If you can cast your mind back all of three weeks, before the Ford video(s) and Mike Duffy going kamikaze on the Prime Minister, there was some big news out of Ottawa about how a Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) had finally been reached. The finer details of the deal are still unavailable, but one thing that has been promised all along is that this deal will permit the free movement of labour between Canada and Europe. And that’s a reason for the higher education sector to pay attention.
Freedom of movement is pretty great, when it works. But the problem with inter-jurisdictional freedom of movement is that it’s easier to achieve in theory than in practice. Language barriers crop up, for one thing (even within Canada, lots of anglos who would like to move to Montreal don’t because their language skills aren’t good enough for the local labour market). There’s idiotic regulatory barriers regarding credentials, for another. But even where a trade agreement gets rid of credential-based regulatory barriers, there’s still the problem of whether employers actually recognize what a credential means, and can hire and pay people accordingly.
This was a problem in Europe back in the 1990s before there was a standard system of degrees, as there were a riot of different credentials on offer across the continent. A German Diplom was a five-year technical credential, a French Diplome was a 2-year intermediate academic credential on the way to an undergraduate degree, an Armenian Diplom was a secondary school credential – what employer could keep all that straight? Far easier just to hire a local, whose credential you understand. So, even though the principle of free movement of labour existed in the European Union, the problem of general credential recognition meant that it was limited in practice.
This problem was a big reason why Europe’s governments got behind the Bologna Process. Only by standardizing the structure of their higher education systems could they turn de jure mobility rights into a de facto mobility reality. And so the question for Canada now, is: will this free-labour movement actually mean anything if our higher education systems aren’t aligned with Europe’s? Canada can’t actually become part of the Bologna Process – that’s reserved for countries which are part of the Council of Europe – but there’s nothing saying we can’t harmonize our system with Bologna Processes.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that the benefits of a big shift like Bologna harmonization are in fact worth the hassle. But there’s also no doubt that the signing of CETA means that the time to ask ourselves the big questions about Bologna, and its benefits, is now.