Without leadership from education ministers, Canada lacks national PSE direction

The Council of Ministers of Education Canada held one of their rare meetings in Toronto last week, and announced “initiatives” to tackle Aboriginal education, literacy, and other issues. But while the intentions are surely good, “initiatives” might be too strong a word to describe the announcements.

The new “initiative”: CMEC will host a summit in 2009 to discuss how to improve Aboriginal achievement. The ministers met with Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine and University of Winnipeg President Lloyd Axworthy to discuss the two roundtables they hosted on aboriginal education last year that were very successful, attracting many universities and colleges (even from the States) who were hungry to talk about this daunting problem.

The old “initiative”: CMEC is also hosting a forum on literacy rates in April that will feature addresses from notable Canadians about how to improve literacy.

The forum’s name, “Literacy – More Than Words,” suggests that there might be some actual progress to come out of the forum. But as far as I can tell it really is only words. I don’t doubt that speakers like Frank McKenna (who was part of an excellent report about literacy and the economy last year) and Adrienne Clarkson will have valuable things to say about literacy. But I can’t help but be frustrated by the lack of any real news in the communique released after the meeting.

Since we lack any sort of federal ministry of education (like every other developed country in the world), CMEC is all we’ve got. And yet the awkward group of education ministers from different provincial parties with often competing priorities rarely accomplishes anything other than issuing communiques and facilitating discussion. I suppose the idea is that these better informed ministers go home to their respective provinces and get to work on furthering the agendas identified in the meeting. But this approach really doesn’t do much for developing any sort of national strategy to deal with crucial topics like aboriginal education and literacy.

I’m again reminded of one issue that I agree with the Canadian Federation of Students’ on: we really should have a federal ministry of post-secondary education. Of course, this is a symptom of our beloved federalism. One of the federal government’s reasons for folding the Millennium Scholarship Foundation this week was just that: having a private foundation disperse federal bursaries and scholarships steps on the toes of provinces. So the government hopes the new Canada Student Grant Program will hopefully quiet provincial grumbling.

But as I’ve written before, the feds still have their thumb in the PSE pie. Evidence: the Canada Student Loan Program, research funding to universities, embarrassing spats over funding aboriginal education, international students and immigration, and on and on. Perhaps the most concrete example of the inconsistency resulting from provinces having sole jurisdiction over PSE is that StatsCan had to delay releasing tuition data twice this year because of the incompatible data coming from provinces. Even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international group that publishes an annual education report, was unable to compare Canada’s post-secondary system to other countries because of a lack of information. The CFS (rightly, I think) argues for the creation of a ministry like the ministry of health (shared jurisdiction).

Back to CMEC: I can’t blame them for getting nothing meaningful done. The politics are nearly impossible to navigate and the body has no decision-making power. So it’s not surprising that the only statements in the latest communique with any resolve are calling on the feds to up transfer payments to support education and financial aid for students. That’s something any education minister can agree on.

But it doesn’t change the fact that CMEC — as Canadians’ only national body of elected officials dealing with education — seems to suggest how serious our country is about solving our big PSE problems. So if “eliminating the education gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples is an economic and moral necessity” (as the communique states), scheduling a summit to chat about it a year from now is simply not good enough.