Free University, or University for what?
Since high school seniors are applying at this time of year, two recent events are worth noting about university education. First was the Ontario premier’s proposal that university be free, essentially, for students from low-income families. Finally! Many of the advanced countries of the world are already offering university educations for free, considering that the entire society benefits as its members become better educated. Quebec students have asked, begged, demanded the same, but to no avail.
Event two was personal: visiting relatives, I noticed several of our next generation had pursued higher education, which is good, but I was surprised that they had all focused on vocational training – learning a trade. This, they said, means a job upon graduation. And the vocations they favour are modern: digital this and digital that, the communications world of Bell, Rogers, and Telus. Not one of our families had kids studying the liberal arts or the sciences. No jobs there, was their impression.
Fine. It’s a free country, sort of. Free at least to study what one wishes, within certain parameters. So the 20- and 30–somethings can work for Bell, buy condos, take trips, start socking away savings . . . but, wait a minute. Yes, they have well-paying jobs, but none guaranteed for long. Their condos are over-priced in an over-heated market. Will they get a return on that investment? Travel, there’s life’s bonus, isn’t it? Two of the new families took recent trips: one was to the West Edmonton Mall (four-hour drive). I’m not kidding. The second, and this is a couple without kids, headed to Disneyland. No kidding here, either.
OK, so what are they reading? Certainly not public media, except the sort which they have defined: “send us only what we want to hear”. That’s not a reliable way to get and understand the news of the day. Books? Didn’t see a single book in the household we stayed in. Magazines, ditto.
So these kids worked hard to get through technical college; they paid for this education. And when they graduated they did get jobs. But how else did education change or enrich their lives?
Disneyland? No books? Little awareness of current news? Whatever curiosity their education stimulated was satisfied by music videos, or perhaps videos of . . . what? Cats? New cars and new features for their digital gadgets – yes! Sports and personal conditioning, yes, they all jogged and played tennis or paintball. No one did Qigong or Tai Chi.
And is this a life? Are they equipped to even think about the grand questions of existence that become all-important as we age, and which make aging an interesting prospect, apart from its infirmities? A job; they pay taxes; they keep the housing market booming; vehicle sales are doing well with them . . . but isn’t there a bigger reason to put university education within the reach of everyone?
There’s a step missing here, a big one.