What happened to the issue of postsecondary education?

Postsecondary education is an issue that affects a majority of Ontarians, but it does not often feature prominently in provincial elections. How might this issue be pushed onto the election agenda?

Education is an issue that affects a majority of Ontarians. Whether you are a parent with school-aged kids, a student currently enrolled in a school in Ontario, or an adult taking courses or contemplating taking courses to upgrade your skills, this is an issue that touches Ontarians’ lives. Despite this reality, issues related to education in general, and postsecondary education in particular, rarely dominate the discourse during provincial election campaigns. From time to time, ancillary issues like faith-based school funding make an appearance in Ontario elections—to detrimental effect. We have to go back to the double-cohort issue more than 15 years ago to find an election when education occupied a dominant place in the public debate. With another provincial election looming, is there any indication that postsecondary education can be pushed onto the election agenda?

To answer this question, we conducted a public opinion study with 2,001 Ontarians over the age of 15. Data was collected between January 22nd and February 4th, 2018. One guiding assumption of our analysis is that there is a link between electoral outcomes and public policy. Another important aspect guiding this analysis is that issues matter in influencing voters’ choice at election time. Understanding the link between vote choice and issues is too often limited to top-of-mind issues, however, less salient issues can also potentially have an impact on how voters make up their mind. Postsecondary education is one such issue.

The most important issues in Ontario

As is generally the case, issues related to education are not particularly salient in Ontario at present. When asked about the most important issue facing the province, 11 per cent of Ontarians mentioned health care, slightly ahead of jobs (10 per cent), balancing the budget (10 per cent) and corruption (8 per cent). Only 2 per cent mentioned education (Table 1).

However, when queried about concerns on an issue-by-issue basis, a slightly different picture emerges. Using a 0 to 10 scale where 0 is “not at all concerned” and 10 is “very concerned”, concern over the cost of university tuition fees in Ontario (6.5) is on par with issues such as the level of unemployment in Ontario (6.5) and the adequacy of funding for Ontario’s public services (6.64) and just behind the quality of employment in Ontario (7.1). More importantly, 75 per cent of Ontarians believe that the quality of university education should be a high priority for the provincial government in Ontario (Table 2).

The challenge facing those who want to push postsecondary education to the forefront of the election debate is to find ways to link postsecondary education to other issues so that politicians are more likely to pay attention. The study we conducted offers a few suggestions on how to achieve this objective.

75 per cent of Ontarians believe that the quality of university education should be a high priority for the provincial government in Ontario

Ontario’s universities make important contributions

There is high recognition and support for the importance of universities in our society. Specifically, a strong majority of Ontarians agree that: Ontario universities make an important contribution to the local economy (80 per cent); the scientific research undertaken by universities makes an important contribution to the provincial economy (77 per cent); universities provide students with a high-quality education (76 per cent); and, having a university degree is both more important now than it was to our parents’ generation (71 per cent) and a necessary asset in today’s world (69 per cent).

These point to a very receptive public opinion environment within which to engage in a discussion about the importance of postsecondary education. While there may not be immediate concern about postsecondary education as an election issue, the electorate can be primed to focus on it if linkages are made between the high value Ontarians place on postsecondary education and its potential impact on issues like jobs and the economy. This is reinforced by the fact that Ontarians clearly see room for improvement on this front since only 12 per cent think the quality of university education has improved over the last five years.

Ontarians trust university professors on issues of quality

Two more important dimensions need to be considered when looking at ways to increase the prominence of this issue during the upcoming election campaign. The first centres on finding trustworthy spokespeople. On this front, university professors (trusted by 75 per cent of Ontarians), student organizations (65 per cent), and university administrators (58 per cent) have a clear advantage over the Ontario government (41 per cent) and private sector companies (37 per cent). Findings are given in Table 3.

The second dimension to consider constitutes an obstacle that may be difficult to overcome. Despite the perceived importance of postsecondary education and the contribution it makes to our economy and society, none of the provincial parties are seen as being particularly trustworthy on this issue. When asked “which of the provincial political parties would do the best job at ensuring high-quality education at Ontario’s universities?”, “none of the above” is mentioned by a plurality of Ontarians (32 per cent), ahead of the Progressive Conservatives (24 per cent), the Liberals (23 per cent) and the NDP (21 per cent). Accordingly, the three main parties will likely perceive this issue as more of a minefield than as an issue that can be leveraged for electoral benefit. Only by linking postsecondary education to the other important election issues suggested above can we create a dynamic where political parties find it impossible to ignore such an important public policy domain. AM

André Turcotte is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. Heather Scott-Marshall is the President of Mission Research and an Adjunct Professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.