Ontario education plans don't take into account what Catholic colleges do best

  • March 12, 2010
{mosimage}A government that pins its economic recovery plans on sending more kids to colleges and universities is probably good news for Ontario's Catholic liberal arts colleges, but college administrators are worried about whether the government sees the value of philosophy, literary studies and history.

Ontario's Liberal government made post-secondary education the centrepiece of its March 8 throne speech, promising to increase the post-secondary education participation to 70 per cent, from a current 62 per cent, to create 20,000 new spaces at colleges and universities this year and to boost international students by 50 per cent over five years.

"The places with the strongest schools today will have the strongest economies tomorrow," said the speech read by Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley.

"I think it's great news," said Brescia College principal Colleen Hanycz.

Getting people the education they need isn't just about economics, said Hanycz from London, Ont. where Brescia University College is an affiliated college of the University of Western Ontario. More participation in education means more participation in society, and that reflects the traditional Catholic ideal of social justice, she said.

"When (Brescia) was established in 1919, the Ursulines said these (poor, rural) women need to be educated as well, and that of course was a social justice platform," Hanycz said.

But Hanycz does worry that linking education directly to economic growth may put a utilitarian spin on higher education which will devalue the liberal arts focus of Catholic colleges.

"That is certainly a threat," she said.

It's a threat that was realized in recent history, when last year the federal government made infrastructure-stimulus money available to the provinces to build new facilities on university campuses, said president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Canada David Sylvester.

"All this new infrastructure money came out from the federal government, matched by the provinces. None of us got a sniff of that," he said.

An emphasis on science and engineering, the promise of patents and job-ready technical workers, left Catholic colleges with programs in medieval studies, philosophy and social work out in the cold.

"There's an emphasis on research and converting that research into industrial products, and we just don't fit that mould. At Catholic colleges, we're about educating young people – not providing new patents," said Sylvester.

The patent obsession is a mistake, said Rotman School of Management professor James Milway, who is executive director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto.

"From a purely utilitarian angle, it's not about science and engineering," Milway told The Catholic Register. "It's as much about the liberal arts."

Venerable Cardinal John Henry Newman's essay "The Idea of a University" has been on the losing end of the argument over why the state should fund universities for more than a century, with policy makers constantly opting for lab coats and hard science, said Milway. But few business leaders in fact come from the laboratory, he said.

"If you look at the highest tech companies in the United States – the IBMs, the Motorolas, the Hewlett-Packards – the CEOs of those companies, most of them are not science grads or engineers," he said.

Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina's first degree was in philosophy and medieval history.

"What you get out of a liberal arts education is a capacity to absorb the various blows that are going to come to you throughout your business career or your working career," said Milway.

The basic idea that more post-secondary education will be good for the economy is right, said Milway.

"If you want a more innovative economy you should have more educated people in the workforce. That's the logic," he said. "It's pretty unassailable."

Ireland's historically strong education made the country ready for economic expansion when the European Union came calling in the 1990s, said Milway.

Bumping up the international population on campus isn't just a way of getting more money from students who pay tuitions about three times higher than Ontario residents pay, said Sylvester, who is also principal of UWO's King's University College. Having students from around the world on campus makes any university better, said Sylvester.

"It's totally consistent with the objectives of Catholic post-secondary education," he said.

Looking at students from outside of Canada as cash cows "is really myopic," Sylvester said.

The province can't meet its 70 per cent participation objective without greater per-student funding and reforms that will ensure graduates aren't saddled with a lifetime of debt, said Sylvester.

"The other side of the coin is accessibility," he said. "If it just becomes an industry where students are taking on greater and greater amounts of debt to achieve that education then there's no justice in that."

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