The arrival of a new year traditionally inspires new hopes, aspirations and resolutions. With a federal election on the horizon – it is scheduled for October 21 – what can the higher education community wish for in 2019?
First, the federal government could realize that it has not really excelled in policy implementation when it comes to some of its key initiatives that involve higher education. The Future Skills Centre provides a sobering example. Finance Minister Bill Morneau has framed skills as a critically important issue for the government in recent budgets and looking ahead to 2019. And yet, the implementation of one of the governments flagship initiatives in skills has been remarkably tortuous.
The idea of creating a “Future Skills Lab” was floated in February 2017, only turning into a call for proposals in June 2018, with a little rebranding detour in between involving $30,000 invested in substituting one obvious word (lab) for another (centre). Applicants were given about five weeks to put together an incredibly complex proposal, a process that generated some skepticism about the viability of the project. A consortium led by Ryerson University was reported as the winner last November, although no official announcement has been made yet – and according to the RFP, the centre is supposed to be ready to invest up to $23 million by the end of March.
The pattern of grandiose vision, overly broad objectives and fuzzy details on implementation was not unique to the Future Skills Centre – remember the superclusters? This flagship billion-dollar initiative of the Innovation, Science, and Economic Development ministry announced the winners in February 2018 with fanfare, and it was only in November that funding started to flow to three out of the five groups. It has taken nine months for the consortia regarded as “good enough” to be supported and to actually work out the funding agreements with the ministry, which at a minimum should raise questions about how well put together their plans were to begin with.
So, a clear wish for the election-facing federal Liberals in 2019: prioritize evidence-informed policy design and pay attention to boring implementations plans. Charismatic, country-touring salesmanship is well and good, but the devil is in the details when it comes to making new programs work.
Second, the Conservatives could be inspired by the forthcoming election year to try something novel and bold: set a standard for Canadian conservatism by proposing policy ideas to solve real problems. Yes, I know, the conventional wisdom is that conservatives have gotten some mileage out of denialism, deception and fantasy in recent years. It is easy to picture a cadre of supposedly expert political advisers defaulting to a new orthodoxy that winning votes for a conservative leader requires a fundamentalist commitment to idiocy, to judge from the popularity of the likes of Stephen Bannon as a source of inspiration for right-wing politicians around the world.
In this context, it is unsurprising that Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer ran on a platform that had nothing useful to say about science, skills and innovation, but gave mileage to the “campus free speech” factoid, which Ontario Premier Doug Ford happily latched on to in his own electoral campaign. Much ink has been spilled in this country debating this banality, thanks to the ascendancy of a mutually reinforcing consumer relationship between right-wing polemicists, avid social media users and traditional media.
The wish for Conservatives: what about trying to “own the Liberals” by coming up with better ideas on files like science, innovation and skills? Reject the assumption that saying something useful about these things in public turn you into an elite egghead.
As for the New Democratic Party, to judge from their performance in the polls 2019 will likely be a good opportunity for soul-searching. Looking ahead, the party might consider articulating a real alternative to the Liberals and Conservatives when it comes to the portfolios that impact higher education. A place to start would be to let go of the reflex response to scream “lower fees!” when universities come up in conversation. It is possible to have an articulate pro-labour platform that is not restricted to a reductionist focus on tuition rates, as if they alone constituted the problem or the solution to accessibility challenges. A distinctive platform on science and innovation would be a welcome addition to policy debates too.
These are perhaps overly optimistic wishes for 2019, but what better time to harbor some good thoughts and hope for the best?