HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Paul Cappon, Again

You may have noticed that Paul Cappon – former President of the Canadian Council of Learning – had a paper out last week about how what the country really needs is more federal leadership in education.  It is desperately thin.

Cappon starts by dubiously claiming that Canada is in some sort of education crisis.  Canada’s position as a world-leader in PSE attainment is waved away thusly: “this assertion holds little practical value when the competencies of those participants are at the low end compared with other countries”.  In fact, PIAAC data shows that graduates of Canadian universities, on average, have literacy skills above the OECD average.  Cappon backs up his claim with a footnote referencing this Statscan piece, but said document does not reference post-secondary graduates.  Hmm.

And on it goes.  He cites a Conference Board paper putting a $24 billion price tag on skills shortages as evidence of “decline”, even though there’s no evidence that this figure is any worse than it has ever been (Bank of Canada data suggests that skills shortages are always with us, and were worse than at present for most of the aughts), or that a similar methodology would not lead to even bigger figures in other countries.  He cites a low proportion of STEM graduates in engineering as cause for concern, despite a total lack of evidence that this percentage has anything at all to do with economic growth.

Ridiculously, he proclaims that the Canadian education system (not higher education – all education from kindergarden onwards) is less effective than the Swiss because they beat us on some per capita measures of research output (which are of course largely funded through pockets entirely separate from the education budget).  Yes, really.  For someone so in favour of evidence-based policy, Cappon’s grasp on what actually constitutes evidence is shockingly tenuous.

Having cobbled together a pseudo-crisis, Cappon concludes that “the principal cause of our relative regression is that other countries are coordinating national efforts and establishing national goals… Canada, with no national office or ministry for education, is mired in inertia, each province and territory doing its best in relative isolation.” Now there is no evidence at all that the existence of national systems or national goals makes a damn bit of difference to PIAAC outcomes.  Germany comes in for all sorts of praise because of its co-operation between national and state governments, but their PIAAC and PISA outcomes are actually worse than Canada’s.  Yet Cappon believes – without a single shred of evidence – that if only there were some entity based in Ottawa that could exercise leadership in education that everything would be better.

Two points: first, our nation rests on a very simple compromise.  Back in 1864, the *only* way in which Catholic, Francophone Lower Canada could be tempted into agreeing to a federal government with representation by population was if that new level of government never, ever, ever got its hands on education.  That was, and is, the deal.  It’s not going to change.  Period.

Second, everyone needs to remember that there was a time not long ago that the Director-General of CMEC suggested exactly such a body to some deputy ministers in Ottawa, and Ottawa created a body not dissimilar to what Cappon is describing.  But said CMEC DG didn’t tell the provinces he was negotiating this deal with the feds.  When he was offered the leadership of the new organization, he jumped, taking several CMEC senior staff with him.  The result was that provinces, feeling betrayed by the DG’s chicanery, refused to work with the new organization.  As a result, it achieved little before being shut down in 2011.

That DG, of course, was Paul Cappon.

This report is essentially a self-justification for a dishonest act performed nearly a decade ago, rather than a genuine contribution to public policy.  If Cappon actually cared about repairing federal-provincial relations around learning, a mea culpa would have been more appropriate.

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