Lately, whenever education has been in the news, the focus was usually on our public schools and how they’ve struggled to cope with the challenges presented by the pandemic and our responses to it. Post secondary institutions have received far less attention. The first thing to come to mind is tuition rates, which in Quebec are relatively affordable, though students in Ontario pay almost three times as much. Yet how universities are governed has a major impact on society as well, though it receives little attention.
One example is Laurentian University in Sudbury. It recently filed for bankruptcy protection, the first university in Canada ever to have done so. It subsequently cut many programs and laid off a significant portion of its staff, including tenured professors. The idea that a major university could fail is concerning, but Laurentian is especially important because it allows francophones in northern Ontario to study at a local university in their native language. Laurentian found itself in financial difficulty after spending excessively on construction over the past decade, racking up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. This certainly matters to everyone in Ontario, since many tax dollars flow into the coffers of public universities.
Quebec is certainly not exempt from these sorts of problems. Ten years ago, UQAM wasted over $300M in public funds on its failed Îlot Voyageur construction project. Given the already difficult financial situations of many universities, such money could have been put to excellent use elsewhere.
One such possibility is increasing public funding for research at universities. Health care research has largely been confined to the private sector, especially in terms of pharmaceuticals. Yet perhaps the greatest lesson of Covid is that society is willing to pay enormous amounts to protect public health. Building solid research capacity at our universities would allow an alternative to the profit-driven models of the pharmaceutical industry. It’s only natural that private companies have to cover their costs. But the nature of the private sector also encourages companies to maximize profits. This means that many illnesses go without treatment for far too long largely because the potential profits from designing a treatment aren’t enough. A malaria vaccine has only just been developed, despite the illness having been with us for thousands of years and continuing to kill more than half a million people annually, mostly children. It causes severe illness in millions of others. Yet wealthy countries have largely rid themselves of malaria, so the profit potential of a vaccine was less. By leveraging the public sector and working towards the common good, many lives across the world could be greatly improved. Oxford showed that it was possible for the public sector to make important contributions to health care with its AstraZeneca Covid vaccine. Despite bad press, it’s now seen as about as effective as Pfizer’s vaccine.
Each province will handle post-secondary education differently, as they do for health care. Still, if we tap the potential of our universities we’ll all be better