The debate over university funding is heating up and business leaders are talking tough.

Valerie Payn, president of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, fired up the debate by calling higher education a “sacred cow.”

Her comment was originally made at a chamber function last year and appeared in the chamber’s Outlook 2011 report, drawing a sharp response this week from Peter Halpin, executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities.

Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS), has also been stoking the fire. He told New Brunswick newspapers two weeks ago that universities should get what they’re given. “They’re a supplier,” he said. “They sell a product.”

Comparing education to a product sounds like crude economics. But Cirtwill has also called for a redistribution of public funding, so that more money is given to students who are least able to pay for a degree.

There is widespread agreement that students need public help to offset the high cost of education, although opinions differ over whether this should come through better bursaries, larger grants to universities, or through the tax system.

But what is really driving these business champions to talk up the debate on university funding?

The Halifax Chamber of Commerce is concerned about the size and cost of government. It has questioned the need for eight school boards and is sympathetic to the idea of merging universities to reduce costs, a proposal made by Tim O’Neil in his report on university funding last year.

The chamber shares some common ground with faculty and union leaders, who have told government they would support a move to trim top-heavy administration costs in universities.

AIMS is driven by a stronger free-market philosophy. It favours opening up the public sector, especially education and health, to more private enterprise, fostering competition and choice.

In the case of schools this means public-private partnerships and controversial schemes, such as vouchers, or other means of putting more money and control in the hands of “consumers.”

In the case of universities, Cirtwill’s support for bursaries, loans and debt relief for students reflects a preference for drawing public funding away from universities and allowing the market to determine education outcomes.

The downsides of this argument are many.

Transferring more public funding directly to students, at the expense of operational grants to universities, would drive up tuition fees and student debt. It could also force the demise of some universities and spell doom for studies in Canadian history, the literature of Ancient Greece and other subjects that generally don’t pay dividends after graduation, but still have value for society.

This debate over how to best pay for higher education will gather steam as the provincial government begins to hammer out a new three-year funding agreement with universities.

As business leaders talk up the cost of education, they should be careful not to downplay the value of education.

More than a product or an expense, education is a transforming experience for students. It is also a path out of poverty as well as the road to prosperity.

Rachel Brighton is the editor and publisher of the regional magazine Coastlands: The Maritimes Policy Review.