Part 3/3: Education in Canada Must Have A Purpose

The first article in this series outlined the big picture view of our current education system in Canada. The second examined various methods in which to view the value of higher education. This final article will further expand on higher education in Canada, and offer an analysis of the future.

Following the post-WW2 expansion, in the 1990s we experienced political parties who have stuck with some policies while eliminating others due to the influence of the ebbs and flows of our economy’s surpluses and deficits (or whichever lobbying group had the most influence at the time). Canadians elected leaders, both liberal and conservative, that drove neoliberal policy down our throats; they were simply following in the “success” of our neighbours and allies. Neoliberalism is a term used to describe the ideology that a government is better off by reducing its expenses by privatizing its services and allowing the private sector to exist with only minimal government restrictions. This ideology has resulted in such ‘achievements’ as the most recent banking sector collapse, the destruction of the automotive manufacturing sector, increased health and education expenses, the mess of transportation infrastructure that we see today, and so much more. By reducing the government’s expenses – i.e. by firing all of the people who were in charge of running a certain “unnecessary” department, citizens run the risk of falling into a trap. A citizen/voter is now unable to request certain immediate changes regarding an area of concern, or maybe our officials are unable to rectify a decision that will affect thousands of workers to lose their jobs. By allowing our government to relinquish their control, we (as citizens) benefit by reducing the taxes we have to spend, however we are allowing profit makers to have free reign over their consumers, which blurs the distinction of who is really making the important decisions for our country.

Government funding for education has drastically decreased, causing universities to become more reliant on other revenue-earning endeavours. As the government contributes less to these schools, they are sending a message: “You’re on your own”. Universities must now make up for their lost funding by raising tuition, looking to alumni for donations, and earning government research grants. Education policies in Canada are subject to various changes due to the lack of a singular governing body over education at the federal level, instead we have provincial MPPs meet to discuss their varied needs, which results in stagnation in regards to innovation, and a lack of unification towards a singular, well-defined goal.

With the lack of guidance from our government, coupled with the fact that universities are beginning to act like for-profit businesses, our post-secondary schools are on a path that is straying from anything we have seen before. Schools are bending to the consumer in the hopes that they will obtain more students (revenue), which devalues education potential. Administrators are operating within a culture more focused on money. The true fruits of knowledge are becoming trading tokens that we hope will be recognized by future employers.

A 2011 report on the state of education in Canada stated “Canada is unique in the developed world for having no national strategy for [post-secondary education], no acknowledged and accepted goals, no benchmarks, and no public reporting of resulting based on widely accepted measures”. If you are unsure as to where you want to go – how will you know how to get there? The fact that our federal government has failed to provide a direction of focus for our educational institutions causes a shift in responsibility to the colleges and universities themselves. Since there are no universal goals or public reporting, these individual universities are then left to their own measures to determine their effectiveness and success. Federal monitoring of education can only have declined along with their funding since the 90s, and as a result we have seen these institutions take a firm grasp on their individual beliefs and run with them. K-12 educational institutions scramble to find funding to keep their doors open by offering adult education, accepting foreign students, or lobbying the government (specifically the Catholic School Board). Post-secondary institutions have slightly different money-grabbing schemes that they use to determine their success. Increasing international student enrolment, increasing tuition, and changing budgets to focus on faculty that earn the most money in terms of government grants for their research – these are all strategies that many universities in Canada have adopted to survive in such turbulent conditions. As these practices are allowed to continue, we begin to see that they affect their institutions in more ways than simply increasing their revenues. International student enrolment is fantastic to our country in the ways that it helps the economy because of their increased spending, likelihood to immigrate, and contribution to the diversity that helped build this country. However it highlights the immense lack of government funding that our universities receive – these institutions are unable to rely on revenue from domestic students and government subsidies, and are unnecessarily forced to look abroad for help.

Is education to be viewed as an industry, producing graduates and potential employees as needed for professional occupations, business and industry? If so, the standards of excellence required may be adjusted by market forces. Within that paradigm of thinking, businesses will be the decision makers when it comes to education policies, and will doubtfully seek to further benefit the public. Alternatively, do the goals of education include learning of a wider nature, the development of critical thinking, a preparation for good citizenship, an understanding of cultures, history and moral values, and the encouragement of artistic and creative potential? In Canada, this broader view has somewhat been accepted in the past, with variations in emphasis. These objectives make the measurement of quality much more difficult but also encourage the development of different kinds of expertise to address future challenges, whether economic, societal, scientific or cultural.

Unfortunately, “Canada is slipping down the international learning curve,” says a report titled “What is the Future of Learning in Canada?” It says there currently is no way to measure the quality of services offered by post-secondary institutions; and that 42% of adult Canadians fall below the standard in literacy required internationally to be productive in an older society, according international standardized testing, in which Canada has been participating. The council estimates there will be three million more Canadians below that level in 20 years.

The most scathing critique in the report is saved for the post-secondary education system in Canada, which is described as highly “dysfunctional.” According to the report, provinces prevent any federal involvement in developing national standards for a university and college education. National groups representing colleges and universities fill this “national policy vacuum,” the report says, and take the opportunity to advocate the interest of their members that “may or may not represent the public interest.”

Federal involvement in post-secondary education is limited to funding of research that has skewed the mission of universities and colleges, the report says, leaving schools able to focus on promoting the research profiles of their faculty rather than focusing on teaching students. The result: schools with no quality assurance system.

The situation is grim in Canada. Fifty-one per cent of Canadian adults achieved “tertiary qualification” — the highest among OECD countries. At the same time, in this ever-expanding pool of degree-holders, Canada also tops OECD rankings for the largest share of these graduates making less than the national median income.

“We are number one when it comes to university and college enrolments, but we are also number one in the number of people with university degrees that live in poverty” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with CIBC World Markets. The overall effect has been to erode the employment and earning potential of a university degree, a document once seen as a surefire ticket to the middle class.

CIBC crunched the numbers and discovered that the historical advantage degree-holders have held over high school graduates is beginning to narrow, and that “on average, Canada is experiencing an excess supply of post-secondary graduates.”

Getting a master’s degree only seems to make things worse. According to the 2011 National House survey, rates of unemployment for holders of master’s degrees were actually higher than those only holding bachelor’s degrees.

“We have a higher education system where there are very strong incentives for faculty to attempt to become great researchers, but there are not as many incentives for individual faculty, or the university as a whole, to focus on the quality of undergraduate teaching,” said Ryerson politics professor David Trick, who has co-authored the book Academic Reform.

So, with all of this information, it is clear to see that Canada needs to work on its education policies. Left unattended, post-secondary educations will become an expensive form of personal job training, and will only lead to further the incomes of our university administrators and corporations. This issue hopefully brings a new perspective to our society in that once we decide upon the true reason for obtaining a higher education, we should shift our focus towards how we aim to harness our educated citizens to further the advancement of our country.

 

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