Improvements to education, rather than cuts, will help the economy

hoja-lata via Compfight
hoja-lata via Compfight

Premier Jim Prentice keeps telling Albertans that all options are on the table for dealing with the province’s purported $7-billion revenue shortfall next year. What he seems to mean, however, is that all options that will hurt the province over the long-term and make fiscal realities worse are on the table and that anything that might actually help, like royalties and corporate taxes, will not be allowed anywhere near the table.

Take the case of post-secondary education. In jurisdictions that are over-dependent on natural-resource extraction and exports, post-secondary education can play an important role in facilitating the research, skills development and creativity that lead directly to innovation and economic diversification. The stronger a post-secondary education system a jurisdiction has, the more likely they are to see a highly skilled trades sector, an innovative and creative science and technology sector, world-class health care and education sectors, and a thriving arts and culture sector. All of these contribute to diversity of an economy and reduce the boom-bust cycles so often associated with resource-based economies.

Likewise, a strong, well-funded and accessible post-secondary education system makes a huge contribution to reduced inequality. Education is key to social mobility because it increases earning potential. The more accessible education is to young people from poor and working-class families, the less poverty and income inequality will exist. Not surprisingly, having more people earning more money also broadens the tax base.

There is also a wealth of research linking better access to post-secondary education with greater democratic engagement and greater civic participation. It doesn’t matter if that access is to trade schools, colleges or universities, the more access that exists to post-secondary education, the higher the level of engagement by the population in elections, volunteering and their communities.

All of these are compelling arguments in favour of a well-funded, accessible post-secondary education system. They are some of the reasons that countries like Germany and Norway have moved to completely eliminate tuition and why their economies are actually stronger for it.

In case you missed it, Alberta is a province where a third of government revenues and at least a third of the GDP comes directly from one economic sector: oil and gas. We are the province in Canada that is most dependent on natural resources for government revenues.

We are also the province with both the highest levels of income and wealth inequality between rich and poor, and also have the fastest-growing gap between rich and poor in the country, and the level of engagement by Albertans in politics and elections is abysmal.

All of these realities are aggravated by the fact that Alberta has the lowest level of participation in post-secondary education in the country and that our undergraduate tuition fees are the second highest in the country.

So an important solution to a number of Alberta’s woes today would be to invest in and strengthen our post-secondary system and make it much more accessible. That is not, however, the solution that Prentice has put on the table. The solution he has put on the table is to further cut funding to the system and remove the long-standing cap on tuition fees in the province. In other words, he is considering making it harder for the province’s post-secondary institutions to provide high-quality education at the same time as he is prepared to make that education less accessible to Albertans.

The result of moving forward with further cuts and tuition deregulation would be a system that is only accessible to an elite few; a system that would further broaden the gap between rich and poor in the province. The lack of funding and access would stymie research and innovation, further entrenching oil and gas as the only show in town and increasing our susceptibility to the boom-bust cycle, and the lack of access would result in many of our best and brightest leaving the province to study elsewhere, making others the beneficiaries of our lack of foresight and vision.

There are many things that belong on Prentice’s table for consideration. Post-secondary education is not one of them. V

Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.

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