September 26, 2010
A venerable joke places a physicist, a chemist and an economist on a desert island. They’re starving. A can of soup washes ashore. They have no can-opener. The physicist says, “Let’s smash the can open with a rock.” The chemist says, “Let’s build a fire and heat the can till it ruptures.” The economist says, “Assume a can-opener.”
The semi-science of economics rests on assumptions. When you consider the findings of an economist, think first about his or her assumptions.
Consider, for example, the findings of Tim O’Neill’s recent report on universities.
O’Neill is an astute, experienced and public-spirited man — a former professor at St. Mary’s University, a former president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, a former vice-president of the Bank of Montreal, a devoted citizen. Commissioned by the government to review Nova Scotia’s university system, O’Neill assumes that future university enrolment will decline while government funding will grow slowly if at all. Therefore the major challenge will be “to manage growing financial pressures and looming system over-capacity in the face of anticipated enrolment declines.”
Too many seats, too few bums, and too little public money. Those are the trends, O’Neill assumes they will continue, and they allow little room for maneuver. If less money comes from the government, more will have to come from student tuition. The universities already share library services and purchasing, but possibly more can be saved by merging such administrative functions as industrial liaison offices. “Over-capacity” means that some small universities may have to merge or affiliate with larger ones.
All this tinkering follows logically from his perfectly reasonable assumptions. But are those the only assumptions? As it happens, CBC’s Sunday Edition ran a panel discussion at Dalhousie on the question, “Is University Education Worth the Cost?” just a few days before the O’Neill report’s release. At the panel, speakers like Jim Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers raised questions that went far beyond the O’Neill framework.
The present system assumes that post-secondary education is mainly about future earnings, and mainly benefits the student, who is therefore expected to pay an increasingly outrageous price for it. But, Turk noted, we accept that high school should be tuition-free, because we all benefit from a literate, educated population.
If that’s true for secondary education, why isn’t it true for post-secondary education? Indeed, many European countries accept that logic and do provide free post-secondary education. The idea was floated here a couple of years ago by Joan McArthur-Blair, former president of the Nova Scotia Community College. It has a lot to recommend it.
The flip side of a free-tuition system, Jim Turk explained, is a progressive income tax, so that we do recapture our investment when a student does prosper. Students who choose low-earning careers — in day-care centres, say, or as artists — will not be burdened with a huge debt. And we can adjust the tax rates to suit our requirements.
Unaffordable? Other CBC panelists noted that Canada can afford $100 billion in tax cuts, $16 billion for high-testosterone fighter jets and $10 billion to build new prisons for 3400 additional inmates, each of whom will cost more than $100,000 a year to support. That’s an annual commitment of $3.4 billion. At the provincial level, our highways cost $3 or $4 million a kilometer, and people are seriously suggesting that we toss $150 million at a deeply dubious convention centre project.
Our spending decisions starkly reveal that our problem is not money but priorities. Canadians are wealthier than they’ve ever been. We just don’t choose to invest our money in the brains and creativity of our young people.
Free tuition coupled with a sharply-graduated income tax would turn the present system right-side up — supporting education not by piling debt on struggling young people but by levying fair taxes on people who could well afford them. That ought to be our goal, and Tim O’Neill might at least have noted such possibilities.
In fairness, nobody commissioned O’Neill to dream. But he would have served us better if he had. As South Pacific’s Bloody Mary said, “You got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”
– 30 —