For a Big, Smart Nation

From your experience as an educator, what differentiates Canadian post-secondary institutions from others around the world?

I can speak most easily about universities. The very good news is that we have strong stable floors in the system, i.e. it’s hard to find a really bad university in Canada. That’s very different than the US where there are more than a few lamentably weak colleges and universities.

The bad news is that along with strong floors, we have low ceilings. Put another way, we have an eco-system that favours stunted growth and limited aspirations. That’s because of persistent perverse incentives in federal research funding, and provincial funding formulae and tuition regulations that range from somewhat sensible to quite damaging.

It would be unfair, however, not to acknowledge some positive developments in the past few years. The new federal government seems to care a lot about university research and has already reinvested in unfettered basic science and scholarship. As well, provincial governments and universities are waking up the fact that greater clarity about institutional missions is a good thing for everyone. I’m therefore cautiously optimistic that, in the years ahead, we will create more head-room for everyone in the system, and that, for those institutions equipped to compete globally on a wide-angle basis, the sky will be the limit.

Our education system is under tremendous pressure at every level, with increasingly unequal access and Canadian STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduation rates lagging other nations. Are we headed for a crisis?

For starters, in primary and secondary education, our national performance indicators are good but not great. There are thousands of very fine teachers on the front lines, and there is inter-provincial variation as always. What worries me is the simple fact that we don’t have high enough standards. Most parents I’ve met in my decades as an educator believe that their children should graduate from secondary school with basic literacy in science and math, the skill to write coherently and grammatically, the capacity to think logically, and the ability to critique someone else’s argument or position. If you talk to professors across Canada, they will tell you loud and clear that such standards are not consistently met by first year students entering our universities. From the standpoint of Canada’s long-term competitiveness, this situation ought to be a big worry.

As to post-secondary education, let’s start with the vocational sphere. Canada has scores of excellent colleges of applied arts and technology, and our population-adjusted rates of enrolment in college diploma programs are very high by global standards. I would add that aspects of Quebec’s unique CEGEP system should probably be emulated by other provinces. However, I don’t see anything approximating the German strategy, with its interlocking sets of apprenticeships, technical diplomas and technical degrees, and mobility between technical schools and universities. A successful society needs young people who can design, make, and fix things.

For universities, our population-adjusted numbers of university baccalaureates put us in the middle of OECD league tables, arguably lower than we should be. That’s true not just for STEM undergraduates, but other fields. We lag even further behind in our output of master’s and doctoral students across all fields, including STEM. All those enrolments need to rise. Put simply, the Canadian population is not particularly well-educated as compared to other nations.

Qualitatively as regards our universities, the discourse would be healthier if we could ditch the barista myth, wherein only graduates in the STEM fields are employable, and all others end up working in coffee bars. On average, a university baccalaureate degree improves employability and enhances lifetime earnings for the full range of disciplines. As I said, we simply need more Canadians finishing university degrees.

There’s also a time-minimization obsession. This misconception presumes that students should follow a straight path to finish a degree in the shortest possible time. However, young people often bounce around and need some time to find out what they really want to study. That’s healthy. Furthermore, many young Canadians go to university, finish a degree, and then head to college to get specific skills for vocational purposes. The university helps them acquire social and cognitive competencies that will last them a lifetime. The college diploma gives them a highly marketable skill-set. It’s a killer combination.

What role do educated immigrants play in our economic system?

I understand that Canadians may fear immigration because of competition for jobs at a time when the economy is sputtering. However, admitting larger numbers of young, well-educated immigrants is one of the best things we can do to create a buffer against the pressures caused by an aging population. That’s by no means a permanent fix or a substitute for addressing economic fundamentals. But it’s a breather we desperately need. Canadians may worry about social strains caused by a big influx of immigrants; however, without them, we may find that the social fabric frays very rapidly as dependency ratios go in the wrong direction and we lose the tax base needed to support our social programs.

Do we risk losing our best and brightest?

We’ve been losing our best and brightest for decades — mostly to the US. What lies ahead, however, is mass globalization where highly talented and skilled individuals work and live in multiple nations throughout their careers. You could say, then, that the bad news is that talent is more mobile than ever, and the good news is that talent is more mobile than ever. Canada remains a beacon of civility, safety, social solidarity, and pluralism. We need to make Canada a tremendously welcoming destination for the best and brightest of other countries, and ensure that it remains a place of boundless opportunity for those born and raised here.

Are Canadian universities too parochial in how they market or recruit students?

Not really, I’d say the bigger problem is with parochial attitudes of governments.

In reputable universities and colleges across Canada, 10-20% of first year students come from abroad, and the numbers have risen over the last decade or so.

The proportions of international students are higher for many graduate programs, and could be much larger were it not for the fact that several provinces refuse to tally foreign graduate students when making annual institutional grants. That’s a serious mistake, especially when you consider the benefits to Canada from international grad students doing a research Master’s or PhD.

Those students will spend from two to seven years here. They are incredibly talented, always among the finest young minds in the world in their fields. They raise the bar for everyone. Many will settle in Canada if the opportunity arises. However, in provinces that refuse to give them standard funding, universities struggle to match the financial packages offered to these students by US schools. That’s compounded by the fact that the federal government does not provide enough high-level graduate and post-doctoral scholarships for top-flight international students and trainees. The result is that thousands of great international students who want to do graduate work here end up going to the US or elsewhere. It’s a massive and inexcusable talent leak.

Looking to the future, what does a prosperous and stronger Canadian Education system look like?

A future Canada has the best educated population in the world and invests generously in a range of programs to ensure that healthy growth and development starts well before primary school, and that learning continues across the lengthening life courses of successive generations. A young person can start out in a technical apprenticeship program and end up with a Master’s degree in Engineering without huge barriers or massive personal indebtedness.

Differentiation of institutions has occurred in a way that encourages clarity of mission but doesn’t suffocate innovation and ambition. That shift, plus better funding, has allowed us to raise our game in research. Whereas in 2016 we punched above our weight in research outputs but lagged when it came to producing the highest-impact science and scholarship, Canada is now a much bigger player in knowledge generation.

Canada is still too small to dominate any field, but we are finally winning more than our fair share of pinnacle prizes in all academic disciplines. Above all, because Canada has sustained its time-honoured values of inclusiveness, pluralism and civility, the nation is not just a great place to be born and raised and educated. Canada is also a magnet for talented and ambitious young people from all over the world. They come here to learn as visitors at our universities, and they stay on as loyal citizens, making the country stronger and smarter.