Monday, February 20, 2006


The Missing Link

Faithful Moldy readers will know that I have taken a keen interest in - as Paul Wells, Jeff Simpson and others have - productivity. This issue is one of the most important challenges facing the country in the 21st century. The past federal election was mostly void of any real discussion of productivity, save modest (Liberal) to scant (Conservative) research and education / training mentions in the big three party’s platforms.

Canada needs to address the productivity gap and there are a couple of measures that can be done to address it. One, significant investment in post-secondary education and training. The provinces and federal government need to be investing more resources directly to institutions and individuals. Canada can not continue to throw money at consumption based issues (i.e. health care) without jeopardizing investment based measures (i.e. education).

Canadians deserve world class post-secondary institutions delivering high quality college, trade and university programs. These programs should be affordable and accessible to all qualified individuals. Both levels of government need to invest more money in student financial assistance and better targeting of existing aid to ensure more low-income students receive non-repayable aid.

Canadian post-secondary institutions need a greater degree of freedom with respect to their fee schedule. Does this mean higher tuition fees? Not in all cases, however, in some cases definitely. Students can't expect high quality educations for bargain basement prices. Institutions need to pay competitive faculty salaries and students need 21st century technology in the labs and classrooms. These expenditures require more and more resources each year from both the student and the state.

The provincial and territorial governments - read the Council of the Federation - are slated to meet later this week in Ottawa to discuss the state of post-secondary education and training in Canada. The stakeholders (students / faculty / senior administrators) are set to air their laundry list complaints and the jurisdictions are set to listen.

The likely consensus, if that is possible, outcome is more federal money is needed in the form of a dedicated post-secondary transfer. The desired transfer would not include any conditions - i.e. accountability. Education is a provincial responsibility, duh. See the Constitution for more details.

The Communiqué will also likely not include any quality, accessibility and affordability benchmarks. Why? It is not in provincial and territorial government interests to demand more resources and limit how they could actual spend additional monies. The bigger issue, however, is that there is no consensus from stakeholders on what benchmarks should measure.

Students, many, would like tuition fees (sticker price) rolled back - yes, like Wal-Mart - to 1990 levels and count that as an effective measure for affordability. Others may measure affordability with additional variables such as scholarships, loans and grants and actually look at out of pocket cost (sticker price minus available aid).

Unlike healthcare, where Canadians and stakeholders could talk the same language i.e. wait times, there is not one consensus issue for post-secondary education. There are too many voices and too many regional issues. What is important to New Brunswick may not be important to Alberta. This may be true for health care as well but it is even more pronounced in education.

These problems are further compounded by another larger issue. There is no political champion for post-secondary education. Who thinks and breathes education and skills training? Not a single elected official at any level of government.

Dalton McGuinty has, at times, tried to brand himself an education Premier. He attempted to get there by appointing former Ontario Premier Bob Rae to head a major rethink of post-secondary in Ontario. Sadly, he is loosing steam on this front.

Alberta tried this with their large post-secondary summit in the fall, however, that could be viewed skeptically as a profile raising exercise for a potential Conservative leadership hopeful - Dave Hancock. Although, I am prepared to cut the Alberta government some slack because they tend to have both resources and innovation.

South of the border, however, things are a little different. The political landscape and nexus of power is not the same, however, the American political system usually has champions for a particular cause. Think John McCain - finance reform, Ted Kennedy - secondary education, Al Gore - environment and Newt Gingrich - smaller government.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Pennsylvania Democrat, is no different. Fattah has dedicated his 2o years in elected office to improving accessibility and affordability for United States higher education.

Fattah decided to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his annual Fattah Conference on Higher Education by unveiling a big surprise for the 700 undergraduates attending a conference luncheon on Saturday in Philadelphia: full graduate scholarships.

Fattah agreed that his dramatic announcement bore some resemblance to the attention-grabbing awards of free cars and other consumer goods that Oprah Winfrey has bestowed on her talk-show audiences. He claims, and is probably right, that the scholarships are intended to turn the heads of minority undergraduate students at the conference and elsewhere, who often wrongly believe that they lack the resources or grades for graduate study.

The total amount to be disbursed could reach as high as $25-million. The scholarships can be used by this year's Fattah conference attendees who are accepted for graduate studies at any one of 17 Pennsylvania institutions of higher education that have signed on to the program, including Temple University, Drexel University, and the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

Granted, not every Canadian politician has this kind of money - although Belinda does and Magna currently runs that lame Prime Minister exercise - but our politicians could still generate ideas and discussion.

Canadian politicians are too fixated on short-term (e.g. one-time equalization fixes), reactive (clean-up government) polling politics instead of long-term (e.g. Clarity Act), visionary mapping politics (Canada Health Act).

That was a nice comprehensive post- however, I have to digress with just one detail.

I think that the problem with Education and with Healthcare is that there are a plethora of issues (which you mentioned) but perhaps it is advantageous that PSE problems haven't been rolled into one neat term like 'wait times'. My problem with 'wait times' is that it makes people feel like they are talking about an issue, when really it is just a jargon term- that means far too many things.

Maybe it is a positive that government will get together and actually articulate what they mean, instead of creating a tricky little phrase..I guess we will see.
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