1) Changing Disciplines
In the last five years or so, I’ve seen a real change in the way Aboriginal students are moving through the country’s PSE system. For a whole number of reasons, aboriginal students were traditionally concentrated either in humanities disciplines like history and sociology, or they were in disciplines which led to careers in social services or direct band employment (child care, police foundations, education, nursing). STEM and Business fields simply weren’t in the picture. That’s changed substantially over the past few years. Aboriginally-focussed business programs are popping up all over the place. Increasingly, we are seeing enrolments in STEM (though there is still a long way to go). So what’s changed?
A couple of things, I think. First, the demographics of First Nations students are changing. Time was, a very high proportion of aboriginal students came in after quite a period out of school, typically in their mid-20s. Nowadays, we are seeing a lot more students transition at an earlier age, direct from high school (and more often than not from urban, mainstream high schools). On average, this background prepares them better for PSE than graduation from on-reserve schools. Hence, they tend to be applying for and getting access to more selective courses.
But this begs the question: what’s behind this shift at the secondary level? A lot of it is demographics. A greater proportion of First Nations youth are living in urban areas, and so on average they have better access to better schooling. Drop-out rates are still high and there is much to be done to improve inner-city schools, but conditional on completing high school First Nations graduates seem about as prepared as mainstream students to deal with the rigors of PSE.
Another important factor here is the aging of the last generation to have experienced residential schools. Parents pass on their views of education to their children; unsurprisingly, those who had been through residential schools weren’t always inclined to encourage their children to invest a lot of their identity in schooling. On top of poverty, racism, etc., this probably had a lot to do with low aboriginal participation rates until fairly recently. But most residential schools closed in the 1970s; so most of the kids now coming through the system are the grandchildren of the last residential schools generation. Soon it will be the great-grandchildren. The bad memories of residential schools are by no means gone, but they are of less relevance in terms of pre-disposition to invest in schooling, and that matters.
Finally, there’s the money issue. Institutions are finding it a whole lot easier now to raise funds for aboriginal scholarships or other focussed initiatives than they used to. And that certainly improves the quality of the aboriginal student experience, which probably contributes to improved completion rates.
People are rightly getting peeved at the federal Government for having not come through on its promise to add $50 million in funding for First Nations education through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP). I expect that’s a promise the Liberals will try to fulfill next year or the year after (there may be a delay as the Feds ponder the implications of the Daniels decision which puts Metis Canadians on the same legal footing as First Nations vis-à-vis the federal government.
But what people haven’t remarked on is the huge boost in funding that First Nations students could receive should they sign up for federal and provincial students aid. In Ontario, virtually all on-reserve students will be eligible for $9,000 in grants through the new Ontario Student Grant: elsewhere, they will be eligible for at least $3,000 through the improved Canada Student Grant. If First Nations make their students apply for this aid before applying to their bands for PSSSP, then all their students will have at least some base amount of funding. That would mean bands wouldn’t need to give as much to each individual student, and could use freed-up funds to provide aid to more students, thus alleviating the well-known waiting list problem. But that would take a bit of organization to make sure band educational counselors know how to help their students navigate the federal/provincial aid system. Something our friends at Aboriginal Affairs might want to think about.
3) Truth & Reconciliation
Since the release of Justice (now Senator) Murray Sinclair’s report last year, some Canadian post-secondary institutions have made some extremely useful gestures towards reconciliation, like requiring all students to take at least one class in aboriginal culture or history. Which is great, except it’s not actually what Sinclair asked for. Rather, he asked that students in specific professional programs (i.e. health and law) be required to take courses in Aboriginal health and law, respectively. As I said at the time I thought this was a stretch and that prestigious law programs would resist this (quietly and passive aggressively, of course).
It’s been a year now – and to my knowledge (everybody please correct me if I am wrong) – no university law or medical school has adopted this proposal. I wonder how long before this becomes an issue?