Canada needs to improve aboriginal education to survive in global economy: Stewart-Patterson

Business leader says that university and colleges need to reach out to adult learners, new immigrants

Canada must improve the educational outcomes of aboriginals and new immigrants in order to prosper in the global economy, according to the executive vice-president of The Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

“It is clear that Canada cannot rest on its laurels,” said David Stewart-Patterson in a keynote speech at an international conference regarding higher education access. “If we want to continue enjoying steady growth in our standard of living, we need to do better.”

The conference, titled “Neither a moment nor a mind to waste,” took place this week in Toronto and explored ways to improve student access and educational outcomes.

Canada’s economy has undergone a period of rapid growth in the last fifteen years from an economy “in which we did not have enough jobs for our people to one in which we cannot find enough people for the work that needs doing,” explained Stewart-Patterson. He added that ensuring access to higher education was once a moral imperative but is now an economic necessity.

“Far too many Aboriginals are not finishing high school,” he said, pointing to research by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy showing that Aboriginal people who complete high school have almost the same post-secondary participation rate as non-Aboriginal high school graduates. Stewart-Patterson called on the federal government to seize the “critical opportunity to demonstrate leadership and work with First Nations to find solutions that work.”

“This is the one group of students for which the federal government, rather than the provinces, bears primary responsibility,” he said.

Stewart-Patterson’s words are particularly relevant in light of the current dispute between the federal and Ontario governments over responsibility for the First Nations Technical Institute. The federal government recently withdrew funding for the institution, arguing that education is a provincial responsibility. After months of uncertainty as to whether the school would remain open, the provincial government stepped in with emergency one-time funding. But the province still maintains that the institution is the federal government’s responsibility.

Stewart-Patterson says that as Canada’s largest growing demographic, aboriginal youth are very important for the future of Canada. With the overall youth demographic expected to peak in 2012, Canadian universities must reach this group of potential students in order to maintain current enrolment levels.

In his speech, Stewart-Patterson also argued against lowering tuition to increase access to post-secondary education. “Many people, students loudest of all, call for cheaper tuition or even free tuition. I am not a fan of this approach,” he said. “Free tuition is not the same as free education; it would not prevent students from racking up impressive levels of debt.”

Instead, Stewart-Patterson is calling on governments to provide the necessary amount of student loans to make sure all students have the ability to succeed in studies and to “write off a big portion – and perhaps all – of a student’s loan over ten years through a credit against Canadian taxes.” He says that international students should also benefit from the tax write-off if they stay in Canada.

Ian Boyko, campaigns coordinator of the Canadian Federation of Students, questioned Stewart-Patterson’s position on tuition. He argued that the “big-business lobby” should be paying more taxes to fund a bigger post-secondary system instead of putting the cost “on the backs of students” who are already carrying record amounts of debt.

Stewart-Patterson also called on colleges and universities to do a better job of reaching out to adults who need access to post-secondary education. “Universities and colleges, the core of our post-secondary system, are not doing the whole job that is needed. In particular, they are not meeting the needs of adult learners. … We all have heard the stories about doctors and engineers driving taxis.”

He argues that the Canadian post-secondary system must work to recognize foreign credentials and offer easy paths for immigrants to quickly earn Canadian credentials. Canada must tap into foreign talent by also allowing international students to fully integrate into the Canadian economy by allowing them to work without restrictions while attending a Canadian college or university. They should also be able to easily obtain landed immigrant status when they graduate, he said.

“If we are to continue prospering as a country, we must make it our national mission to ensure that every Canadian can achieve his or her full potential,” Stewart-Patterson said. “As the title of this conference puts it, we have neither a moment nor a mind to waste.”