19 Mar 14

The cost of higher education

The University of Guelph is shutting down its satellite campuses in Alfred and Kemptville.  The institution claims that this decision was based on the declining enrolment rates and that they offer programs that are already offered at other U of G campuses.  The Ridgetown, Kemptville, and Alfred campuses have been affiliated with U of G since 1997.
Apparently increased operating costs are a part of a budget deficit.  Closing campuses will certainly take a few million off the university budget, but relocating programs is not cheap either.  I am not sure the declining enrolment argument carries much weight with a major demographic shift underway as a new generation of farmers looks to take over family farms.  Many families skipped a generation because it was unaffordable then, but with the those who are retiring, younger workers are coming back to self-employment opportunities in blossoming organic agri-jobs.
But money is not the real issue – it is access.  Access to research, access to education, and access to the jobs they in turn support.  In an environment where skilled trades are already being pinched, where we have to import workers, closing campuses like Kemptville which teach diverse courses relevant to life on a farm, and the industries that support farms makes no sense.  Sure Algonquin teaches diesel and hydraulics courses, but do their local businesses bring tractors and other farm equipment to the campus and let the faculty and students use them in the fields and crawl over them for practical lectures?
Access to affordable education is similarly challenged.  Going away to school is a rite of passage, but going far away is a burden that some cannot afford.  A campus like Alfred with a unique organic dairy program, or one like Kemptville where aspiring professionals in large animal care programs start is special.  Deciding on a diploma versus degree is not easy, but doing part of it close to home and the work placements here helps to pay bills.  The advantage here is a test of aptitudes, and if sufficient a student can move to higher qualifications at Guelph.  The important industry benefit is that the university graduates will know people and appreciate the hands-on work done at the college level.  Elitist thinking is eliminated by programs like these.
Living away is a huge cost for any student, but that cost is a benefit to the host community too.  Think of what greater Kemptville and Alfred will lose when students are no longer there.  If U of G believes declining enrolment numbers on the other campuses will stabilize, they must not appreciate the other options in Eastern Ontario – McGill University’s McDonald College in Montreal, or American schools.  Travel is a huge line item in the modern student budget, so if you have to travel to go to school, why pay for eight hours each way when you could pay for three?
Shuffling our young farmers and their agricultural education to the other end of the province, or out of province, is not supporting the industry – it will only negatively affect our economy and communities.  The province has made steps to help the industry of today through programs such as the Get Ready to Grow, and the $417-million Growing Forward 2 federal-provincial business grant fund, but it is also time to help the industry of tomorrow by supporting the growth and development of the people that will fill those jobs.

Pamela J Pearson