The province’s plan to expand a system for tracking students who default on their provincial student loans is at least a step in the right direction if not a complete solution says the head of a Halifax-based think tank.
Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says tracking defaults and using the numbers to inform lending procedures is a good idea.
“The government is acting as a lender, so maybe it is appropriate that it does start to act as a lender and associate risk and reward,” he says.
“If a small town had five pizza parlours, it would be difficult to get a loan to open a sixth one.”
In the same way, if large numbers of students in particular programs are defaulting, then perhaps there should be a premium placed on those loans, Cirtwill says.
“Students should be free to take the program that fits their interest, but the government acting as a lender should be allowed to adjust the risk factors on the loans,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean the loans shouldn’t be available or that the institution shouldn’t be offering those programs.”
Where Cirtwill sees a potential problem is using default information to determine whether or not schools need to change their curriculum.
“I think this is a slippery slope if the government is going to get into picking and choosing what programs should not be run,” he says.
Cirtwill says government already does indirectly dictate what programs to run and how many seats to offer in some cases, like buying seats in medical schools and teachers’s colleges.
“There are all kinds of ways they do this supply side management and almost all of them end up badly,” he says.
The government says it wants to use the tracking system to determine if a large number of graduates from a particular program are defaulting and then use that information to work with post-secondary institutions to provide advice on how to increase repayment rates.
It says if an institution refuses to co-operate, its designation for provincial student loan eligibility could be revoked.
Seth Crowell, vice-president academic affairs at Atlantic Baptist University, says the first time he read an article in yesterday’s Times & Transcript discussing the government’s plan, “I confess I probably had the initial knee-jerk reaction.
“If you read that quickly, even just building on the headline, you get a bit too much of Big Brother,” he says. “When you think of university and academic freedom and that being the mantra, it is not hard to read that quickly and say, ‘Who do these people think they are?'”
But then Crowell took a deep breath, got himself a cup of coffee, and like any good teacher sat down, pen in hand, to analyze the article a little more carefully.
“The second and third read, I calmed down,” he says.
“I don’t take offense to the (idea) in general. I think it is government’s role to be accountable for how they are spending those dollars.”
Crowell says he is choosing to view it as a measure that will not only provide accountability to the public, but information to post-secondary institutions that will help them improve their programs.
He says he found hope in the statement that government would work with the post-secondary institutions.
“It doesn’t say, ‘Government will sit down and tell the university what it must do,'” he says. “We want to know all we can know about making the decisions we have to make. Why wouldn’t we want to hear what they have to say? I also hope it means they will listen to me, listen to us.”
Crowell is not sure his colleagues at other post-secondary institutions across the province will take the plan in such a positive light, but says he is willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.
“I’m choosing that, but I’m not willing to be naive,” he says. “If this statement is the pendulum having swung as far as it is going to go, then I have no worries at all, but if this is the beginning of the pendulum swing, then I may be more concerned.”
Crowell says he was also heartened to see a Department of Post-Secondary Education employee say student loan defaults are one indicator that a program needs change.
“He is not saying it is the only one and he is not even saying it is the most important one,” he says.
Crowell says if other information is also taken into account, he has no problem with student loan defaults also being considered.
Cirtwill says if he was trying to measure the success of a program, he wouldn’t rely on student loan defaults.
“It is entirely possible someone has taken a degree, has a job in their field, and for a whole bunch of other circumstances simply aren’t able to sustain the payment on the loan,” he says.
“And there are all kinds of people paying their loans that are working at Tim Horton’s. I think this is a very narrow definition of success in post-secondary funding.”
Cirtwill says there are plenty of other measures available, such as graduate surveys that track whether graduates are employed in their field and their job satisfaction, that would be a better measure of a program’s success.
Cirtwill, a strong believer in using data to drive change, is glad to see the province taking information and trying to figure out how it can be put to use, but he says making sure student loan money funds programs where students will find a job after graduation doesn’t go far enough in providing accountability for the money the province puts into post-secondary education.
“We also give (post-secondary institutions) direct subsidies which encourage them to maintain programs long after their useful life is over,” he says.
“I wouldn’t have a problem with this approach, the government going to look for value return, if this was the only source of money for post-secondary, if it was all turned into grants and loans and students act as the control mechanism, they select the program that is going to deliver a job and that suits their skill set or interests. That would be one reasonable approach. But the fact is we give money to students and create incentive programs. If you take a university degree and you stay for a few years we’ll give you an extra couple of grand off. All that does is incent people to take degrees they don’t really need.
“You can’t tinker around the edges of a system that is this broke.”