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Mitchell Davidson: How to fix post-secondary policy after COVID


When the pandemic began there was a tendency to think it would change everything forever, post-secondary policy included.

Historians, charged with a sudden and immediate relevance, looked to pandemics past for clues about what the future might hold.

Do not fret about the end of post-secondary institutions, history taught us. After the bubonic plague only five of the roughly 30 universities in Europe ceased operations. In fact, many of those universities still exist to this very day, carrying out the same traditions and structures from their pre-Middle Ages founding.

But then, as with nearly every subject area in the pandemic, the common understanding of COVID-19’s impact evolved into a force that would accelerate pre-existing trends. All sorts of trends come to mind, from the rise of online classes to the movement away from theory-based education in favour of practical skills-based labour market studies. In some corners of the internet, you can even stumble across talk of the end of tenure or the consolidation of post-secondary institutions.

The idea of an external force causing the rapid acceleration of change in the post-secondary system is nearly impossible to fathom. The institutions, by their very design, are methodical and slow to evolve, prioritizing research methods and foundational learning over skills training in-demand by employers.

In 1852, English historian Sir Richard Walpole suggested that a family would “hesitate to spend £1,000 or £1,200 which Oxford education involved, in order to obtain…the smattering of knowledge which a boy of ordinary attainments might be expected to possess before he left school.”

Fast-forward to the creation of the college system as we know it in Canada in 1965 and then Education Minister and later Premier of Ontario Bill Davis, seemingly channeled the British historian from a century earlier when he told the legislature, “it is not feasible, nor indeed desirable, that all graduated of our high schools should go to university. The real needs of a very substantial number of our young people lie elsewhere; they would be served poorly and fare poorly in the traditional university programs.”

The post-secondary system is the foundation the economy is built on and it is built using a lot of taxpayer dollars.

When it comes to modern day post-secondary reform, the issues of the 1850s and the 1960s are the same. Universities are slow to adapt their programming to the needs of the labour force.

For a variety of legitimate reasons, Canada’s universities are less nimble than their collegiate counterparts. They have standalone senates, individual pieces of founding legislation, more collective bargaining agreements, a robust tenure system, and a deeper and richer tradition. They also happen to have a near monopoly when it comes to producing those who make post-secondary reform decisions, where it’s political staff, civil servants, or politicians themselves.

For these reasons and more, the most common post-secondary reform discussed centres around the first half of Davis’s comments, that it is not feasible for all high school graduates to go to university. Canada’s progressives have put forward significant cost reduction measures for students ranging from forgiving student loan debt to making tuition completely free. In some respects, significant tuition subsidies are the literal embodiment of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s oft uttered slogan to “help the middle class and those working hard to join it.”

Though there is a legitimate conversation to be had about equality of access, it is the later half of Davis’s statement that goes virtually undiscussed: that the population requires more than just the current university offering to succeed. If the COVID-19 pandemic is to truly impact the post-secondary sector, it would be best if it forced decision-makers in government, including those on the centre-right, and post-secondary institutions to come to this realization.

For too long, the centre-right has ceded the ground on post-secondary issues for political reasons. The logic, understandably, is that students do not vote Conservative — big C or small c — so why bother? The reality is the post-secondary system is the foundation that the economy is built on, and it is built using a lot of taxpayer dollars.

Post-secondary spending falls only behind health care, education, and social services spending in most provinces. When capital funding is included, that number grows even higher. Knowing that the pandemic will one day force provincial governments to seriously review their spending, and that health care and education are virtually untouchable in the eyes of provincial premiers of all partisan stripes, cost reduction measures will come to the post-secondary space soon.

If universities resist that change, they will fall victim to more arbitrary decisions aimed at saving dollars rather than improving outcomes. If they embrace this change, by working with today’s governments to solve tomorrow’s problems, they can produce better graduates and make more money.

On outcomes, students are already passing judgement on the value of post-secondary with their feet. A staggering 18 percent of enrolled Ontario college students already have a university degree. Every student that opts for more schooling instead of joining the labour force costs government more, reduces tax revenue, and increases the ever-growing skills gap. On average, a single year of education costs the government $36,500 per student in Alberta, $31,300 in British Columbia, $25,800 in Quebec, and $21,500 in Ontario.

Post-secondary institutions are plugging serious revenue shortfalls with substantial tuition payments from international students.

Of course, investing in education has a greater societal and economic return in the long run. The same can be said for investing in graduate-level education as well, but many of these graduate-level college students are not returning to school to ensure a better job, they are returning to school to find their first one.

On revenue, post-secondary institutions across the country are plugging serious revenue shortfalls with substantial tuition payments from international students. At Queen’s University, undergraduate international students pay tuition rates that are more than seven times higher than tuition rates for domestic students.

The pandemic has made the revenue gaps even worse. Many international students find themselves restricted from coming to Canada during the pandemic and ancillary revenues from student spending on everything from parking to food is non-existent. In Ontario, the provincial association representing universities pegged the total cost of COVID-19 expenses at a net $500 million this year alone.

The question becomes how best to evolve the post-secondary sector. Alberta is pushing ahead with performance-based funding that ties a post-secondary institutions’ operating grant to student graduation and employment rates. Ontario is creating the country’s first ever micro-credential strategy, including financial assistance, to create quicker, more accessible programs designed to help those negatively impacted by the pandemic re-train and get back into the labour force.

Both are important examples of what can be done in this space. That said, both institutions and governments can go further.

If the trend of online programming is going to continue to accelerate, it can at least allow for exciting partnerships with international institutions that are world leaders in different areas through ‘microcampus’ networks. Canadian institutions can establish truly universal partnerships for the first time, combining in-person instruction from their local practitioners with online programming from international schools, giving students a combined degree while maintaining local enrollment requirements. The inverse is also true, allowing Canadian institutions to increase revenue by creating online programming that schools in other countries can use.

If the trend of fewer tenure track spaces is going to continue to accelerate, universities and governments can have a real conversation about which schools should offer which basic programs. Does every single British Columbia university need to offer an English program? Likely not. Some form of realignment and consolidation are likely coming anyways, as evidenced by Laurentian University’s recent bankruptcy and corresponding removal of 69 courses. If it is going to happen, why not do it in a planned and logical manner instead of a haphazard one?

Canada’s post-secondary sector has so far managed a history of continued expansion, which is largely good news for Canada. However, that continued growth masked underlying issues with programming relevance and revenues. Given the post-secondary sector has been built with taxpayer dollars, these issues should concern partisans of all stripes.

Ultimately, if the COVID-19 pandemic does accelerate trends in post-secondary after all, that would be a positive development.

Caroline Elliott: Defending individualism and objectivity from Global Affairs


There’s no question that racism and white supremacy are atrocious realities faced by racially marginalized populations in Canada today. We need to do more as individuals and as a society to condemn and combat these injustices, and we need to make sure we do it right.

Doing it right includes identifying and addressing aspects of our institutions that serve to perpetuate racism, while preserving those that offer protection against it.

Unfortunately, documents used by Global Affairs Canada as part of anti-racism training (recently highlighted by Tristin Hopper in the National Post) show that the federal government seems to be getting it wrong in deeply concerning ways.

The government’s materials identify certain commonly-held principles as “characteristics of white supremacy,” including individualism, objectivity and the “worship of the written word.”

Far from being tools of racism, these values are typically more consistent with shielding minorities from racism than they are with subjecting them to it.

True, these issues are highly complex and oversimplification is inevitable in a column of this length. But that is precisely why the government’s fleeting yet denigrating treatment of these values is so troubling.

By identifying widely-accepted principles as “characteristics of white supremacy,” the government may inadvertently trivialize and even perpetuate the abhorrent reality of racism itself. Regular people’s very reasonable support of norms like individualism and objectivity might wrongly make them think that perhaps the horror of white supremacy is based on tenets they can relate to.

That would be a tragedy and it is why the government’s endorsement of this approach must be challenged.

It has long been recognized that one of the best ways to protect minority interests is through individual rights.

Let’s start with individualism.

Individualism holds that every person is an inherently worthy being who ought not to be used as a means for something (or someone) else’s ends. Each of us has as much right as any other to set out our life plan, to live freely, and to flourish without our interests being subordinated to other purposes. By placing a high value on personal freedom, individualism rejects uniformity and facilitates true diversity.

Individualism offers important protections to minorities in majoritarian political systems like ours. When we place all of our trust in majority-based decision-making, history has shown that the interests of minorities are the first to be set aside for the purposes of the greater number. John Stuart Mill called this “the tyranny of the majority.”

That’s why we have things like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and the Bill of Rights in the United States — because it has long been recognized that one of the best ways to protect minority interests is through individual rights.

Next up, objectivity.

Put simply, objectivity can be defined as freedom from bias in one’s judgements. It seems like quite a stretch to suggest that the malicious reality of white supremacy is served by the ideal of being free from bias in one’s judgements.

Admittedly, the idea of setting aside one’s prejudices to achieve impartiality is not always easy and often unsuccessful. But one would think that we ought to at least strive for it, whether it comes to our justice system, policing, journalism and much more.

As in the case of individualism, objectivity is especially important when it comes to protecting minority rights. For example, racial prejudice among the police and judiciary has frequently been highlighted as a problem by marginalized groups. As we work to address this, one would think objectivity gets us a whole lot closer to where we should be than subjectivity does.

Last but not least, it’s worth discussing the “worship of the written word.”

The written word includes, among other things, the very Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has been used time and again to protect minority rights. And in addition to being the format of choice for many of the world’s religious records, literary masterpieces and great philosophies, it also provides the legal embodiment of the rule of law, which (at least notionally) places all citizens equally before the courts.

Of course, the written word isn’t the only way of doing things. After all, much of our constitution is unwritten, and many Indigenous groups celebrate oral traditions. It’s also true that the written word doesn’t guarantee equal treatment in practice, but the concept is not something that is intrinsically evil.

What we risk losing sight of in all of this is the fact that racism is a very real and very urgent problem.

Despite what the government’s anti-racism materials suggest, though, there are aspects of our political and social foundations that are actually worth defending for the various roles they can and do play in protecting minorities. That includes individualism and objectivity, along with the respect we have for the written word.

Sure, these aren’t the only important values in our society. And it’s also true that in practice they don’t always work out as well as they do in theory.

At the end of the day, though, there’s no question that all three principles are things Canadians should be able to believe in without feeling complicit in something as repugnant as white supremacy. If anything, these values at least try to counter injustice and prejudice, and our country ought to be celebrating them, not vilifying them.

We’re at a critical juncture where racism is finally being recognized as the problem it is, and we can’t allow our government to malign the very aspects of our institutions that arm us in our fight against it.