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In a Climate Crisis, We Need to De-Grow Higher Ed

BC burns and a new school year beckons. Is what we teach out of step with the times?

Crawford Kilian 25 Aug 2023The Tyee

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Sixty-one years ago, John B. Macdonald designed the post-secondary system that B.C. has lived with ever since. He likely neither knew nor cared that atmospheric CO2 was then at 319 parts per million, or that it would rise to 424 ppm by 2023.

Macdonald was then the president of the University of British Columbia, and a one-person commission on the future of tertiary education in the province. His ideas were logical and well-informed, based on our rapid population and economic growth since the end of the Second World War and extrapolating that growth into the future.

Macdonald’s landmark 1962 report, “Higher Education in British Columbia and a Plan for the Future,” argued for an expanded provincial university system and the creation of community colleges.

Such measures were long overdue. In the previous seven years, Macdonald said, “the University of British Columbia and Grade XIII have seen enrolments double; enrolment at Victoria College has quadrupled. The number of students registered in the University and colleges in British Columbia in 1961-62 was 14,710 or 17.7 per cent of the college-age population, that is the age group 18-21.”

If demand was high, competition was even higher. Macdonald saw extractive industries on the decline, and the rise of manufacturing and services that would require much better-educated workers and managers. Moreover, we were up against American competition; the Russians, then ahead in the space race, seemed ahead in education as well.

Human resources to serve industry

Expanded post-secondary, Macdonald argued, would help the individual cope with constant change. But the social issues were greater: “Human resources are our most important asset for tomorrow. The nation making inadequate use of its citizens through failure to educate them will be a nation doomed to economic distress at best, and economic disaster as worst.” In the midst of growing wealth, a poor Canada was unacceptable.

Then he laid it on the line: “In final analysis, however, the increasingly complex and specialized industries of the future will be established only where there is a pool of educated human beings, trained to serve these industries.”

So British Columbians were resources, assets to be used by their nation as servants of industries. Educated people would be happy to serve; after all, that’s where the money was, and money was the key to personal happiness.

Macdonald was writing in the middle of the prosperous 30 years after the war, when social mobility became not a dream but a reality for millions of North Americans, especially white males. Working-class families could own their own homes and send their kids off to college and up into the middle class. The kids would serve industry (and its owners) as managers and professionals, and perhaps climb a little closer to the one per cent. Eventually the French economist Thomas Piketty would call them the Brahmin Left.

It was lovely while it lasted. B.C.’s Social Credit government led by W.A.C. Bennett, and the New Democrats under Dave Barrett, found the money to fund and staff a dramatically bigger post-secondary system. Macdonald had fretted about where to find professors for such an expanded post-secondary, but they turned up from the U.S. and the U.K. as well as Canada, staffing new schools like Simon Fraser University and the community colleges. (I had the good luck to be one of them.)

Growth for growth’s sake

Like capitalism itself, B.C.’s post-secondary sector soon became obsessed with endless growth: self-protective, eager to recruit more students and the faculty to teach them, and angry at any reduction in funding. As one of the Brahmin Left faculty in the community colleges, I well recall the contempt we had for the Socreds and their crass, penny-pinching philistinism.

But we still did their bidding, teaching our students to prosper as servants of B.C.’s industries.

In effect, B.C.’s expanded post-secondary was a vast subsidy for businesses that had once taken high school graduates and given them on-the-job training. Now students would need a diploma or degree just to apply for a job, and someone from a “better” school, or with an advanced degree, would likely get that job. The paper chase became an arms race.

At the same time, post-secondary growth always seemed to exceed its funding. Governments began to cut their share of support, so tuition fees went up. International students, scarce in the 1980s, were absolutely essential by the 2000s because they paid the full cost of their education.

Despite the subsidy they enjoyed, Canadian students were assuming ever greater debt to acquire diplomas and degrees that were worth ever less in an overcrowded job market. Universities produced more PhDs than could possibly find the work they had trained for. Community colleges were promoted to “teaching universities” to attract still more international students.

And despite all these setbacks, B.C. post-secondary education did indeed fulfil Macdonald’s vision.

Year after year, colleges and universities have graduated thousands of servants of industry. Most of them got good jobs at good salaries, and some of them could afford to buy homes, travel the world and send their own kids to post-secondary. It wasn’t for social mobility — more like social stability, trying to stay at least at their parents’ income level. And yes, some did not do as well as their parents and grandparents, but those are the breaks.

Sixty years of fossil-fueled prosperity

For 60 years, most educated British Columbians have prospered, and thereby have burned a growing share of fossil fuels in the course of living happy lives. Now the province is burning down around them as students prepare for a new school year. As they have for 61 years, they will work hard to get the good grades they need to get at least a job interview that might lead to a job paying well enough for them to burn still more fossil fuels.

We don’t seem to have any university presidents willing to redesign post-secondary for the next 60 years. But it’s pretty clear that our colleges and universities are essentially training aspiring arsonists in how to set ever-bigger fires. Graduates’ new task is not even to halt global heating, but to prepare for the consequences. To achieve that goal, we need to de-grow post-secondary.

For the wrong reasons, some right-wing American states are trying just that, like cutting scores of programs at West Virginia University and turning New College of Florida into a model school for producing young conservatives.

I have something much more radical in mind.

Cut the growth programs

An old political principle is to tax what you want less of and subsidize what you want more of. Applied to B.C.’s post-secondary system, that would mean cutting funding for programs that encourage economic growth and fossil-fuel production: business management, tourism, petroleum engineering. Students (or companies) that wanted such training would pay the full cost.

In fields where we need more people, tuition would be free: health care, the sciences, renewable energy, de-growth economics, public administration. What’s more, students’ living and housing costs would be covered. Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine operates on this model, training thousands of physicians at no cost if they will commit to practicing in poor communities.

Similarly, our high-priority students would agree to accept a five-year post-graduate assignment anywhere in Canada — with cheap rental housing and a modest salary.

The same deal would apply to trades education. B.C. is going to need all the plumbers, carpenters, electricians and heavy-duty equipment operators it can get. They won’t just build climate-proof homes and offices. They’ll also dismantle many of our present buildings and recycle the materials into structures that can endure fire and flood, organized into 15-minute cities that won’t need many vehicles except bikes and streetcars.

Graduates of such post-secondary education wouldn’t get rich. But they and their families would be secure, while helping to make their communities secure as well.

Meanwhile, the industrial servants in the old Macdonald model would find it harder and harder to get rich. Their debts would be harder to pay off, and their job security would be weaker as high-emissions industries lost money or were simply legislated out of existence.

And at some point, the industrial servants would quit, and apply to go back to university for free education in welding or radiology or disaster resilience.

They’d never get rich, but they too would support their communities while their communities supported them through the coming difficult decades of this ugly century.  [Tyee]

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