Competition key to better post-secondary education

Commentary, Education, Robert Murray

Source: Edmonton Journal, 14 Dec 2013

Re: “Reframing Alberta’s post-secondary debate,” by Brent Epperson, Ideas, Dec. 12.

Brent Epperson eloquently argues for a more “progressive” style of post-secondary education in Alberta and rejects those critics who instead prefer a market-driven vision.

While noble in its intent, Epperson’s version of progressivism fails to account for the realities of modern advanced education and the fact that post-secondary education is a privilege, not a right.

Post-secondary education across Canada needs to be reformed. Ongoing fiscal challenges facing virtually all of the country’s post-secondary institutions highlight flaws in the system — a lack of government funding, inequitable tuition standards, the tenure system, and an overvaluing of university education over college education.

Alberta’s post-secondary sector came under particular scrutiny when the government hastily announced its plan for an amalgamated Campus Alberta early in 2013.

At the time, there was no plan, no vision and no consultation regarding what changes Campus Alberta would bring. All we knew was that Thomas Lukaszuk, then advanced education minister, felt Alberta’s institutions were providing “mediocre” education and significant budget cuts would be coming.

The primary reason for Campus Alberta and the budget cuts that went with it had nothing to do with a genuine desire to effectively reform the province’s post-secondary institutions.

Instead, it became a budgetary need after the province’s economic outlook and projected revenues were much lower than expected and the government simply could not afford to fund post-secondary institutions as planned.

Despite the flawed motivations for announcing reforms, the government began a public dialogue over how Alberta, and Canada, will envision post-secondary education in the future.

Campus Alberta is flawed at its core, not because it seeks to reform the current system, but because it will eliminate competition between institutions, thus lowering the quality and standard of education offered.

Epperson believes that market-driven approaches fail to meet Albertans’ needs and will deny students access to post-secondary education. It is true that certain students may not be granted entry to a post-secondary institution, but there is nothing wrong with that.

One of the system’s major problems is that parents, high school teachers, guidance counsellors, and governments have assumed that every student leaving high school deserves to attend a post-secondary institution. They do not.

By allowing institutions to compete with each other, the quality of education gets raised, better students are allowed entry, and institutions are able to recruit better faculty and attract alumni funding. Creating yet another government monopoly with post-secondary education is a disaster waiting to happen.

To attend a post-secondary institution, a student must apply and meet clearly defined criteria of grades along with factors such as community involvement.

Epperson’s progressive vision would continue the current practice of eroding standards in favour of granting the masses access to institutions whose purpose is to educate and train the best, brightest and most talented based on merit.

Students who work hard and achieve predetermined standards are then able to choose, based on their own interests and values, which institution they want to attend.

Tuition rates are too low in Canada, which is why institutions need to rely on government funding. This is not to say Canadian institutions should mirror the broken model of American post-secondary education. But there is validity in expecting students to pay for world-class education.

If tuition rates are frozen, how are institutions expected to survive when governments are unable to fund at the levels necessary for these institutions to meet societal expectations?

A market-driven approach to education promotes competition and allows students to have choice. Students have an equal opportunity to apply to institutions but they do not, and should not, have the right to entry unless merit dictates they have met the qualifications set out by the institution.