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Speculative Diction

A national strategy for Canadian education (…again)?


So much interesting Canadian PSE news has been popping up in my RSS feeds lately that I had a hard time deciding what to write about this week.

I think, perhaps because of all the other education-related news, that very little attention has been paid to the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology report entitled “Opening the Door: Reducing Barriers to Post-Secondary Education in Canada.” The first Senate report on PSE since 1997, it “looks at both the financial and non-financial factors” involved in PSE accessibility.

There is a lot that’s interesting about this report, which addressed the federal government’s involvement in postsecondary education, and “how PSE can be made more accessible using the tools available to this level of government.” This included strategies for Aboriginal education and improving enrollment of other under-represented groups.

But there were only two news items that I could find relating to the report. One was from APTN on April 9, and addressed the proposals on Aboriginal education. The other came from PostMedia on April 4. The PostMedia article, “Tuition fees not major factor in post-secondary enrolment, report finds”, mainly emphasized only one of the report’s conclusions, that “while much of the public debate on access to PSE revolves around the cost of tuition, […] the major barrier to accessing PSE is failure to complete Secondary education.”

Given the context of rising tuition, massive student protests and diminishing government funds, the political implications of these arguments about accessibility show why they were chosen as a focus for a news story: “the report runs counter to a common refrain among students that tuition fees are too exorbitant” (my emphasis). But there were 22 recommendations made in the report, and this focus on tuition was clearly geared to contribute to a particular side of a particular debate.

As presented in the Senate Committee report, the primary argument for accessibility is an economic one based on the idea of “human capital” development. Canada’s government must begin to take an interest in national coordination of education, because otherwise national competitiveness will suffer. It’s this argument that leads to the most comprehensive recommendation, #22 (a), the formation of a pan-Canadian education strategy including the “creation of an independent Canada Education and Training Transfer to ensure that there is dedicated funding for postsecondary education and training” (currently PSE funding comes from the Canada Social Transfer).

If a dedicated federal transfer were created for PSE, then the federal government would want to be able to monitor how such funding is used, especially given the accountability issues of the past. Sure enough, “encouragement” for tracking PSE dollars would be built in to the recommended system: “based on success in enhancing the accountability of a dedicated PSE Transfer account, the Federal government [should] consider increasing the Transfer funding using the 1994 levels as a target” (my emphasis).

While in Canada education is under provincial jurisdiction, this kind of arrangement could bring more clout to the federal government. If we consider what’s happening at the Tri-Councils right now, then the long-desired accountability seems to fit plausibly into a larger context of increasing government control over economic development through control over PSE.

Another implication from this report, relating to centralization of control, is that of standardization. The idea that the federal government and CMEC should work to provide more information for students, including about “the costs and benefits of obtaining a post-secondary diploma or degree”, seems to entail an increased expectation for universities’ self-monitoring and perhaps a movement towards some kind of national system of assessment. Indeed, one part of Recommendation 22 is “a standardized data collection and reporting mechanism for monitoring and evaluating progress toward the participation targets.” Also suggested is a national credit recognition program so that students could see their PSE credits recognized across provinces.

I do wonder why this report seems to have been “buried” in the media; I think it demands more attention given the scope and depth of the recommendations (the report runs to 114 pages with appendices) and their possible consequences for Canadian PSE. Perhaps nothing will come of it – after all, the Canadian Council on Learning made similar points in their final report, which were dismissed by some as the self-serving suggestions of an organization trying to justify its own existence. Are we seeing a re-hash of what the CCL had produced, now made more acceptable through the stamp of a Senate committee? Or are the policy points just too difficult to be dealt with at the national level? Time, perhaps – 180 days from the report, in fact – will tell.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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