Economist Tim O'Neill should have dedicated his report on Nova Scotia universities to Marshall McLuhan. "School is the advertising agency which makes you believe you need the society as it is," McLuhan wryly observed. Yes, believe hard enough in the status quo and, as O'Neill points out, your lowly BA will earn you $765,000 more in your working lifetime than if you had a high school diploma. That's an 11.5 percent return on every dollar invested if you're male and 14 percent if you're female. O'Neill adds that unemployment rates are "substantially lower" for those with a university degree.
"Such high rates of return on investment," he writes, "have to be factored in to a discussion of what is the appropriate level of tuition fees." And what is the appropriate level? O'Neill's answer is that universities should be allowed to charge whatever the market will bear. It's only fair that students pay more, he suggests, since their degrees are tickets to secure and high-paying jobs. McLuhan's "society as it is" is obsessed with returns on financial investment. Apply that thinking to a university education, as O'Neill does, and degrees become marketable commodities. So much for the joys of learning, discovering new ideas, the excitement of discussion and debate and the sharpening of critical thinking skills.
It gets worse. O'Neill inadvertently points out that in our "society as it is," universities reinforce the economic class structure. He writes that kids from upper-income families are over-represented in university relative to their share of the population and they can well afford to pay higher tuition. It's unfair, O'Neill writes, "for middle-class and lower-middle-class taxpayers to effectively subsidize the university education of students from wealthier families." However, if a university degree leads to a bigger paycheque, why not raise income taxes so that those who benefit directly from higher education pay a greater share of the costs? Instead, our "society as it is" provides tax breaks for the income groups already over-represented in university. Low- and middle-income Nova Scotians don't benefit, for example, from low taxes on investment income and capital gains. Jacking up tuition fees so that students pay a greater share of university costs is ass-backwards. Little wonder that, as O'Neill acknowledges, Nova Scotia already has the highest student debt levels in the country.
Although O'Neill does recommend more generous loans and grants for poorer students, he also argues that tuition fees and other financial costs are not as significant a barrier to entering university as many people think. So why are relatively few low-income students, aboriginals, African-Canadians and students with disabilities attending university? O'Neill refers to studies that conclude other barriers such as parental influence, poor reading scores and low marks are much more significant barriers to university attendance than financial costs. O'Neill fails to draw the obvious conclusion that our entire school system is not only failing large groups of disadvantaged students, it is also perpetuating an inherently unjust class system. Kids unlucky enough to be born to poor, ill-educated parents are likely to end up poor and ill-educated themselves.
O'Neill's report also seems indifferent to the growing army of grossly underpaid contract faculty eking out a bare living in our universities. These teachers, officially classified as "part-time," earn poverty-level wages, enjoy few benefits, are given little administrative and research support and have no job security. Instead of calling on university administrators to stop running academic sweatshops, O'Neill recommends that they exercise what he calls "significant restraint" in overall faculty pay levels while trimming the number of full-time professors.
O'Neill's report is a pretty depressing reflection of the notion that universities are ad agencies to promote belief in money, power and the status quo. McLuhan's mentor, Harold Innis, taught that universities must remain independent centres of thought and discovery. If they become transmitters of economic orthodoxies and business values, Innis warned, universities will be destroyed along with the civilization they stand for.