What role, if any, should Canadian universities play to promote official bilingualism? That was the vexing question addressed by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages in a report released last month.
The committee concludes, wisely, that in terms of official bilingualism the federal government “cannot tell postsecondary institutions what to do,” both because the government has no jurisdiction over these institutions and out of respect for academic independence.
Nevertheless, the committee did feel compelled to point out that the federal government needs to fill an estimated 5,000 bilingual positions annually as part of its efforts to renew the federal public service. The majority of these positions will require postsecondary education and it would be helpful, the committee suggests, if Canada’s colleges and universities could pitch in to promote bilingualism by offering more second-language learning opportunities.
Once upon a time, many universities did require students to learn another language as part of their degree programs. This requirement was slowly dropped.
In 1991, for example, 35 percent of universities required proficiency in a second language for graduation, according to a survey by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada; by 2000, just 12 percent of universities had such a requirement and in the latest AUCC survey in 2006, it was down to nine percent.
Those stats come from a story I did last summer, “The rise of the monoglots,” which addresses many of the same issues touched upon by the Commons standing committee.
There are some excellent second-language programs in Canada, including University of Ottawa’s French immersion program, York University’s Glendon College and University of Alberta’s Faculté Saint-Jean. But, as a rule, it’s true that most universities don’t see this as a priority.
Graham Fraser, Canada’s official languages commissioner, acknowledges that second-language learning opportunities do exist at Canadian universities, but he says they appear to be mostly ad hoc, with students left largely on their own to find them. With the support of AUCC, he commissioned a study of Canadian universities in early 2008 to catalogue exactly what opportunities there are for students to study in the other official language and to identify challenges and barriers. (This section of the commissioner’s latest annual report gives the underlying context of the study, starting with section 4.3).
The results of that study are not yet public, although Mr. Fraser gave the Commons standing committee a summary of his findings, which are referenced in the standing committee’s report. I’ll be very interested to see what the final report concludes.
Robin Cantin, manager of media relations at the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, says the plan is to release the report late this summer or early fall. I’ll follow up when the report is released.
In the meantime, what’s your view? Should universities be more proactive in promoting official bilingualism?