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April 15, 2013

Education funding is an investment in the future – a future that can be highly unpredictable. So when the Alberta government asks universities across the province to produce "outcomes" largely oriented to developing the province's economy, it is walking on thin ice.

First, one must ask where is the data that indicates good economic outcomes are being achieved, not just by the university as a whole, but by each of its departments and programs? Second, what sort of "outcomes" are most important – finding a job in one's field within six months of graduation or making a contribution to society over a lifetime? The first type of outcome is measurable, the second much less so.

Yet, is it not towards the second form of outcome what we most want universities to contribute? Is not a university education most valuable because it fosters lifelong learning and a desire to contribute to the common good?

Universities at their best have never been machines cranking out new cogs to keep the wheels of the economy turning. That they are increasingly becoming just that is a sad reflection of society's narrow economic focus.

One finds a different approach in Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). The second part of that document focuses on five "urgent problems" in society – the family, culture, the economy, politics and the common good, and world peace.

The order is crucial. A strong family underlies everything. Without strong families, the culture (including education) is weak, the economy falters, the common good degenerates into individuals grasping for what they can get and civil strife increases. Equally pertinent is the fact that the whole second part of Gaudium et Spes is built on the foundation of the first part - even strong families are scarce where religious faith is lacking.

The first conclusion is don't expect universities to provide something they cannot. If children don't develop a work ethic and curious minds at home, they are less likely to pick them up at university.

Second, at least some parts of the universities should be oriented to strengthening the culture – a society that embodies a true and full humanity. Don't cut funding for philosophy and political science departments because their graduates don't quickly become professional philosophers and political scientists. If those grads are proficient in their disciplines, they will in good time make sterling contributions, typically in fields other than the areas they studied.

Universities, including strong liberal arts programs, are essential to society. Cutting their funding because they don't provide immediate economic benefits is one of the most short-sighted actions a government can take.