” in their “feeling that [their] cost of living is a problem,” weighting it as “moderate” (13%), “big” (15%), or “really big” (22%). There were fewer than 2.1 million post-secondary students in 2016-17 and Canada’s population was over 36.5 million that year. So we need to sit up and pay attention when 19% of Canadians polled say they’re struggling and tuition is a significant factor in their struggle. This polling data suggests high tuition is having very hard knock-on effects—on graduates, on families, and over many years.

We, along with our students and recent graduates, can also speak to what this chronic underfunding is doing to our institutions: declining faculty/student ratios, research time, library materials, student supports, and so on, while scarce resources are directed instead at finding other funding.

Government policy, federally and regionally, is doing real damage to decades of twentieth-century investment and to our students and graduates. There are lots of other important issues to Canadians, including to those of us who work in the higher-education sector, but many will have to be solved with the help of universities, including shortages of teachers and healthcare workers.

When it comes to public support for universities, we are not alone. But it seems as if our governments have their fingers stuck in their ears. Let’s do what we can to make our politicians accountable for the decisions they make about universities. Let’s vote.