Higher Education Strategy Associates

Non-solutions in search of a problem

I thought the Globe’s recent Our Time to Lead series was pretty good. The high point, pretty obviously, was Erin Anderssen’s kick-off piece and the low-point, equally obviously, was Don Tapscott’s context-free piece of techno-fetishist weirdness. On the whole, it was a good sign for what seems to be an increase in coverage on educational issues. However, I do feel the Globe slipped a bit with its very final article; namely, a policy prescription for a “national strategy” for students.

I don’t want to get too down on the Globe specifically because I think this “national strategy” language is pretty hard-wired into English Canadians and I think the Globe was just trying to speak to that audience in a language they understood. The problem is the thinking itself, which is much more widespread and problematic.

For reasons which escape me, large numbers of Canadians outside Quebec are under the seriously mistaken impression that the federal government is the “senior” (i.e. more important) level of government in Canada, and that any problem which is important should therefore be handled at that level. (For a reality check, do read Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s 1957 essay “Grants to Quebec Universities”, in Federalism and the French Canadians which thoroughly and amusingly demolishes this argument.)

But when you look at the actual arguments in favour of a “national strategy”, they don’t add up to anything like a case for federal or even pan-Canadian action. Take that Globe article, for instance. The alleged rationales for a “national” solution are:

  1. A need for a better mix of theoretical and practical education
  2. A need for a national accreditation system
  3. A need for more credit transfer across provincial boundaries
  4. A need for a universities to be less stuffy about accepting college credit for transfer
  5. A need to nudge more students into high-demand fields (à la Florida)

Personally, I have my doubts that all of these are actually problems, but let’s take it for granted for the moment that they are and that they require a response. What exactly, is the advantage to having a national strategy over a series of provincial strategies? Would BC institutions be better off if their programs were accredited in Ottawa rather than Victoria? Would SIAST students benefit if the locus of credit transfer policy moved from Regina to Gatineau?

“National” policy making would be slower if it involved inter-governmental negotiations and of significantly lower quality if it were done unilaterally by Ottawa. If you want policy to be speedy and fit-for-purpose, it needs to stay where it is. In Canada, “national strategies” for higher education are a solution looking for a problem.

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3 Responses to Non-solutions in search of a problem

  1. Absolutely. The Federal government does have a role to play in PSE, through dedicated money transfers and indirectly through other Departments like Immigration, but each province has its own realities which would be ill-served by an umbrella strategy. For the student movement, it is much easier to lobby one’s provincial government, than it is the Federal, especially for PSE stakeholders on both ends of the country (i.e. not so close to Ottawa), and the government instances in charge have more a stake in PSE in their particular region.

    A so-called national strategy would cause more problems than it would hope to solve. Not that credit transfers aren’t a national issue, which might be looked at through inter-governmental relations.

  2. Pamela Third says:

    An important reason for having a national strategy, that was overlooked by Anderssen, is so that there is a solid foundation for reconstructing our system of higher education, that is currently in a philosophical shambles. I’d like to see fundamental Canadian values as that foundation.

    • Alex Usher says:

      Hi Pamela. Thanks for reading our stuff. I’m not sure what you mean by “Canadian values”, though – could you expand?

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