Former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae, who was appointed by the Ontario government last year to review the province's post-secondary education system, has concluded the system is underfunded.
His report, titled Ontario: A Leader in Learning, was released in February. It recommended a substantial increase in provincial investment - at least $1.3 billion in new base funding to colleges and universities by 2007-2008.
Not surprisingly, every Ontario university president was quick to praise the report. That's because their chief concern right now is not where all that money will come from, so long as it comes.
But we need to look a little closer at what Rae is proposing.
First, the good news: there will be a place for every qualified student to attend an Ontario post-secondary institution. The bad news is every one of those qualified students will be guaranteed adequate financial support to study in Ontario. In fact, that is really bad news.
It's bad news because Rae's report, promising what it does, implies universal access to post-secondary education is no longer a fundamental and unquestioned Canadian value. It implies this long-held principle shouldn't be given automatic high priority, not by government, not by taxpayers, nor by colleges and universities.
Instead, the report recommends more money should be allocated to interest-loaded assistance programs so that students from low- and middle-income families who cannot afford the high fees can borrow a great deal of money and be in debt for a good number of years after their graduation. This is what students are doing now.
Rae asserted tuition should not increase until the student assistance program is reformed and government has made significant new financial investments in the post-secondary system. Tuition levels would then be set by institutions, guided by a new regulatory framework designed to ensure predictability, transparency and affordability for students.
But Rae's report completely misses the point. Ontarians deserve a universal, government-supported post-secondary education system. Isn't education - including post-secondary education - a fundamental human right that should be collectively protected and nurtured by society?
Education should be regarded as a universal right because it releases the enormous potential of human capabilities in all fields of endeavour and is central to the construction and healthy maintenance of genuinely democratic societies. It has strong links not only to consumer productivity and growth (as Rae's report rightly indicates), but also to improved quality of life, reduced health costs, the ability to understand global issues and needs (such as caring for the environment), and simply makes people all round better and happier human beings and caring and contributing citizens.
A high quality, universally accessible, government-supported education system is a win-win scenario for all. And the cost of footing this bill would not be unreasonable, given the enormous economic and social benefits that could result.
Education can be either a great social equalizer that recognizes the unique intellectual and creative value of every citizen, or a great divider that reinforces the subtle discriminations of a class system we are so unwilling to acknowledge. Rae's report has sadly run aground on the same old divisive faults of the latter, and this is wrong.
Dr. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of computer engineering at the University of Waterloo.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.