Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Aboriginal post-secondary education

March 30

What’s Next for Student Aid

A few months ago, someone asked me what I wanted to see in the budget.  I said i) investment in aboriginal PSE, ii) system changes for the benefit of mature students and iii) changes to loan repayment (specifically, a reduction of the maximum loan payment from 20%  of disposable income to 15%).  To my great pleasure, the government came through on two of those wishes.  But there is still a lot of work to do yet.

Let’s start with the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, which the Government of Canada gives to individual First Nations to support band members’ education costs.  The Budget provides a $45 million (14%) bump to this program but also said the Government would “undertake a comprehensive and collaborative review with Indigenous partners of all current federal programs that support Indigenous students who wish to pursue post-secondary education”, which I think is code for “we’d prefer a new mechanism which is somewhat more transparent than PSSSP”.

Let’s just say I have my doubts about how easy this collaborative review will be.  Indigenous peoples – young ones especially – have a lot of issues with the federal government at the moment, and it will be difficult to try to manage a focussed review of this one subject without a lot of other agenda items intruding.  I’ve written on this subject before, and there certainly are ways which the funding could be arranged to be managed more efficiently.  That said, some of these ways involve taking management away from band councils and giving it to some other aboriginal organization operating at a larger scale and not all bands are going to find that appealing.

Anyways, the takeaway is: if the feds are expecting a replacement to PSSSP to be in place by fall 2019, they’d better get to work yesterday.

Now, what about the new measures for mature students/adults returning to school?  This was a welcome budget initiative, because the policy discussion has perhaps been focussed too heavily on traditional-aged students for the past few years.  There are however, maybe two cautions I would put on the initiative and how it will roll out.

The first is the budget description of the $287M over three years for programs benefitting these students as a “pilot project’.  I am fairly certain that is PMO-speak, not ESDC-speak.  First of all, I’m moderately certain the law doesn’t allow pilots; second, the idea that provinces are willingly going to spend time and money re-jigging all their program systems to accommodate program changes that are inherently temporary in nature is kind of fanciful.  So I suspect what’s going to happen here is that over the next few months CSLP is going to come up with a bunch of different ways to help this population (change cost allowances for older students, and maybe for dependents too), re-jig how prior-year income is calculated, raise loan limits for this population, raise grant eligibility, etc etc) and then roll them out in roughly ascending order of how irritating they are for provinces to program.  It’s not going to be a big bang, which may limit how well the policy is communicated to its intended targets.

But there’s a bigger issue at play here which the government missed in its haste to get a budget out the door.  One of the biggest problems in funding re-training are the artificial breaks in funding and jurisdiction that occur at the 12-month mark.  If your program is shorter than that, you’re covered by various provincial labour market initiatives and on the whole your compensation is decent.  Longer than that, you’re on fed/prov student aid, which in general is not as generous (and more to the point is repayable).  It would be useful for the two levels of government to work together to provide a more seamless set of benefits.  Perhaps regardless of program length, learners could benefit from 8 months of the more generous treatment and then move on to a slightly less-generous mixed loan/grant system.  This wouldn’t be a quick shift: my guess is that even if you now started talking about how to achieve this, it would still take four or five years for a solid, specific solution to come into view (if you think universities are slow, try federalism).  But still, now’s as good a time as any to start, and perhaps the dollars attached to the mature students programs may be a good conversation starter.

My third wish – the one that didn’t get any traction in this budget – was for improvement in student loan repayment.  I’m not that disappointed in the sense that I’m not greedy (no budget would ever have given me 3-for-3), but I do think there I work to be done here.  Perhaps this gets enacted as part of the follow-up to the Expert Panel on Youth being chaired by Vass Bednar and due for release at some point this spring (although who knows, if the Naylor Report is anything to go by, we could be waiting into 2019).  Or perhaps not: it’s not like CSLP hasn’t already been given a huge whack of work for the next couple of years.

But if that’s the worst problem we have in student aid in Canada, I’d say we are in pretty good shape.


(As a coda here, I’d just like to pay tribute to the Canada Student Loans Program’s Director-General, Mary Pichette, who is leaving the public service shortly.  Mary’s been involved two big rounds of CSLP reform: the one in 2004/5 which first created the grants for low-income students, and second the ones around the 2016 budget (not just the increase in grants but the many smaller but still important changes to need assessment as well. 

 I won’t say –I’m sure she wouldn’t want me to – that those two reforms were down to her.  But they were down to teams that she led.  She did a lot over her two stints in the program to make the policy shop more evidence-based and her legacy is simply that she’s made life easier for literally hundreds of thousands of student across the country.  They can’t thank her, but I can.  Mary, you will be missed.)

January 26

Tenure and Aboriginal Culture

You may or may not have noticed a story in the National Post over the weekend relating to a scholar at the University of British Columbia named Lorna June McCue, who has brought a human rights tribunal case against UBC for denying her tenure.  The basics of the story are that UBC didn’t think she’d produced enough – or indeed, any – peer-reviewed research to be awarded tenure in the Faculty of Law; Ms. McCue argues that since she adheres to an indigenous oral tradition (she is also a hereditary chief of the Ned’u’ten at Lake Babine, a few hundred kilometres northeast of Vancouver), she needs to be judged by a different standard.

Actually, Ms. Mcue brought the case in the fall of 2012; UBC moved to have it dismissed; the hearing last week was on the motion to dismiss, which failed.  So now, 39 months later, the hearing can proceed (justice in Canada, Ladies and Gentlemen!  A big round of applause!).  Anyways, I have a feeling this story is going to run and run (and not just because of the glacial pace of the legal system), so I thought I would get some thoughts in early on this.

A couple of obvious points:

The spread of the university around the world, mainly in the 19th century, eliminated a lot of different types of knowledge preservation/communication traditions.  They basically wiped out the academy tradition in East Asia, and did a serious number on the madrassas of the Indian subcontinent and the middle-east (though as we have seen, these are making a comeback in recent years in some fairly unfortunate ways).  And though universities do exhibit a lot of differences around the world in terms of finance and management, and to some extent around mission, there is no question that due to the strengths of the disciplines it houses, it has had some extraordinarily isomorphic effects on the way we think and talk about knowledge.  So it’s not crazy for non-western cultures to once in awhile say: look, there are other ways to construct and transmit knowledge, and we’d like a bit of space for them.  Maoris have done this successfully with their Wānanga, or Maori Polytechnics as they’re sometimes called.  Why not in Canada?

And there’s nothing immutable about the need for research as a professor.  Hell, 40 years ago in the humanities, research certainly wasn’t a hard pre-requisite for tenure; even today in the newer professional schools (I’m thinking journalism, specifically), people often get a pass on publication if they are sufficiently distinguished prior to arriving at the university.  Different strokes, etc.

But of course, all that said, the fact is that accommodation for different knowledge paradigms is the kind of thing you work out with your employer before you start the tenure process, not afterwards.  It’s not as though McCue’s views render her incapable of writing; the university hired her on the basis of her 1998 L.L.M. dissertation, which was a good 250 pages long, and presumably expected they’d get more work of similar quality.  And yes, it’s probably a good idea to have and fund institutions that more fully value Aboriginal ways of knowing, and are prepared to take a broader view of what scholarship means (the relevant tenure criteria at First Nations University, for instance, is “consistently high achievement in research and scholarship useful to First Nations’ communities”).  But even if it is located on unceded Musqueam land, UBC ain’t that institution.

I have a hard time imagining this will go anywhere, but Human Rights cases are funny things.  Keep an eye on this case, anyway.

September 26

Te Wānanga o Aotearoa

A couple of weeks ago, I promised I would tell you the story of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, the entirely Maori-run polytechnic with over 35,000 students.  So here it is.

The 1970s saw significant Aboriginal cultural revivals in many parts of the world.  Aboriginal higher education – or at least the access of aboriginal peoples to mainstream higher education – was a significant part of that.  In Canada, the struggle was mostly about gaining a foothold in mainstream institutions; in the United States, the focus was much more on creating aboriginal-controlled institutions, known as tribal colleges and universities.  In New Zealand, the Maori journey in higher education was similar to the US in that it involved creating their own separate institutions, and then later seeking recognition for them.  The result was a class of institutions called “Wānangas” (a term that roughly equates with “knowledge”).

The first Wānanga (Te Wānanga o Raukawa) focused mostly on language and culture, and had relatively small enrolments (still under 1,000).  The second, Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, was more focussed on skill acquisition – mainly Maori arts and crafts, but also with courses in tourism and computer skills.  They were a fairly marginal institution, too, until they caught a big break in the late 1980s when the Education Act was being re-written.  At the time, New Zealand’s governing Labour Party was putting the country through a major free-market revolution.  In education, that meant caring more about outcomes and outputs than about the provider’s pedigree.  It was also a time when the government was making concerted efforts to improve relations between Maori and Pakeha, and treat the Treaty of Waitangi with some respect.  And so, when it came time to write the Act, they decided to give Wānanga status as a fourth official type of tertiary education, alongside universities, polytechnics, and privates.  That guaranteed them some annual funding, but because the government was in financial straits, there was no money available for capital.                                

That’s where things got interesting.  Part of the whole return to the Treaty of Waitangi involved creating a Treaty Tribunal to adjudicate cases where Maori felt that public policy were not in keeping with the terms of the treaty.  Te Wānanga o Aotearoa decided to challenge the capital funding policy, arguing that they were a recognized form of education but had been unable to benefit, as others had, from public capital spending.  The tribunal agreed with them, handing the Wānanga what looked to be a whopping cash settlement.  Cannily, however, they played a long game and negotiated a reduced settlement on capital in exchange for a straight per-student funding agreement with – and this is crucial – no cap on numbers.

It was at this point that all manner of fun broke loose.  The funding deal allowed Te Wānanga o Aotearoa to indulge all its most entrepreneurial instincts, and the school went from having 1,000 students in 1998 to having 65,000 students in 2002.  This involved a lot of institutional change in terms of widening the scope of the types of programs it offered, and it involved a lot of community delivery – at one point they had over 300 teaching sites.  Its ability to attract significant numbers of non-Maori students – particularly recent immigrants – was another important factor.

But it also involved cutting some corners.  In 2005, the Auditor-General came down hard on the school, suggesting (basically) that while Te Wānanga o Aotearoa may have done wonders in expanding access, it would have been nice if they had kept some actual receipts for their spending.  The resultant tighter enforcement rules drove down enrolments to roughly 30,000, where they remain today.  In the short-term, that caused a bit of a financial crisis, as well as layoffs.  But in the longer term it probably made the organization stronger, and it remains by far the world’s largest aboriginal-controlled institution of higher education, delivering thousands of recognized tertiary credentials each year, including some at the Bachelor’s level.

The Wānanga model is not one we’ve adopted in Canada, but for those leaders in government and aboriginal organizations seeking to expand educational opportunities for aboriginal Canadians, there are a lot of important lessons to be drawn from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa’s experience.  We should pay heed to them.

November 02

Re-thinking “First-Generation” Students

Back when the McGuinty government was still working out what it wanted to do in higher education, it made a commitment about making progress in access for four key groups: aboriginal students, students with disabilities, francophone students and “first-generation” students.

Two of these were unquestionably sensible. Anything that helps Aboriginal students is a Good Thing. Of course, there are some enormous differences in the barriers faced by, say, Aboriginal students from Toronto and people from fly-in First Nations communities that aren’t well-reflected in policy, but let it pass. Ditto with students with disabilities; there are a wide variety of barriers faced by people grouped under this term – some less tractable than others – but it’s obviously a group worthy of monitoring and assistance.

“Francophones” are harder to justify as a category. There’s no doubt that their access rates are a bit weak, but this mostly due to differences in performance at the secondary level (which in turn is mostly a reflection of education in northern Ontario as a whole). But hey, they’re a key part of the Liberal election coalition, so why not?

Then, there’s “first-generation students”, (meaning “students whose parents have no post-secondary experience”), a concept which was very definitely borrowed from the US. In the American literature, the term basically covers a mix of rural (southern & Appalachian) whites, urban blacks, and Western Latinos (East-coast Latinos – mainly Puerto Ricans – have access rates more comparable to whites).

Now, there is some corroborating evidence in the Canadian data on first generation students. Parental education levels are still – nationally, at any rate – the best predictors of a child’s advancing to higher education.

But our “first generation” consist of Aboriginals, rural whites and a whole heck of a lot of Chinese, Sikh, and Vietnamese immigrants. Those first two have some similarity to the first gen population in the US; the last, needless to say, are completely and utterly unlike the others.

A couple of years ago, we at HESA worked on an experiment to test some ideas about improving access through better student aid information in some GTA schools with very high numbers of “first-generation students”. The trouble with the project was that pretty much all of these students already assumed they were going to university (not college). Many came from Confucian cultures where a very significant emphasis was put on education; all were children of immigrants and hence considerably more likely to be “strivers”. They were “first gen”, yes, but that clearly wasn’t a barrier. There were few “at risk” students among them.

It’s not that the first-generation concept is without merit. It does, however, need some fine-tuning for it to become a policy measure which is actually useful.

March 16

Comparisons in International Indigenous Education

Yesterday we looked at different models of indigenous PSE around the world. Today, we’re going to look at some differences in levels of indigenous PSE access.

When we want to compare countries’ rates of access, we usually look at participation rates; that is, the percentage of people in a particular age group (usually 18-21) who attend PSE. But that doesn’t work well with indigenous students, who tend not to delay attendance until long after this “traditional” age.

There is a way to deal with this. When UNESCO wants to measure access, it looks not at participation rates but at the Gross Enrolment Ratios (GER), which divide the total number of students by the number of people in a particular age group. This is less useful than a real participation rate, but it’s a reasonable fix when standardizing statistics across countries when some national statistical systems are incapable of reporting real participation rates.

Since we have both total indigenous enrolments and age-divided population totals for Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, we can derive indigenous GERs for comparison. Figure 1 shows GERs at the university level:

Figure 1 – Indigenous Gross Enrolment Ratios in University-Level Education, 2009

The totals for the Commonwealth countries are about what you’d expect given the material conditions of indigenous peoples in each country, but it’s the American result which really catches the eye.

We can also try to make comparisons of non-university post-secondary across the four countries, though it’s a bit more difficult because the systems are so different. The numbers in the chart below represent community college enrolment in Canada, two-year college enrolment in the U.S., diploma-level enrolments in New Zealand and full-year equivalent TAFE enrolments in diplomas and certificate levels III & IV (wonkiness in the Australian data required me to do a bit of imputation, so take it with a larger-than-usual grain of salt). As Figure 2 shows, it’s once again the United States at the forefront and Australia at the back of the pack, with Canada slightly ahead of New Zealand this time.

Figure 2 – Indigenous Gross Enrolment Ratios in College-Level Education, 2009

There are a whole bunch of caveats here of course, not least of which is the differences in the various systems of vocational education and the lens chosen for comparison. If we included programs of less than one year in length, for instance, New Zealand’s college GER would be substantially in excess of 100%. So be cautious in concluding too much from these fairly rough comparisons.

But one thing we might tentatively conclude is that despite the tendency in Aboriginal education circles to glorify Maori achievements in post-secondary education, it’s the Americans who seem to have the best results. Maybe it’s time we paid a lot more attention to those Tribal Colleges to the South. It looks as if they might be on to something.

March 15

Global Models in Indigenous Higher Education

Given how excited people are these days about using international experience in higher education, it’s odd how little attention has been paid to the different models of indigenous higher education (globally, the term “indigenous” is preferred to “Aboriginal”). So, here goes:

There are basically three strategies in terms of promoting indigenous higher education. You can give a helping hand to individual indigenous students, financially or otherwise. You can give mainstream institutions a makeover so as to be more accommodating of indigenous culture. Or you can create new indigenously-controlled institutions.

The first model is the dominant one in Canada – in addition to dedicated financial support programs like PSSSP, there has come to be a “standard model” of institutional supports, as well. Australia has put more emphasis on the financial side, with its Austudy program. New Zealand is less generous financially, but does provide dedicated services in its universities, similar to Canada. In the U.S., this model is rare, though it does exist in places like the University of Alaska.

The second model is tough to execute because of the degree of cultural change involved. However, it does happen in Canada, at least where Aboriginal populations are relatively large: the use of Aboriginal cultural systems like Laurentian’s teepee or UVic’s First Nations House, the concentrations of Aboriginal scholars in Manitoba and Saskatchewan universities, etc. It’s rare in the United States, though Hawai’i-Manoa is an honourable exception. Australia appears to be somewhere between the United States and Canada. New Zealand is considerably more advanced than Canada.

The third model is perhaps the most interesting: separate, indigenously-controlled institutions. The U.S. and New Zealand are the most enthusiastic here: the former has a large network of Tribal Colleges, and the latter has a trio of “wanangas” – technical institutes which also offer a few degree programs. Australia has a single institute – the Batchelor Institute in Alice Springs.

In Canada, we’re a bit schizo on this. We do have publicly-funded, Aboriginally-controlled institutions in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. In the rest of the country what we have is a scattering of Aboriginal institutes, which are patchily funded and which are often little more than program brokers for other institutions offering distance programs. Large parts of the country – notably Ontario – are without a proper Aboriginally-controlled institution. That’s not all down to unsympathetic policymakers; in Ontario in particular, regional politics among First Nations have been a major factor preventing a single institution emerging as a potential FNUC-equivalent.

But it wouldn’t hurt to start sketching out the conditions – presumably rather strict ones – under which some of our Aboriginal institutes might “graduate” to becoming publicly funded institutions. There are models all over the world of successful indigenously-controlled institutions; there’s no reason Canada couldn’t benefit from more of them, too.

March 14

Improving the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP)

While out in Saskatchewan recently, I heard an interesting rumour to the effect that INAC was investigating the possibility that substantial sums of PSSSP money – that is, money paid to individual First Nations for use by their members for post-secondary education – was either going unused or being used for purposes other than post-secondary education.

Assuming this is true, one shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that fraud is at work (though obviously that’s possible). It’s not unheard of for bands to temporarily plug holes in their finances by moving money from one account to another if funds from Ottawa arrive late or if there are temporary cost overruns elsewhere in their budget. Viewed from one perspective, this is “misuse,” but from another (arguably more reasonable) point of view, it is a pragmatic approach to dealing with the byzantine colonialist financing system with which Ottawa has saddled First Nations bands.

It’s also quite possible for bands to innocently fall afoul of Ottawa’s rules, especially at smaller bands where administrative capacity isn’t very strong. Remember, some First Nations only have a couple of hundred members, and yet they are expected to “control” funding for education, health, housing, social services, etc.

Imagine what would happen in mainstream society if we handed student loans over to municipalities. How many errors or cases of “fraud” would we have, especially in small rural municipalities? I’m certain there’d be more than a few. And I’m also certain the policy response would be to re-centralize delivery at a level more likely to have acceptable administrative capacity rather than to bring in rafts of new “accountability measures.”

There’s also the possibility that there is simply a mismatch between where Ottawa sends PSSSP and where it’s needed. Remember, PSSSP isn’t a national program to which students can apply centrally; it’s a transfer program, with money being doled out via individual bands. Hence, it’s quite possible to have insufficient funds in one First Nation while money goes unused in another.

The answer to problems of distribution and administrative capacity are the same: PSSSP simply shouldn’t be delivered by individual First Nations. That’s not to say it should be administered by INAC or the Canada Student Loans Program or anything like that. Rather, what’s needed is a new type of Aboriginal organization, working at the level of a province or treaty area, providing professional services to many different First Nations (for those of you who’ve been paying attention to the National Panel on First Nations Education, what I’m talking about is a student-aid equivalent to the First Nations Education Organizations that it recommends).

Retain First Nations’ control. Improve First Nations’ capacity. A recipe for a better PSSSP.

March 13

The “Standard Model” in Aboriginal Services

One of the things I’ve noticed about services provided to Aboriginal students in Canadian PSE is that somehow, Canadian institutions have all arrived at essentially the same model.  Here it is:

The recruitment function: If you’re going to recruit on-reserve, you need someone to visit reserves.  Repeatedly. First Nations students aren’t going to make a multi-year commitment to you unless you visit them, look them in the eye and tell them “you can succeed with us and we’ll do what we can to help you do so.”

The “communicating with band offices” function:  Someone has to fill in the progress reports to bands so that students can continue to receive PSSSP support.  Occasionally, someone also has to dun the bands so they’ll actually pay the PSSSP monies owing.

The counseling function:  Where Aboriginal students are mostly from urban areas, this is pretty basic: someone who can do a bit of academic and personal counseling, perhaps linked with some academic and career support as well.  But where you have large numbers of students from fly-in communities, this function becomes much more about healing and dealing with extreme trauma (in some institutions it’s relatively common to hear of students interrupting their term because of the death or suicide of a family member).  These students also have serious issues regarding adjustment to urban life.  Few have ever paid rent, many have never taken a bus – overall, the transition is overwhelming. Counseling support for these students is actually seriously underfunded.

The academic support function: There are a number of institutions that have created specialized academic support for Aboriginal students. In some cases, it’s to bring kids from communities with weak secondary schools – again, mostly fly-in communities – up to a grade 12 level (it would be better to have specialized bridge programs, but PSSSP unfortunately doesn’t fund those).  In others, it’s about providing extra support for students going into professional programs (e.g., the University of Manitoba’s ACCESS program).

The social function: This involves programming Aboriginal activities – bringing elders and other speakers to campus, arranging feasts and pow-wows. Indirectly, this is about persistence – since these events attract Aboriginal students who might not come forward to ask for services, they are a means to identify clients for future assistance.

And finally, there’s space – a separate place for Aboriginal students to congregate. Sometimes this is done brilliantly (FNUC, UVic) and sometimes it’s abysmal (Lakehead).  Put all this together, and you have the model suite of Aboriginal student services.

Does it work?  There’s not much good evaluative research, though some of it was validated through the LE,NONET Project. But it’s what knowledgeable front-line workers tend to recommend, which is a good recommendation in itself.

March 12

The Tensions in First Nations PSE

One thing that rarely gets talked about in First Nations’ higher education is the question of who’s driving the agenda – chiefs, elders or students?

As with any political agenda, there are a number of legitimate actors with different and valid interests. The first set of actors are the chiefs. They have a big say in Aboriginal PSE, not just in Saskatchewan where they actually own First Nations University of Canada, but anywhere that small Aboriginal institutes have sprung up (there are about three dozen of these, dotted across Western Canada and Ontario). What chiefs want is pretty straightforward: training for the people who supply public services in each First Nation. Back in the early 1990s, Ottawa began devolving various services to local control: health, education, security, social work, etc. But decades of poor education meant there was an enormous skills gap to overcome. So for the last 15-20 years, chiefs’ focus has been on churning out the necessary social workers, law enforcement officers, nurses and teachers.

What’s happening now is that in some areas at least, those positions have filled up and so the demand for education is changing and there’s a focus on other areas, like economic development. But this creates a dilemma for institutions and chiefs alike. Will institutions be able to successfully make the transition to a new set of programs? And do chiefs really want change, given how useful the institutes have been in plugging gaps in social service personnel?

Then there are the elders, an important force in First Nations society. Their overwhelming pre-occupation is with the preservation of cultures and languages, and they’ve had a significant influence in getting (mainstream and First Nations) institutions to offer up programs in these areas.

The problem is, by and large, that First Nations students themselves aren’t interested in the same things as chiefs or elders. Enrolment in Aboriginal language programs is very low. Enrolment remains strong in teacher education programs, but in other social services students are more uncertain, not least of all because it is no longer seen as a given that on-reserve jobs are guaranteed at the other end.

Aboriginal students are no different from anyone else – at the end of the day, they want a job. That’s leading more and more of them towards degrees in business and other areas they think will help them succeed in urban mainstream society. They’re not turning their back on their heritage, but they don’t necessarily see why that heritage should define their post-secondary education experience.

There’s no overt conflict here (that wouldn’t be very Aboriginal), but the divergence of interests is very real nonetheless. It is a reality that policymakers need to be aware of.