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IN MY OPINION

Reforming postsecondary education needs to be more inclusive

Debates on reform of postsecondary education require full participation of francophones and Aboriginal Peoples.

By BRENT EPPERSON | FEB 19 2014

From one end of Canada to the other, debate continues over the future of postsecondary education and the controversial idea of a skills deficit. Francophones and Aboriginal peoples so far have not been adequately represented in these debates. To create a world-class education system that reflects the multinational and bilingual character of the country, francophones and indigenous people need to collaborate and be more active participants.

To ensure an inclusive and progressive vision, it may be useful to merge the priorities identified by influential organizations such as the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the Conference Board of Canada, the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies and the Royal Society of Canada during their recent conferences. These organizations presented renewal plans that are ambitious but that remain incomplete.

During the RSC’s annual symposium on social justice in the 21st Century (November 14, Banff, Alberta), the importance of postsecondary education in promoting social justice could not have been clearer. In his opening address, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, National Chief to the Assembly of First Nations, aptly described postsecondary education as the “new bison” or, in other words, the best route to a new sustainable prosperity for First Nations. This symposium also emphasized the growing problem of student debt and the need to guarantee that access to postsecondary education is determined by academic merit and work ethic rather than by ability to pay. Canada-wide reform should include the education of Aboriginal peoples and accessibility, mainly based on academic success, as driving factors.

While Aboriginal education and accessibility issues were central to the RSC’s discussions, they were often relegated to the sidelines at the recent Conference Board and CAGS conferences, where other essential aspects of reform were addressed.

The most recent CAGS conference (November 3-5 in Montreal) brought together graduate studies deans and student leaders to focus on developing professional skills among graduate students, among other topics. Most master’s and doctoral students now seek employment outside the university setting. There seemed to be general agreement on the need for universities to devote more resources to developing professional skills, but more coordination among deans and student leaders would lend more weight in national debates on postsecondary education reform. At the University of Alberta and certain other institutions, deans of graduate studies and student leaders are already working closely to achieve this and other objectives, but action at the national level is required.

For their part, the Council of Chief Executives and the Conference Board both emphasize the need to address the skills deficit. This deficit is seen as a disparity between the needs of employers on the one hand and education and labour skills on the other. The presumed skills gap is perceived as an inability of our regulatory, legislative and educational frameworks to satisfy all of our socioeconomic needs. These frameworks include, but are not limited to, postsecondary education institutions, learning models, immigration programs and credential recognition.

The Conference Board should be congratulated for having brought business executives and university and government leaders together in a five-year reform project. Unfortunately, at their summit in Toronto (November 5 and 6), the lack of simultaneous translation and low participation among francophones and Aboriginal people created a fairly anglo-centric environment. But their project is in its early stages. The Board’s history of working with a large number of partners suggests that it will soon connect with more francophone and aboriginal organizations to develop a truly Canada-wide vision.

Where do we go from here? A promising reform strategy should learn from each of these recent conferences involving important stakeholders — provincial governments, business leaders, postsecondary institutions, student and teachers’ unions and associations, representatives of newcomers to Canada, leaders of Aboriginal Peoples and francophone communities. Despite provincial jurisdiction over education, the federal government has a leadership role to play in bringing together these key players. A postsecondary education system that addresses the skills deficit and offers equal opportunity is within reach. Keeping in mind the risks of failure and the complexity of the task before Canada in this reform project, let’s be ambitious, visionary and, above all, inclusive.

Brent Epperson, a SSHRC fellow in political science, is president of the University of Alberta’s Graduate Students’ Association.

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