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Bad times don’t allow big pictures


By Jason Winders
Thursday, November 25, 2010
I understand the outrage.
 
I don’t agree with it. But I understand it.
 
If you look at global trends, you can see where this Us. vs. Them mentality has developed. People see the pie getting smaller and smaller, and wonder if there will be enough pieces to go around. So our natural propensity to share, as Canadians, as humans, fades.
 
Now, this isn’t a uniquely Canadian problem. Your neighbours to the south, my countrymen, are experiencing it. So, too, are our cousins across the pond and around the globe.
 
We’re finding out bad times don’t lead to big pictures.
 
So when Premier Dalton McGuinty announced 75 new PhD scholarships reserved for international students, you expected pushback. Maybe not to the level where some opponents would have us believe he was ceding the entire University of Western Ontario campus to the United Nations. But you expected some.
 
Much of the uproar was political wrangling. Other, however, was genuine fear generated by the uncertainty surrounding, well, almost everything. Some folks looked at this plan and saw opportunity being taken away from their kids.
 
We know that is not true. These scholarships are a smart play, ones key to positioning this country to compete in a flattened global marketplace. They don’t cost one Ontario student one seat as plans are to open up even more opportunity to provincial students.
 
But sometimes facts don’t matter. McGuinty’s failure was not one of policy, but of politics.
In this province, our families and students are strapped. In addition to failing to adequately sell the international scholarships, what announcement does McGuinty roll out only days later? A doubling of hydro bills.
 
The extending of assistance to international students came without offering something to provincial students. From a policy standpoint, that makes complete sense. We’re talking about two separate issues. However, from a kitchen table standpoint, the message gets mixed up.
 
Today, every decision – governmental, professional or personal – is run through an individual economic filter: “Is this good for me and my family?” In the United States, it shifted the balance of power in the government. In Great Britain, thousands protested a government plan to double, even triple, university fees by 2012.
 
Perhaps we’ll avoid those pressures here. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
 
According to a recent Pew Research Centre study, the class of 2008 borrowed 50 per cent more to fund its education than those who graduated 12 years earlier. The number of undergraduates borrowing rose from 52 per cent (1996) to 60 per cent (2008). Similarly, the average undergraduate loan increased from $17,000 (1996) to $23,000 (2008).
 
In Canada alone, student debt sits at $13.6 billion. And counting.
 
Now look at those numbers in combination with debts racked up outside the university’s purview. According to a Sallie Mae study (2009), 20 per cent of North American college students owe at least $7,000 in credit card debt. The average debt sits somewhere around $2,000. Today, our graduates are leaving school with 41 per cent more credit card debt than just four years ago.
 
Combine this debt with a shriking job market, lingering Baby Boomers clogging the system and a newfound faith in government austerity, it’s no wonder people are scared.
 
We’re minting a generation of highly educated, innovative workers with nowhere to go.
 
This university has ambitious plans, many of them quite exciting. However until things improve across the province, country and globe, if they ever do, we need to heed the lessons of the last few weeks.
 
McGuinty took a beating because he failed to over-communicate the importance of these scholarships.
 
We cannot stop doing what needs to be done. But we must explain it in a context people can relate to their lives. Only then will it pass through that filter and get the buy-in truly innovative plans, like the ones we have on the table, need to succeed.