Once upon a time, there was a welfare state. As a society, Canadians supported a social safety net. It was taken as normal and humane to promote full employment and offer universal social programs that promoted family and community stability and wellbeing. There were vestiges of this line of thinking when I was a kid growing up in the seventies, but by the early 1980s, with the Reagan/Thatcher administrations leading a global political movement of capitalist de-regulation, the dismantling of public services and publicly owned resources began in earnest.
This shift in ideology from welfarism to neo-liberalism was profound, but if you’re under 35 – say my kids’ age – you probably have no context for the change. You’ve grown up in a country that promotes economic growth at the expense of human services. Funding of health care, employment insurance, public education, community-based services is, for many voters and the governments they elect, a lower priority than minimizing personal and corporate taxation.
So, here is what’s weird, but not really: human needs for relationships, financial stability, hope, and progress have not disappeared just because they were removed from the public agenda in the neo-liberal era. These needs are alive and well. They’re just not taken seriously in public policy. There’s no end of rhetoric about supporting people in need, but it pretty much stops at rhetoric. We’re tinkering around the edges of a hollowed out public sector, with neither the funding, imagination or voter will to shift course and actually deliver on the kinds of public goods that promote a healthy society.
I’m going to propose here that this has a lot to do with how the post-secondary campus has come to function as a new, mini-welfare state. Post-secondary education is less and less about education, and more and more about addressing social needs and social problems. What does this look like? In short:
- Instead of employment centers and career counseling provided by provincial governments, PSIs (that’s “post-secondary institutions”) have been mandated increasing responsibility for workforce training, and transitioning graduates to the labour market.
- Instead of funding K-12 public education with the resources needed to support all students in achieving a serviceable high school diploma, PSIs are asked to provide remedial learning through bridging programs and expanded academic support services.
- Instead of adequately funding public health care to address both the roots and manifestations of mental illness and substance abuse, teachers in schools and faculty in PSIs are “first responders” without the training or resources to offer help.
- Instead of seeking different responses to deep structural changes in the labour market that have rendered many workers – especially young people and immigrants – precariously employed, “more education” is promoted, sending reams people into education and training without adequate direction, funding, or family and support communities.
- Instead of public policing and the formal legal system dealing with students’ “bad behaviour,” PSIs develop their own security services, risk management practices and quasi-judicial bodies to deal with sexual assault and violence on campus.
It’s no surprise, then, that a recently published report commissioned by Colleges Ontario is calling for more funding to support students’ non-academic needs. All post-secondary institutions – but colleges in particular – are between a rock and hard place here: PSIs are mandated to accept and support tidal waves of “non-traditional” and international students who may come to college with academic deficits, language barriers, and/or psycho-social barriers, but – and this is the gist of the report – they don’t have the resources to develop and manage all the infrastructure required to offer these supports. The Deloitte report concludes that the present strategy of funding these programs out of general revenues is “unsustainable.”
If we back away from the immediate funding problem highlighted in the report, we ought to be asking not “how can universities and colleges pay for this stuff,” but whether they should even be providing all this stuff in the first place. Colleges and universities were designed to give students an education. In elite schools and liberal arts institutions, this education has also included some pastoral or familial-style care of students in residence, but these “student life” functions were ancillary to the core mission of institutions. Today, “student affairs” constitute a massive, professionalized and formalized range of services with an accompanying, massive and professionalized bureaucracy.
Post-secondary institutions were never designed to address social problems. They are not governments, but are increasingly called upon to provide the kinds of social welfare services that were once provided universally by the state. Colleges and universities do not want this job, nor are they equipped to do it well. Perhaps, instead of funnelling more resources into non-academic services on campuses, we ought to be asking about the social and political conditions that have led to the rise of the “welfare campus,” and whether there is a better way forward.
The human problems and needs that the welfare state was designed to recognize and address have not gone away. They’ve merely shifted in where and how they are expressed. The concentration of social problems and social services on post-secondary campuses reflects this shift, and it’s not working well. Post-secondary education is not a panacea, nor a substitute for the kinds of civic action and public-sector services we need for a healthy society.