On Campus

Education versus health care

EXCERPT "What's Wrong With University: And How to Make It Work for You Anyway"

Students often get angry about the cost of their education, wonder what’s wrong with the system, and why there isn’t more money. That’s such a big question that it deserves a book all to itself, but if you’re in university or will be soon, I’d encourage you to take some economics or political science courses to learn more about these issues. In the short term, I’ll just discuss a quirk of the Canadian economy that has a lot of influence on the cost of your education.

Way back when the original colonies that now comprise Canada were first negotiating a combined federal government, they had to settle a few questions regarding local (provincial) authority and central (federal) authority. It’s a natural enough issue and I’m sure it involved some complex discussion, but the essential question came down to, “Who is in charge of what?” Provinces retained control of various issues and expenses that were deemed to be largely local concerns. An arrangement that continues to this day, these include education and health care.

From a modern perspective, it is surprising to realize this, but when Canada was formed neither education nor health care were big-ticket items, in terms of government spending. It made sense to leave them in the hands of the provinces because central authority wasn’t needed. Along with control of these areas comes the right to raise taxes to pay for them. And because of these very pragmatic decisions, a major tension exists today regarding how to fund both education and health care.

A massive portion of the total budget, in each province, goes into the combination of health care and education. The room to maneuver around these two priorities is relatively slight. As much as people hate to admit it (especially politicians, who need to worry about appearances), any discussion around funding health care raises the ugly prospect of taking money away from education, and any discussion of funding education brings up the nasty suggestion of raiding the health-care budget. The alternative, of course, is to simply raise taxes. But if that option is rejected, and everyone is scrambling to grab for a bigger piece of the existing pie, it’s impossible to deny it has to come from somewhere else. And the biggest pieces, by far, belong to these two areas.

I don’t know if it’s possible to find a “right” and a “wrong” in this equation, but with an aging population in Canada, it’s natural, even obvious, that health care has been consuming more and more of this limited budget. University administrators aren’t blind to this, and Dr. Carolyn Tuohy has even termed this an issue of “intergenerational equity,” which is a tactful way to observe that one generation is getting the short end of the stick. The baby-boom generation, which has had its way politically for decades and continues to get its way with voting power and lobbying clout, is getting all the tax dollars. The money was in education when they needed education, and now it’s in health care when they need health care. So it isn’t fair, in any objective sense, and the younger generations today deserve to be angry. Except it’s hard to cry “foul!” when your grandmother needs her hip replaced. And that’s exactly why you just about never hear the question of educational funding phrased in these terms. No one wants to admit we have finite resources, and that the health-care needs of one generation are in competition with the educational needs of another generation. But that’s what’s happening.

There are no easy answers here, but if you believe, as I do, that the needs of younger Canadians deserve as much attention as anyone else’s, it’s vital to express yourself politically. If you want to take back some of the power, then get involved and encourage your fellow students to get involved. The simplest way to start is to go out and vote each election. No matter who you choose to support, and even if you don’t have strong attachments to any party or cause, the more a population demographic votes, the more politicians are obliged to consider what that demographic wants. So vote, and get your fellow students voting. We don’t all agree on what we want out of university, and we aren’t likely to agree on any single social agenda, so I’m not going to push a particular cause or political perspective. Make up your own mind there. But unless you want to blindly trust that people who don’t share your reality today are going to make the best decisions for you, it’s worthwhile to remind them you’re watching.

Excerpted from “What’s Wrong With University: And How to Make It Work for You Anyway”, © 2007 by Jeff Rybak. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press. The book is available here.