By Fer­gus Hodgson

Rese­arch Associate

Fron­tier Cen­tre for Public Policy


Last sum­mer, the fede­ral govern­ment paid employ­ers more than $200 mil­lion and up to 100 per cent of com­pen­sa­tion to get them to hire stu­dents. If the­se young adults are Canada’s best and bri­gh­test – enjoy­ing taxpay­er-fun­ded edu­ca­tion – why are they so unap­pe­aling to employ­ers that they have to be disco­un­ted to half pri­ce or free?

Fun­ding for Cana­da Sum­mer Jobs has doubled under the Libe­ral Par­ty, but cur­rent uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents aren’t the only ones strug­gling to be worth the mini­mum wage. A per­si­stent, long-term rise in stu­dent debt and asso­cia­ted ban­krupt­cies sug­ge­sts gra­du­ates under­go­ing simi­lar chal­len­ges and a higher-edu­ca­tion sec­tor in disarray.

As eco­no­mist Bry­an Caplan notes in The Case aga­inst Edu­ca­tion, the two pri­ma­ry moti­ves for higher edu­ca­tion are human capi­tal and signal­ling. The inor­di­na­te empha­sis on ide­olo­gi­cal­ly dri­ven majors, rather than hard and soft skills, under­mi­nes human-capi­tal formation.

Mean­whi­le, the inces­sant dri­ve to get eve­ry last soul into uni­ver­si­ty dilu­tes and, for less selec­ti­ve pro­grams, rever­ses the signal­ling value for intel­li­gen­ce, con­scien­tio­usness and respect for autho­ri­ty. To signal distinc­ti­ve talent, one must achie­ve ever higher levels of edu­ca­tion and attend more selec­ti­ve programs.

Stu­dent debt in Cana­da con­tri­bu­ted to 22,000 inso­lven­cies in 2018, aro­und 10 per cent of the total. Whi­le far from the deva­sta­ting cri­sis in the Uni­ted Sta­tes, the upward trend is a war­ning for action now rather than later. The annu­al Hoy­es Micha­los ban­krupt­cy stu­dy reports a record rate of stu­dent-loan-indu­ced inso­lven­cies, and ave­ra­ge stu­dent debt upon gra­du­ation has bal­lo­oned 68 per cent this deca­de: from $26,300 in 2010 to $44,200 in 2019.

The ave­ra­ge under­gra­du­ate tuition fee in 2018–2019 was only $6,838, exc­lu­ding living expen­ses. Howe­ver, even heavi­ly sub­si­di­zed tuition has almost tri­pled sin­ce 1990 and out­pa­ced infla­tion eve­ry year sin­ce 1982. Whe­re­as the ave­ra­ge Cana­dian took 293 hours of mini­mum-wage work to afford uni­ver­si­ty in 1990, today 505 hours is required.

In some pro­vin­ces, the ail­ment is more advan­ced. For instan­ce, in Onta­rio the ave­ra­ge tuition is $8,838 and has been incre­asing at a rate of 4.7 per cent annu­al­ly over the past deca­de. One out of six inso­lvent Onta­rians in 2018 is an indeb­ted student.

The num­ber of Cana­dians with high debt – more than $25,000 – has also bal­lo­oned in the past deca­de. Three years after gra­du­ation, almost a quar­ter of stu­dents still owe over $25,000. That bur­den can affect a who­le ran­ge of life cho­ices and possi­bi­li­ties, such as delay­ing buy­ing a car or a home, get­ting mar­ried, and/or having children.

Under the Ban­krupt­cy and Inso­lven­cy Act, stu­dents can dischar­ge via ban­krupt­cy almost any govern­ment-guaran­te­ed debt seven years after gra­du­ation. This incen­ti­vi­zes more debt and higher tuition whi­le socia­li­zing the costs of non-mar­ke­ta­ble degrees.

Even as tuition has risen, Cana­dian cam­pu­ses have in gene­ral beco­me more con­du­ci­ve to pro­gres­si­ve dogma and acti­vism than lear­ning. Surveys show a size­able majo­ri­ty of Cana­dians belie­ve poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness has gone too far, with uni­ver­si­ties leading the way. The Justi­ce Cen­tre for Con­sti­tu­tio­nal Fre­edoms (JCCF) finds most taxpay­er-fun­ded uni­ver­si­ties fail to pro­tect free speech.

All too often, col­le­ge cam­pu­ses are whe­re free spe­ech goes to die.

Rese­arch shows that up to half of all jobs cre­ated in Cana­da over the next 10 years will requ­ire major skill shi­fts due to tech­no­lo­gi­cal advan­ce­ments. Howe­ver, non-tech­ni­cal majors such as gen­der stu­dies are ubi­qu­ito­us in eve­ry pro­vin­ce. Mount Alli­son Uni­ver­si­ty in New Brun­swick even offers a cour­se in envi­ron­men­tal acti­vism – not your best bet for the job market.

A Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to gra­du­ate in com­pa­ra­ti­ve reli­gions with a minor in Mid­dle Eastern civi­li­za­tions told Vice he wan­ted the degree so he could start a cult. It makes one won­der why taxpay­ers fund this and then bail him out when he fails to put a roof over his head.

Even Cana­da Sum­mer Jobs has beco­me a tool for ide­olo­gi­cal mani­pu­la­tion. Under a lit­mus test impo­sed by the Libe­ral govern­ment sin­ce 2018, 400 orga­ni­za­tions have beco­me ine­li­gi­ble for the grants due to vio­la­tions of pro­gres­si­ve views on issu­es such as abor­tion, sex edu­ca­tion and fami­ly planning.

The Cana­dian taxpay­er can’t keep sub­si­di­zing and len­ding for fields that gob­ble up pre­cio­us wor­king years and impe­de rather than heigh­ten employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties. The short­si­gh­ted man­tra of higher edu­ca­tion as always bet­ter is coming apart in Cana­da and the Uni­ted Sta­tes, and it is abo­ut time. As many scho­ols fail to rema­in rele­vant, a Harvard Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor pre­dicts at least a quar­ter of U.S. col­le­ges will clo­se the­ir doors in the next two decades.

Fur­ther fede­ral fun­ding and med­dling would be coun­ter­pro­duc­ti­ve to what is con­sti­tu­tio­nal­ly a pro­vin­cial con­cern. Howe­ver, the­re needs to be a major rethink regar­ding the pur­po­se of higher edu­ca­tion in Cana­da and how it does or doesn’t match what the­se insti­tu­tions do. In par­ti­cu­lar, the­re needs to be gre­ater com­pe­ti­ti­ve pres­su­re across the pro­vin­ces and more atten­tion given to pay­ing custo­mers and the­ir outcomes.

Such is the insti­tu­tio­nal iner­tia and intel­lec­tu­al influ­en­ce of uni­ver­si­ties that law­ma­kers will have to be tho­ught­ful and cre­ati­ve with how they enga­ge in reform.

Howe­ver, being entren­ched does not make a pro­blem less in need of a solu­tion. The first step to solving a pro­blem is reco­gni­zing it. The cur­rent tra­jec­to­ry, witho­ut a chan­ge of cour­se, is for a more indeb­ted popu­la­tion with incre­asin­gly irre­le­vant education.

Fer­gus Hodg­son is the exe­cu­ti­ve edi­tor of Anti­gua Report, a colum­nist with the Epoch Times and a rese­arch asso­cia­te with Fron­tier Cen­tre for Public Policy.