Permit me, as a university profes- sor, to let down the side a bit on the question of funding for higher education.

If I were in charge of Canada’s public finances ”” an eventuality (relax, bureaucrats!) certain never to occur ”” I’m not sure I’d be pumping quite so much money into the universities as our governments, especially Ottawa, have been doing since their deficits were van- quished. As education czar, I’d privatize our schools and universities and use the education budget for vouchers that stu- dents could spend at the institution of their choice, and I’d allow the institu- tions of their non-choice to disappear.

That policy option probably isn’t going to be available in Canada, at least not soon, so if the immediate question is how we allocate education dollars, I’m not sure I’d be putting as much of the budget into universities.

As friends and readers must surely be tired of hearing, I’ve just spent a year in France. My kids went to a public school five minutes’ walk away, a beau- tiful school built in the early 1990s, with high ceilings, bright and airy class- rooms and comfortable, modern desks. There were lots of nonarchitectural things we liked about the school, too: that the kids wrote a battery of tests at the end of every trimester and that the tests came home with them so we could see exactly what was going on; that the daily timetable on the wall in my seven-year-old’s classroom listed just two morning activities, lecture and mathématiques; that the kids were drilled in grammar and the times tables; that, despite this horridly 1950s-sound- ing regime (we actually think because of it) they loved school.

But another thing we liked was that the school provided all the text- books and many of the supplies.

Fast-forward to this fall and the picture is quite different. Our kids are returning to a school built in the 1950s, complete with the boxy wood- en desks of that era ”” albeit without the inkwells we knew as kids. There will be almost no textbooks, whether because teachers prefer to freelance or because the school can’t afford them is never made clear. And of course par- ents will provide all supplies.

It’s not as bad as it might be. Our kids could have been going to another local school, built 80 years ago, whose yard isn’t overrun by weeds and shrubs and whose windows are no longer falling out only because parent- volunteers have taken over the custo- dial services the board says it can no longer afford.

Contrast that with the university I’m going back to. In the early 1990s, McGill was in truly desperate straits. I remember writing a pleading column describing how in the seminar room I taught in every time I stood up my chair, whose seat was torn and whose stuffing was falling out, invariably caught on the rug, which was also torn. ”œYou have rugs?!” colleagues at other universities wrote me, enviously. I assured them they were the same rugs as when I had been a student, 20 years earlier.

But now, thanks both to greater private giving and also to stepped-up government grants, things are much better. We have two brand new build- ings. Most classrooms have been made over. Many have computers and pro- jectors. Research funds have been flow- ing in. We now have administrators whose sole job is to help with ”œgrants- manship” and who, every few months, send word of a new federal or provin- cial research program we should apply to. Although for the most part these new monies finance worthy projects that have been waiting for funding, sometimes it does seem to be a case of supply creating its own demand.

Now if I really were in charge of the public finances, I’d hope my offi- cials would tell me I shouldn’t decide spending allocations on the basis of such casual empiricism. But there are harder data to support the idea that maybe public money should be going more into primary and secondary rather than tertiary education. Rates of return to higher education seem to have been falling over time, which is only to be expected as the proportion of young people graduating from universi- ty has risen. Returns also fall the higher up the education scale you go. Of course, a reasonable response to such data is that only a philistine judges the value of education by looking at its eco- nomic payoff ”” except that those pushing hardest for more money for the universities inevitably claim that this is the road to competitiveness and economic growth in ”œthe information age.” (Personally, I can hardly wait for the ”œpost-information age.”)

Moreover, there’s no doubt that the universities are doing better. Over the past four years, Stats Can tells us, direct federal funding has increased by an average of 17 percent a year.

Fewer than half of Canadians go to university. But we all go to elementary and high school. If I wanted big payoffs from education, I’d spend my money making sure everyone had a strong foundation in lecture, mathématiques, and maybe just one or two other things.

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