Improving Canadian Postsecondary Education

We can read about 'five ideas to reform post-secondary education in Canada in a University Affairs article by columnist Léo Charbonneau. The strategies (proposed by a Globe and Mail reporter in a now-paywalled colum) are old canards, and I'll debunk them one at a time.

1. A National Strategy

Every time the subject of education reform in Canada comes up someone calls for a national strategy. Thus we are told "Canada 'is unique in its failure to develop a national approach to universities and colleges.'"

As Charbonneau says, "It’s not going to happen, period." Education in Canada is a provincial responsibility; the federal government has no interest in intervening (nor should it), and the best the the Council of Ministers of Education Canada could come up with was the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), a $64 million bonfire made of money.

More to the point, though, the presumption that a national strategy would make things better needs to be deflated. Look at our national environmental protection strategy - is it somehow better because it's federal? I would be inclined to say it isn't. How about national trade strategy - are we doing better because it's federal? Arguably not.

Things don't get better just because there's a national strategy. They get more centralized, and that means, when they go wrong, they go wrong all over the place, and there's no way to demonstrate a better alternative.

2. Making Teaching Central

This is another one of those things that comes up every time someone raises the subject of post-secondary education reform in Canada. It's hard to resist.

But I have a radical alternative suggestion: make students central. Make learning central. Or even more to the point, make access (by everyone!) to learning central.

As Charbonneau says, "good teaching requires resources, particularly human resources. This means hiring more full-time, tenure-track faculty. Who’s going to pay for that?" The answer, we know, is all of us, through our taxes, and students, through their tuitions.

Again more to the point, though, why is it that the professors are central to the system? Yes, I know, they're the ones who provide the teaching, but (speaking very frankly now) they're employees. We wouldn't even be hiring them unless we wanted some sort of result. It's the result that's the important thing, not the process.

The slogan 'make teaching central' is based on the presumption that the only way to effectively and efficiently provide a post-secondary education to the mass of Canadians is to offer (good old traditional) teaching. But we know (from experience) that this means rationing post-secondary education to those who are good enough or (more often) those who can afford it.

I say, make learning central. Explore alternatives. I have no issue at all with the money we spend on post-secondary education; I'd go to the wall to defend it. But make that money count. Find ways to help Canadians educate themselves, and throw down the barriers to learning.

3. International Expansion

The call to 'expand internationally' rarely has any educational intent; it is usually intended as a way to raise money for our cash-starved system by enticing people (well, rich people) from China and India to pay premium tuition fees.

When I was president of the Graduate Students' Association at the University of Alberta one of my greater privileges was handing out cheques of $435 each to international students, their share of the tuition-fee lawsuit we won against the university. These cheques were more than an international student working as a graduate assistant earned in a month.

Some of these students made real sacrifices in order to study in Canada. Others, though, were the beneficiaries of corrupt governments or simply their nations' respective one-percenters.

Canada's legacy shouldn't to leverage its educational attainment by squeezing poor nations for everything they can afford. Our legacy should be one or generosity, not parsimony.

That's why, when a former president of the NRC came through our offices, I declared my mission to be to extend free learning to every person in the world (to his credit, the president didn't flinch, though the Director-General accompanying him just about had a heart attack).

The idea of opening campuses abroad is a non-starter, especially in a world that is shifting away from campuses. These maybe worked back in the days when the American Universities were being established. Today they're just the educational version of McDonalds, fast-food-learning that the local poor cannot afford.

I do, however, support Charbonneau's suggestion of "a Canadian version of the Erasmus student exchange program that would entice students to do a term abroad or even elsewhere in Canada." I've always thought this was one thing Australia did really well, sending its students and staff around the world to gain experiences and ideas (I've seen less of it recently).

Of course, we had such a program, at least inside Canada. It was called Katimavik. The federal government ended funding for it last year.

4. Accountability Benchmarks

The old accounting maxim is, of course, "what is measured can be managed," or some such thing. The idea is that you don't know whether your policies are having any effect unless you measure outcomes. That's an idea that sounds fantastic in theory. In practice, it often fails.

Here's why: measurement is, at best, only the first step in a feedback loop. For measurement to mean anything at all, it needs to progress through some mechanism (aka 'management', though if you skip management and go directly to staff, then it becomes 'formative' assessment - same theory, though) that reforms behaviour in such a way as to influence the outcome in the desired direction.

This raises two questions: first, are you measuring the right thing? And second, does the feedback mechanism produce the right result? In many cases, the answer to both questions is 'no'. The reason is that most measurement systems, when implemented, are based on short term measures, such as grade scores. But education is a long term phenomenon.

A lesson taught at the age of three results in a behaviour at the age of 23. You can't effectively measure the behaviour 20 years later, so you test whether the lesson was learned at age three. Which it may well have been - even if it was the wrong lesson. An intolerance or a prejudice taught at a young age is an undesirable outcome, but testing mechanisms have no way to detect for and correct this.

Our demographic and economic data today are in effect measuring the effectiveness of the education system of the 1970s and 1980s. These data show (to me, at least) that while we excelled in the teaching of the arts and sciences, we were weak in literacy and severely lacking in ethics and policy. These failings (not test scores) should be fed back into our understanding of the school system.

But, of course, as Charbonneau points out, while our national government should "adequately fund a robust education division at Statistics Canada," we've seen instead "recent cutbacks at the federal agency." We've seen funding for other research, such as by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, curtailed. Much cheaper to advocate standardized tests - it's quick cheap data. Useless, maybe, but the portions are huge.

5. Canadian Online Platforms

I have long argued for a JISC-style mechanism in Canada that offers access to services, innovation, research and support. This includes, but is not limited to, online platforms. These calls have met with pretty much zero traction (at least we have innovative provincial agencies, such as B.C. Campus, in some regions).

But even with this recommendation, we have to be careful. The last thing we need is, say, a nationally-mandated learning management system (it's bad enough that there are some provincially-mandated LMSs). Putting that much purchasing power into the hands of a single agency is a recipe for corruption at worst and golf-course-ware (*) at best.

But there are many things we could support nationally and/or provincially here in Canada. Open up our library and museum collections. Open up a place were teachers and students can upload (and find, and use) learning resources. I've worked on various projects like this over the years - for example, eduSource - but they all founder at the rock of commercialization.

We should have set up a system such that any teacher or student could set up an email list if they wanted, open a discussion group if they wanted, could host an online course if they wanted, set up a blog or wiki if they wanted, etc. Setting up and maintaining these basic services could (and would) be the basic platform for much more robust development and experimentation in online learning.

But - again - there is a big difference between mandating this for use, and making this available for use. But that is the difference between a national 'strategy' and a national 'infrastructure'.

And Finally

My take is that there isn't a whole lot wrong with education in Canada - after all, our high school graduates are demonstrably among the best educated in the world, our post-secondary system teems with creativity and inspiration, and our society as a whole has developed into a peaceful, kind, tolerant and prosperous home for all of us. Pretty good metrics, if you ask me.

The only major problem is that there isn't enough of it - too many people still miss out. People in rural regions are not able to access the diverse range of programs and services available in the cities. First Nations people miss out on even more (and have poor ('national standard') housing, economy and health care to deal with as well). At the post-secondary education the investment is large and getting larger, both in terms of time and money - too much effort is spent sustaining the system, while not enough attention is paid to the needs of students and (especially) potential students.

And it's too expensive. Again, I do not begrudge the funding, but I do not agree that costs in education (and especially tuitions) should continue to rise so much more quickly than the inflation rate. We need to find ways to ease the cost pressures - but not by limiting access to the most eligible and not by privatizing core components of the education system (when we think about where privatizing book and journal publication got us, one would think that current excesses in academic publishing are a knock-down argument against privatizing any other part of the system).

I do not believe in the wisdom or efficacy of trying to reform the system, especially when that reform comes from the top. I think we (developers, educators, policy-makers) need to work around the edges, supporting and developing creative and innovative programs. Some of these programs should support free and open access to learners in Canada and around the world. Others should support other agendas - it is folly to think that my vision of education is the only vision that should be acted upon.

And let me clear about this, too - I loved university. Compared to the misery that was high school, it was academic paradise. I want to preserve what was insanely great about the experience - I want to preserve the madness and creativity and late-night sessions and arguments, I want to preserve the exposure to new ideas and cultures, the time to read great books (and these days, to watch great movies and videos), to be influence and challenged by music and art and culture and sports. Turning this whole experience into one in which the economic imperative prevails cheapens and destroys it: I want learning to be about developing into the most skilled and interesting person you can be.

University may not be for everyone but something like it should be for everyone. I know, there are many people out there who have far better things to do than to study - but learning is about far more than studying. People in their late teens and 20s who are not at university should have alternatives,  things like (and I'm just thinking out loud here) rock camps, machineries (places where people assemble to work on - and create - machines), bakery and culinary schools (as at the colleges), and so much more. 

(*) 'Golf Course Ware' is educational technology that is marketed to executives, usually at highbrow events on the golf course, rather than to teachers and learners who actually have to use the resource.


  1. The answer, we know, is all of us, through our taxes, and students, through their tuitions.


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