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Europe can harmonize postsecondary education. Why can’t Canada?

Senator Art Eggleton.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada is a lone wolf amongst developed countries when it comes to Postsecondary Education (PSE). We are the only country that does not have national strategy for PSE – no established goals, no benchmarks, and no public reporting of results based on established measures. We have 13 educational jurisdictions, each with different types of PSE institutions whose mandates vary. We lack the framework through which to understand, measure, or clearly demonstrate the quality of our PSE sector. This poses problems for institutions that want to promote the quality of their services to the public, for students who need accurate information to make the right PSE choices, and for governments who are accountable to the public.

We don't know how many graduates we have in any given year in any given field. Whether it's the trades, medical school or social sciences we have no way to match supply to demand. How do we decide where to put our resources if we don't know what's going on? We must develop a national, pan-Canadian framework to promote and improve our PSE sector. The European Union has accomplished this by co-ordinating their policies and priorities in education, even though each country has jurisdiction over their own education systems. If they can harmonize their systems, why can't Canada?

This idea of a pan-Canadian PSE strategy is one of the prime recommendations in the study from the Senate Social Affairs Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology on the accessibility of Postsecondary Education in Canada entitled Opening the Door: Reducing Barriers to Post-Secondary Education in Canada.

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Canadian PSE participation rates have ranked very high when compared to rates across the developed world, with a higher proportion of Canadians graduating from postsecondary institutions than in any other country within the OECD. However, there are storm clouds on the horizon.

A declining birth rate coupled with an aging population will contribute to a significant decline in the number of experienced and knowledgeable workers, coinciding with an increasing demand for skilled postsecondary graduates. To increase the number of PSE enrollments we must have public policy that addresses the barriers to participation for groups who have been traditionally underrepresented.

Other areas of concern were raised by witnesses. We heard about the many financial barriers to access, including the relatively unchanged levels of financial assistance available and the unmet need of a number of students, particularly those with disabilities and those who must travel significant distances to attend PSE. We were also concerned to hear that it is often difficult to obtain information about federal assistance programs and that the application process is cumbersome and complex to the point that it becomes a barrier to students getting funding. As well, concerns were raised that federal tax measures intended to promote access to low income families were being used far more often by students from wealthier families.

Non-financial barriers such as family background and early education experiences are also significant players in PSE attainment. Although high-school dropout rates have been cut in half in the past 20 years, improving the high-school completion rate can only help to improve PSE participation rates. Additionally, we heard that we must improve our literacy rate. It is estimated that 48 per cent of adults have very low literacy rates, which prevents many from participating in PSE, We were appalled to hear that twice as many Aboriginal people as non-Aboriginal people aged 25 to 64 have not completed high school, that Aboriginal PSE institutions demonstrate high levels of success with Aboriginal students who do graduate from high school but that current funding levels are insufficient to meet genuine need. Federal funding for Aboriginal students has been capped at 2 per cent per year since 1996. When inflation and the increase in the Aboriginal population are taken into account, the funds allocated have not really increased at all since 1996, resulting in over 13,000 students being denied funding during the subsequent decade.

Postsecondary education is a fierce global competition. While Canada does possess strengths in education, we must set the conditions for future success.

Senator Art Eggleton is Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. He was a Federal Cabinet Minister from 1993 to 2002, and the Mayor of Toronto from 1980 until 1991.

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