Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Thinking about: Education

We bloggers are usually quite good at identifying the problems, myself included. That’s easy enough to do. I’ve long kvetched about the Liberal Party’s focus on the tactical and the scandal while ignoring the strategic, the policy, the vision thing. Over the next little while, in the lead-up to the much hyped Thinker’s Thingamajig, I’m going to try offering some suggestions on that front.

First up in this series, I’d like to mention education. Long-time readers will know education is an issue I’ve long been concerned about and have long been writing about. And I continue to believe education is a fundamentally core issue that is critical to the success and future health and prosperity of our country, and is of great importance to Canadians. It’s an issue area in which the Liberal Party must absolutely claim a visionary, forward-thinking leadership role.

Perhaps uniquely, education plays across so many other issue areas. Want a strong, competitive economy? You need an educated workforce. Want to fight child poverty? Education goes a long way to lifting families out of poverty. Improved health care? You need more trained doctors, nurses, technicians. Improved standard of living? Compete internationally? New jobs and industries? Going green? Education underpins it all.

And education is only becoming more important in the 21st century. We can’t compete with emerging economies on the price of our labour. We have to compete with our brains, and yet we’re falling behind the world. Companies such as Cisco Systems are opening facilities and moving jobs to place such as India not for labour cost, but for skilled workers. China and India and other emerging economic powerhouses are investing in their education systems, and it is paying results. Jobs will go where the brains are, and with the jobs go economic prosperity.

We need to make it easier for Canadians to attend post-secondary education, be it university, college or skilled trades. Not harder. And we should ensure that we no longer burden them with crippling, life-long debt loads in the process. We need to increase government investment in post-secondary education, and we need to begin to look at it not as a cost centre, but as an investment.

Because that’s what it is. A more educated Canadian will find a better job, earn a better salary, and pay higher taxes to the government. They may even create their own business, paying business taxes and creating jobs for other taxpaying Canadians. They’re also less likely to be a drain on government services. In short, our investment in the education of our citizens will pay great dividends. We get back our investment many times.

Let’s be bold. Why can’t we explore free undergrad or college tuition for every Canadian? Or a lifetime entitlement for XX hours of skill training for every Canadian? If not, we should at least consider it for certain targeted professions and skills that are highly in demand.

At the very least, we need to throw out a student loan system that is fundamentally flawed and build something that works. It's become a commercial money-making venture for banks. That's wrong. Far better would be interest-free loans or, better yet, do away with loans all together for a system of bursaries.

We need to work with the provinces, who have constitutional responsibility for education, to rethink the system and ensure that national standards are maintained and that any funding increases do filter down to the universities students and aren’t eaten up by the provinces. And colleges and trades training must absolutely be a critical part of the discussion.

It goes wider than just this though. Too many immigrants come to Canada with skills we need but aren’t able to get work in their fields. Foreign credential recognition has long been a swampy topic. The Conservative government recently made some progress on this topic. We need to build and expand on that.

And education also needs to begin, well, at the beginning, with early learning and childcare. Studies show children that set out on the right path early develop a life-long love of learning, and will go on to greater success and prosperity in their lives.

After many years, the previous Liberal government under Paul Martin, thanks to the hard work of Ken Dryden, had finally made a good start on this front, negotiating long-term agreements with many of the provinces. Unfortunately, that work has been abandoned by the current government in favour of a flawed tax-credit system. With the Liberal funding agreements now ending we’re seeing just how flawed: precious child care spaces are disappearing.

We need to pick up that squandered momentum and make early childhood learning and childcare a priority once again. But we can’t stop there. We need to acknowledge that what we had proposed earlier was incomplete. Flexibility, and options for those who wish to stay at home to care for their children, or have a family member do so, must be built into the system. Choice is crucial.

Finally, it’s all well and good to have high-minded discussion about the importance of education in broad strokes. We also need to bring it down to the ground and make it understandable and saleable. We’ve always been good at the idealism in the past, but the Conservatives have kicked our asses on the realism, on the distilling it into something people can relate to.

We need a package of proposals and initiatives that will not only make the systemic reforms we need, but will have an impact in the daily lives of Canadians: such as XX lifetime hours of free skill training, or free tuition, and so on. Make it relatable and understandable if it’s going to be successful.

Otherwise, it really will just be an academic gabfest, and we don’t need one of those.

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rob said...

Great post. A couple of questions:

1. Education is an area of provincial domain. How does the federal Liberal party get around concerns related to this?

2. High tuition seems to affect the socio-economic background of students who make it into schools rather than the amount of students. Seats in general are usually filled. In the amount of seats v. affordability equation, where should the federal Liberal party come down?

Koby said...

With regard to early learning it is unclear as to what the Liberals are offering. The goal of the program was ostensibly to work with the provinces to set up an early childhood education program for children under 6. However, to the average voter this amounted to little more than a vague promise to provide more daycare -- which the Liberals said early childhood education was not --- at sometime in the future; they could not figure out what this would mean for their lives. To add insult to injury, Liberals willingness to consider different deals for different provinces has muddied things all the more.

The last thing Liberals need to do is worry about those who stay home with their kids. That would makes things even worse. No, if the Liberals reintroduce such a program in the future, they need to present it in a form in which voters can understand. This is what they should do. They should promise to provide all day preschool and kindergarten for every 4 and 5 year old in Canada. If they wanted to be really bold they could offer up all day preschool for 3 year olds as well. As for provinces, it high time the Liberals grow some. The feds have the ability to impose standards that the provinces administor.

MississaugaPeter said...

We need to better educate Canada's most embarrassing, hidden secret.

Over 1.1M aboriginal people live in our country reaching nowhere near their potential. A visible minority that is almost non-existent on our university campuses.

While making up about 3.5% of Canada's population (1 in every 30), our aboriginal people make up about 22% of our prison population.


In Saskatchewan, aboriginal people make up 11% of the population, but 81% of the prison population. In Ontario, where aboriginal people make up 2% of the population, the incarceration rate is 450% higher (at 9%) than population rate.

Anonymous said...

Here is an issue about which I am also extremely passionate. I've been a university student for seven years now (4 year BA, plus 3 years of law school). I will graduate with close to six figures of debt, yet the value of a university degree continues to diminish. Access to post-secondary education is shameful, especially for Aboriginal people. Institutions are starved for public funding, and turning to tuition and ancillary fees to make up the shortfall. Increasingly, Universities are turning to private industry for research funding, in many cases compromising academic freedom and integrity. To be blunt, post-secondary education in this country is in crisis.

While other jurisdictions manage to fund access while also building world-class educational institutions, Canada is lagging behind. This had profound consequences for our economy, our cultural identity, and just about everything else that we value as a people.

In answer to rob's question #1, the federal government has a substantial role to play in post-secondary education. Much of the reason for the current crisis stems from the Chretien/Martin cuts to federal-provincial transfer payments in the mid 1990's. This created a fiscal crisis for the provinces, which led to massive cuts in provincial education budgets. Real per capita spending on post-secondary education has never recovered from these cuts, having reached an all-time high in the early 1990's. The federal government could help to remedy this situation by re-establishing a fiscal framework in which the federal government picks up a reasonable share of the cost of delivering post-secondary education, provided that such funding is conditioned on benchmarks for access and enrollment. Moreover, the federal government can help build capacity through short-term funding to build new colleges and universities and/or expand existing institutions.

Public opinion polls have shown time and time again that Canadian citizens are massively in favour of cuts to tuition fees and/or the elimination of such fees. The only thing lack is the political vision to make it happen. Studies have shown that a government's long-term return on investments in education are substantial. The net benefit of education vastly outweighs the initial outlay and ongoing expense of funding both quality and access in post-secondary education.

I with Jeff on this one.

Unknown said...

I love this idea, but I think it needs to be fleshed out a bit more. Specifically, where is the funding for all this going to come from?

Really, I would love to see funded day care, lowered post-secondary tuitions, skills training, public schools able to buy the supplies they need. My question is, where will the money come from for it all?

Personally, I think bringing the GST back up to 7% would be a step in that direction, but it would probably only serve to remove the structural deficit that the Cons (and, to be fair, the economic downturn, but mainly the Conservatives) have given us, not extra money for programs like this excellent proposal.

As a social liberal but a financial conservative, I think it's irresponsible to hand future generations a massive, crushing burden of debt to pay off (like the one that the Liberals inherited from the 'Conservatives' and finally started to get under control, only to lose it to the 'tax cuts for the rich' party again).

So, any proposal, no matter how rosy, needs to have an accompanying plan for paying for it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

On a technical note, this is one of the best-written articles I've seen from you, Jeff. If you happen to be editing it for any reason, you could remove the hyphens from "cost-centre", "throw-out", "eaten-up", "tax-credit", and "family-member".

That said, I particularly like the pun in your last sentence.

Jeff said...


You're right. Constitutionally, education is a provincial responsibility. So is health care. The feds have two major roles: the creator and defender of national standards (the health care, or education, a Canadian can receive in Newfoundland and Alberta should be comparable) and as the major funder, through transfers. The funding is the stick/carrot the feds have to set and enforce standards.

So while there are certain things the feds can do alone (student loans and assistance, tax credits, research funding) any major systemic reform would require negoiation and agreement with the provinces to succeed. Either one-offs as Ken Dryden did with child care or, more likely, a first-ministers approach.

On your second point, accessibility is a major issue. There are some challenges. I think there needs to be more availability, and we need to remove the barriers that are there for lower-income students: crushing debt. Seats are filled, but at what cost? And of course, even on a cost-even basis, Queen's will still be more popular, in general, than Lakehead. So not everyone will be able to go to Harvard but we should make it so that its grades, not cost, that is the determinant.

Jeff said...


Clarity has long been a problem with Liberal policy, and it's why we've had a hard time gaining public support for it. It's been all pie in the sky, feel-good platitudes, and no meat, no here is what this means for you today. That has to change.

I disagree on your specific childcare point, though. I don't think you suggested this, but obviously you can't make a pre-school program mandatory. I wouldn't allow opt-out with the same funding level we put into the program, but I do think some choice here is appropriate. The last Liberal platform proposed keeping the current Con tax credit in place (in addition to building a program) and I think that's a good compromise.

Jeff said...


I agree, aboriginal education should definitely be part of the discussion. And aboriginal affairs should be another discussion entirely as well, particularly urban aboriginals.

Jeff said...


I agree, what more can I say...


Thanks for the notes I do tend to get hyphen-happy (hyphen happy? :)).

On the question of funding, I agree, that is going to be the major stumbling block for anything the Liberals want to do on, well anything for the forseeable future. I'd argue that's by Conservative design, but we'll save that debate for another day and just acknowledge the current situation as it is.

Would some of these proposals require no doubt significant funding? Naturally. I'm not sure you can necessarily say you'll cut here and raise a little there and bam, we're budget neutral.

And I'm not sure that's really necessary, if you frame it right.

First, we need to build support again for the idea that government can provide valuable services, and those services are worth paying for with our taxes. Taxes aren't a waste, they pay for things we want and need.

Secondly, we need to make the case that investment in education will come back to us in increased taxes, paying for itself in the long run. I tried to begin making that point in the post. We need to get people over the initial sticker-shock of the initial investment to see it will grow the economy and our tax revenue to raise the education level of our citizens. We're not passing a debt on to the next generation, we're investing in its prosperity.

Can that case be made? I don't know. But I think it's a debate worth having, and a fight worth fighting.

Speaking of which, you may be right on the GST. Brings us back to the "adult conversations" meme of a few months back, and plays into my point about a philosophical debate around taxes paying for things we want, and activist vs. minimal government. Not sure it's a debate we're ready for, but it may be coming anyway.

Koby said...


You would not need to make it mandatory. To my knowledge no where in Canada is kindergarten mandatory. It is just that popular. This would work.


The biggest threat to the Canadian economy is private debt and what is the height of irresponsibility is allowing that debt to continue to grow.

Now a big part of the private debt problem is the availability of cheap credit and I am not suggesting for a second that central bank raise interest rates. That would kill a recovery and make the debt situation much worse.

What I am saying is that sky rocketing house hold costs need to be brought under control. First things first. The Conservatives decision to extend the amortization period from 25 to 40 years was idiotic. The government needs to find a way of slowly reducing real estate costs by again reducing the amortization period. 35 years is still too long.

However it is not just housing costs that have risen several times faster than inflation. The amount of money Canadians spend on child care has gone thrown the roof in the last 20 years. It is not uncommon for families to pay $1000 plus per month per child. Allowing young familes to be saddled with say $20,000 a year in child care costs is not only bad social policy in an environment in which debt to income ratios are above 150% and growing at 7% annual rate it is also bad economic policy.

rob said...

I agree that it should be academic merit that decides who fills seats rather than socio-economic background, while also acknowledging that the latter affects the former. I wonder though, if opponents of free tuition, for example, frame the debate as a choice between being able to afford to have more seats available due to income from tuition, or less seats, what do you choose? I think it's a tough issue.

Unknown said...

Well, your suggestions are wonderful and worth considering. This topic has been in discussion for the reasons you already stated. Yes, education for one and all is very important for the betterment of mankind, for better future prospects and life.

early childhood programs