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If we want more engineers, maybe we should make it cheaper to become one

The cost of an engineering degree in Ontario last year was $9,000 compared to an average of $5,400 for an arts degree.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As of late, the sunshine state has been making as many waves in the world of higher education as it has on the beaches I wish I were on right now. Florida's recent task force on higher education reform has proposed limiting tuition increases for university programs that lead to "high-wage, high-skill, high-demand" jobs, keeping them below rates for other programs.

The move has been controversial. While government and business leaders cast it as an attempt to better match graduate output to the needs of the labour market, education advocates have derided it as an attack on the liberal arts that would ultimately erode educational quality.

This debate should be familiar to nearly every student, parent and educator in Canada: Should university be aligned to the needs of the labour market or should it meet wider goals of personal development? Policymakers across our country are grappling with the same question and have thus far been largely reluctant to take the kind of steps that Florida has just taken.

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What does the available data tell us about whether government action is necessary to lean the ivory tower in the direction of economic progress?

University education is already crucial to economic success

Nationally, the overall employment rate and employment growth has been stronger for university graduates than those with college, CEGEP, skilled trades and especially high school over the last four years, according to Statistics Canada. Moreover, job growth for university graduates was resilient even in the worst parts of the recession.

Our graduate output is slightly out of step with the needs of our economy

CIBC recently produced a report indicating that 30 per cent of businesses indicate that they have a shortage of skilled labour, up 15 per cent since 2010. Moreover, the number of unfilled vacancies has increased by 16 per cent since last year. These unfilled jobs are in mining, health care, engineering and technology related fields, all of which require university education.

Between 2005 and 2010 however, Canada produced nearly a million graduates in humanities and social sciences, the second and third highest number of total graduates of any educational field reported by Statistics Canada. (The first spot is held by graduates in business, management and public administration.) Meanwhile, Canada is actually producing fewer graduates annually in mathematics and computer science than we were in 2005.

It isn't that there aren't any jobs for arts graduates (I tell myself, a theatre major, reassuringly), but the fields that have unfilled vacancies require different kinds of certifications and credentials.

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Knowing all of this, is making tuition in high-demand programs more affordable the correct medicine for an ailing economy? I believe that it is, but it might be too simple a prescription to completely fix the problem.

If specific types of postsecondary education are key to success in the labour market, it would be regressive to make these the most expensive postsecondary options

In Canada, graduate and professional programs such as engineering are the most expensive postsecondary choices for students, due largely to tuition regulations allowing these programs to increase tuition fees at a faster pace. Last year, average tuition for an engineering program in Ontario was nearly $9,000, compared to approximately $5,400 in arts programs. In Ontario's college sector, regulations actually allow for much higher fees in programs deemed to be "high-demand" by the labour market.

Financial assistance programs across the country have not caught up to cost growth in professional, graduate and engineering programs. For instance, Ontario recognizes a maximum of $5,364 in tuition costs for graduate and professional programs.

The higher costs, plus lack of financial assistance, certainly makes these programs less accessible than others, which has an impact on student choice.

Still, affordability is only one factor affecting program choice

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While the rising cost of higher education is certainly an important concern for our country, we should not pretend that it is the only thing that affects a student's choice of program. Students often pick their school based on geographic and social factors. Coming out of high school, the desire to be either close, or very far away from home, can be a powerful motivator.

More importantly, students are likely to pick a university program they perceive a relative chance of success in, based largely on the skills they've gained in elementary and secondary school. If Canada wants more university graduates with science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) skills, we should make sure that we're fostering these skills early. This isn't the case everywhere though; in Ontario, consecutive EQAO reports have told us that students are not making the same kind of gains in mathematics and science as they have in reading. If a large number of students are not confident in their numeracy skills, why would a large number opt to enroll in STEM programs?

With such an array of possible reasons why students are not pursuing labour-market compatible degrees, more action than simply making tuition lower for these programs is required. Creative solutions like expanding experiential opportunities, making degree programs more interdisciplinary, improving pedagogy in mathematics and science at the elementary and secondary school levels are also necessary.

Florida has picked a worthy problem to address, but an incomplete way to address it.

Chris Martin is the director of research for the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

Higher Learning looks at the trends, experiments and debates behind the education headlines.

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