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Terence McLean: Canada’s campuses are overrun with activists, but newcomer students are a refreshing voice of reason

Commentary

Reason will return to its throne.

This pithy Bertie Wooster-inspired outlook is my hope for campuses and communities across Canada. Yes indeed, political and identity-based polarization is abounding. However, there is a glimmer of hope: newcomers.

In 2018, Andrew Sullivan argued that we all live on campus now. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt published The Coddling of the American Mind. And more recently, Russell Jacoby described “the dawning takeover of the public sphere by campus denizens and lingo” in “The Takeover“. I had a soupçon of suspicion and thought that universities would at least be somewhat aware of the warnings; on the contrary, many have ignored these harbingers of activism and struggle sessions. 

Worthy of Titania McGrath tweets, antics at some universities are popping up these days, including clunkers dropped by academics and administrators themselves. I was appalled by the bullying during the Lindsay Shepard fiasco at Wilfred Laurier University, was disappointed by the mistreatment of Professor Tomáš Hudlický at Brock University, and am seeing the recent EDI creep into academic job advertisements as political discrimination is being written into the basic hiring practices at our public universities. If students are learning in environments such as these, who can blame them for following suit? 

Fret not. In the real world, there are vanguards of reason among us: newcomers. I have the pleasure of teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) to adult students at a university in Alberta, and these individuals are amazing. I do not teach students in our undergraduate programs, but from what I see on campus, I find them to be an affable, open-minded, and reasonable lot. This is reassuring. Of course, this is a subjective, biased bent. Regardless, it is the EAL students who truly inspire me. Without doubt, these are the most open-minded, accepting, adaptive, multicultural, eager, and determined individuals with whom I have had the pleasure of working. Coddled? No. Sensitive? No. Conformists? No. Optimists? Yes. Reasonable? Absolutely, yes.

University English language programs attract a variety of newcomers, many of whom have rich experience studying and working in other countries before settling here. We have nurses, engineers, social workers, artists, homemakers, doctors, carpenters, chefs, and psychologists, just to name a few. Pick a country, and we have probably had a student from there. I have met Afghans who have helped Ukrainians, Syrians who have supported Colombians, Cameroonians who have befriended Taiwanese, and Filipinos who have broken bread with Djiboutians. Furthermore, many students in Alberta have moved from other Canadian provinces, after having decided their first choice of landing was not best for them. I have met several French-speaking newcomers who have come west from Quebec for job opportunities and the chance to study in English. And guess what—some will eventually teach in Alberta schools or work in public offices without the barrier of Bill 21.

StatsCan reported that about one in four people in Canada is or has been a landed immigrant or permanent resident, the highest among the G7. A more astonishing fact is that almost a third of all children in Canada have a least one parent born abroad. And, for those who have been paying attention, the federal government has raised immigration targets with a new goal of 500,000 per year by 2025, with an emphasis on newcomers with work skills or experience. Good or bad—time will tell. Recent immigrants tend to be younger on average than the rest of the Canadian population. And, when we include efforts to accept more Syrians, Ukrainians, Yazidis, Iranians, Afghans, and Uyghurs fleeing horrible situations, the makeup of our population has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. 

According to a survey by StatsCan, nearly 60 percent of new working-age immigrants have a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, around 25 percent with foreign degrees reported being overqualified for the jobs they have. So, we have highly educated newcomers, and Canada not doing enough for them. StatsCan also reported that in the first two years of immigration, economic principal applicants with Canadian study experience are doing better. They earn more than those who did not study in Canada as a result of their language proficiency and Canadian work experience. Yes, language instruction helps, thank goodness.

Regarding international students, according to Erudera, in 2022 there were 388,782 international students enrolled in higher education in Canada, a significant increase of 69.8 percent compared to five years ago. Furthermore, the majority (60 percent) of international students studying abroad in Canada reported plans to apply to become permanent residents after graduation and 72.5 percent said they would apply for a post-graduate work permit, which is valid for three years. Long story short—Canada is becoming home to more newcomers, many of whom have post-secondary education, and more must be done in support of integration and success. 

Granted, there are concerns. Of course, some EAL students are frustrated, perhaps because of unrealistic expectations, at sitting in a classroom as they would rather be working, supporting their families, and enjoying their new lives in Canada. Also, where is everybody going to live? There is a housing crisis, and it is unrealistic to expect newcomers to be able to afford ridiculous prices and rents. In addition, even though immigration minister Sean Fraser spoke of introducing new “selection tools” that will help the immigration system better target sectors facing current and potential labour shortages, thinking of increasing immigration levels as a silver bullet is wrong, according to labour economist, Mikal Skuterud. This is certainly an issue that warrants more investigation and expertise, which I, alas, sorely lack. 

However, I do know my way around the classroom (physical and virtual), and the individuals in my EAL courses often tell me that they want to work in their fields of study, but they must first demonstrate language proficiency, which is a barrier, which makes me, alas again, both a facilitator and a gatekeeper. Nevertheless, there has been progress, such as in Ontario, where the health minister has directed regulatory colleges for nurses and doctors to improve their systems. Even Tom Mulcair and Pierre Poilievre agree on that one. Yes, a clearly defined level of language proficiency is essential, but so is a reasonable, streamlined entrance requirement system.

So, back to the campus, as some universities clumsily navigate the forays of competing ideologies, and as society grapples with signs of Andrew Sullivan’s claim that we all live on campus now, those who will help lead our country out of high inflation and weakened government institutions include newcomers (and their children) who are striving to better themselves, their families, and our communities. These individuals are focused on achieving success rather than on microaggressions or being perpetually aggrieved. Indeed, students in my classroom ask why governments are more interested in the drama of playing politics and dividing than in creating more job opportunities and pulling Canadians together.

And no, I am not speaking for newcomers—they are eminently capable; rather, I am highlighting their potential because, in my view, as language learners, they are often ignored. Most have neither the privilege of nor the time for navel-gazing: they are focused and deserve a fair opportunity to achieve the reasonable goals of personal and professional success. 

The faculty of reason is not something that we should surrender (a tip of the hat to Christopher Hitchens). The good news is that, based on my lived experience, the inspiring newcomers at universities are among the discerning thinkers of our future. It is comforting to know that when I eventually retire, I can reflect on the mind-blowing time I spent with such a diverse array of brilliant individuals. We are in good hands.

Will Reason return to its throne? I think Jeeves would say right-ho.

Trevor Tombe: Is Ottawa strapped for cash?

Commentary

There’s a difficult fiscal negotiation underway between Canada’s various governments. And there may not be much room for maneuver. 

“We’re very aware of the uncertainty in the global economy right now,” federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said last week following a meeting with her provincial counterparts. 

“At the federal level, this is a time of real fiscal constraint.”

She’s right. And that matters for all Canadians.

Provinces and territories want additional federal dollars for health care, and premiers are meeting with the prime minister today to demand exactly that.”

But as the finance minister correctly noted, there are limits to what the federal government can do, especially with rising interest rates and slowing economic growth.

To see this, imagine grouping federal program spending this year into just three buckets:

  1. Transfers to elderly individuals and families with children: $94 billion
  2. Major transfers to provinces and territories: $88 billion
  3. Everything else: $256 billion

It turns out, planned growth in federal spending is constrained to just the first and second buckets.

Elderly benefits are set to grow 7 percent per year between now and 2027. Child benefits grow by nearly 4 percent per year. And major transfers to provinces and territories grow at 5 percent. 

And of the major transfers, funding for health systems is the largest: roughly $45 billion per year, which will increase to nearly $59 billion by 2027—that’s an average annual growth rate of over 5.3 percent. 

Outside of these two buckets, total federal spending is currently slated to fall. And that’s in nominal terms. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, this bucket of federal spending will be nearly 17 percent lower in 2027 than it was in 2022. That’s significant.

Of course, that’s just the latest plan. And as others like Andrew Coyne regularly point out, the federal government consistently overshoots its own spending plans.

If this third bucket of federal spending instead grows at 2 percent per year, which will barely keep pace with future inflation, then total federal program spending would grow by an average of 3.5 percent per year over the next five years. And if the third bucket of spending grows at 3 percent, then total federal spending would grow at over 4 percent.

These growth rates are large—and potentially unsustainable.

To illustrate, I estimate that if interest rates, program spending growth, total revenue growth, and Canada’s economy all grow at 3.5 percent per year,Economic growth here refers to nominal growth. This rate would be roughly 1.5 percent real GDP growth, which may be optimistic in the short term. then federal debt will increase to over 43 percent of GDP—higher than its current value of around 42 percent and much higher than the planned 37 percent.All calculations in this article are based on the Finances of the Nation Debt Sustainability Simulator. This was recently extended to allow alternative federal budget assumptions from 2022/23 onwards. Errors are my own.

Beyond 2027, federal finances become increasingly unsustainable at these rates as public debt continues to grow faster than the economy. I estimate a tax increase equivalent to increasing the GST from 5 percent to 6 percent would be required to stabilize things.

Canada’s finances are on a knife’s edge, leaving little room for provinces.

If health transfers grow just two percentage points faster than planned as a result of any deal—far less than provinces are asking for, but roughly aligned with what the Conservative Party proposed in the 2021 election—then total federal program spending growth increases by between 0.2 and 0.3 percentage points per year.

That may not sound like much, but it adds up quickly. 

If interest rates, economic growth, revenue growth, and initial program spending growth are all 3.5 percent, then a boost in health transfers of this amount increases federal debt to 44 percent of GDP by 2027 and over 50 percent by the mid-2030s. 

Add in a decline in global economic growth, and the consequent reduction in Canadian growth and federal revenues, and the picture becomes even more difficult.

At 3 percent growth, for example, federal debt would be 46 percent of GDP by 2027—higher than any point since 2020/21 when the pandemic disruptions and government support measures were at their highest.

To be sustainable without increasing taxes, spending must fall. But if we’re not going to touch benefits to the elderly or to families with children (which no party seems interested in doing), then increased transfers to provinces must significantly crowd out all other spending.

And to achieve the government’s debt reduction plan of 37 percent of GDP by 2027 then all other federal spending would need to fall by 25 percent (roughly 5 percent per year).

That’s a bleak scenario. But even if economic growth doesn’t slow so much, and if interest rates ease, federal spending constraints remain tight. With 3 percent borrowing rates and economic growth of 3.7 percent, for example, the third bucket of spending still needs to shrink by over 10 percent by 2027 to achieve the government’s debt target if health transfers are modestly increased.A freeze in all other spending would result in a 40 debt-to-GDP ratio in 2027 in this scenario.

Not all is fiscal doom and gloom. Over the long haul, federal finances remain fundamentally sound. But in the short term, there are only tough choices.

Pandemic pressures combined with population aging have brought many provincial health systems to the edge. But there is only so much the federal government can do to help. 

Provinces will have to make most of the tough choices themselves.