Coyle: Columnist incites debate on post-secondary investment

An interesting discussion flared in the media recently that probably generated more interest among college and university employees and attendees than it did among the general public.

An interesting discussion flared in the media recently that probably generated more interest among college and university employees and attendees than it did among the general public.

It is a variant on the old “college vs. university” discussion.

But there’s a new spin to it—it seems universities are concerned that too much attention is being paid to the colleges and their ability to respond to student demand for education and training that will help them find work.

The story referenced the fact that 15 per cent of those who are enrolled at Canada’s colleges are students who have previously attended university.

“A national debate is underway in Canada about the value of a university education as students flock to vocationally focused community colleges and concern grows among the nation’s universities.” That’s the way the Times Higher Education publication characterized the discussion.

Gwyn Morgan, a well-known national columnist, was at least, in-part, responsible for fanning the flames of the discussion.

One of his Globe and Mail columns this spring criticized universities for directing funding to low-enrolment programs while they were turning away students for other in-demand programs, where there were jobs waiting.

When the predictable response came from those who think we ought never draw a connecting line between education and work, he wrote another column that cast an eye toward colleges.

“Fortunately, our community colleges are in the real world.”

“If you were the federal finance minister responsible for getting the best value for taxpayer dollars, what would you choose to do?” Morgan asked his readers.

“Keep shovelling money at universities whose ‘academic independence’ paradigm blocks the reallocation of resources to programs that meet the needs of employers and the career opportunities available for students?

“Or shift a greater portion of post-secondary financing to institutions that not only cost less per student, but actually consult with employers and focus programs to where the jobs are?”

I don’t think it boils down to something as simple as colleges vs. universities, though.

That presumes there’s a clear line to be drawn between the two.

If there ever was a definitive line, it has been so badly blurred and redrawn over the past 20 to 30 years, that no one should even attempt to describe it.

Consider the post-secondary landscape in British Columbia.

Our province has several universities that offer a broad array of trades training.

There are several colleges in this province that deliver respected four-year baccalaureate degrees (Okanagan College among them).

So let’s leave “college vs. university” out of the discussion. It’s a gross simplification that won’t always work.

Let’s dwell on a point that Morgan makes: There needs to be a focus—at the policy and funding level—on institutions that meet society’s needs, and which can anticipate those and respond quickly.

That doesn’t mean abandoning support of liberal arts degrees and academic freedom.

It doesn’t mean cancelling all classes in Latin and 18th Century Russian philosophy at all universities in Canada. (I have a liberal arts degree. It has served me well.)

What adjusting our focus means is that we need to consider a balance in our public investments, with an eye on outcomes.

There are increasingly scarce resources to be invested in post-secondary education these days.

We should make sure those available resources are going where there are short- and long-term returns on investment.



Allan Coyle is the director of public affairs for Okanagan College.


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