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Gary Mason

Lifelong learning: why Victoria is top of the class Add to ...

Dean Fortin isn't stupid. Neither, apparently, are the citizens for whom he toils.

"I think when the news went out, there was a ripple of pride that went through the population," says the mayor of Victoria. "I think it's important on many different levels. I think it's a good reputation to have and it speaks to the quality of life that we have here."

For those who haven't heard, Victoria is the most recent city to be dubbed Canada's smartest. Last year, Calgary boasted the designation. It's based on the latest findings in the Canadian Council on Learning's Composite Learning Index.

The council developed the index five years ago to measure learning conditions in more than 4,500 cities, towns and communities across the country. It is done through an analysis of the many ways Canadians learn, whether at school, home, work or in the community at large. It reflects both the formal knowledge those living in a certain area may have - Victoria has the highest concentration of PhDs and master's degrees in the country - as well as the informal knowledge absorbed during trips to institutions such as museums or libraries.

Ultimately, it's an assessment of lifelong learning. As the term implies, learning continues, or at least should, throughout a life and can take many different shapes and forms. The index reflects how well communities support lifelong learning in different areas.

Access to schools is one, workplace and vocational training another. The local arts and culture scene is also evaluated. Religious diversity and multicultural awareness is a fourth pillar of lifelong learning that is measured.

While it may all seem like esoteric, airy-fairy stuff, it is not. The degree to which a community is engaged intellectually is usually reflected in its financial well-being. Towns and cities that score high on lifelong learning indexes almost always boast a high quality of life, which is often something companies consider when deciding where to locate.

Last year, the Financial Times of London named Victoria the tops in Canada and third-best micro city (population under 100,000) in North America for foreign investment. Mr. Fortin believes Victoria's reputation as a "learning city" has something to do with that result.

The most discouraging aspect of the composite index is that, in the five years that the council has been measuring lifelong learning conditions in Canada, things haven't got a whole lot better. There are certainly success stories, Atlantic Canada being one region that has improved considerably over that span, but otherwise the national average suggests a certain stagnation has set in.

Part of the reason, perhaps, is that lifelong learning isn't talked about much in Canada. It certainly isn't valued the way you might expect, given the undeniable role it plays in the social and economic health of a country.

A city like Victoria has obvious advantages allowing it to score high on a learning index. It is a highly-educated university and government town. It has a wonderful climate that attracts wealthy, smart and intellectually engaged retirees from across the country. But that shouldn't stop a community without those benefits from trying to improve learning conditions - there is too much at stake not to.

There are many ways to learn and a person can access a wealth of information quicker and more cheaply and easily today than ever before.

Europe has now adopted the CCL's learning index, which has been hailed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development as a breakthrough in efforts to improve lifelong learning conditions throughout the world. This year, the federal government thanked the council for its contribution to the betterment of mankind by stripping away its funding.

The Europeans are taking lifelong learning seriously. In 2007, it launched a five-year program across the European Union that allows people at all stages of their lives to pursue invigorating learning opportunities. The program integrates a vast array of educational and training initiatives. It has a budget of more than $10-billion.

"I think the social infrastructure that a community puts in place for its citizens is vitally important to its future success," says Mr. Fortin.

But the Victoria mayor says the city's No. 1 ranking hasn't done much to excite local media.

"They said, 'Let us know when you drop to five. Then we have a story.' "

Sounds about right.

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