Aboriginal students see substantial increase in cliches


Recently, there was something of a buzz here in Atlantic Canada over a new memorandum of agreement among universities and First Nations. Media reports called the MOU “historic” and implied that it would begin a new era that would see a swell of participation in higher education among Aboriginal Canadians in the Atlantic region.

If the reports could be believed, the news would be very good indeed. It is no secret after all, that while many aboriginals have excelled at the highest levels of education, as a group, Aboriginal Canadians are less likely than Canadians in general to attend university and to earn university degrees. According to this AUCC report, only 8 per cent of aboriginals complete university, and this Statscan report shows how aboriginal women have educational attainment rates well below non-aboriginal women. And since university education has the real benefits of broader knowledge and sharper skills, as well as other vaguely imagined values that might also sway an employer or lending agency, higher education can be one way to ameliorate the poverty that disproportionately affects many aboriginals.

But look more closely at the news reports and you realize that amid all the smokey, shop-worn rhetoric, there is no mention of actual programs or policies. Indeed, nowhere could I find any indication of any concrete programs designed to tackle the problems of aboriginal higher education. Instead, the news churns out a series of cliches that are as soporific as watching someone yawn. For instance:

The deal is “is designed to open the door to higher education.” (Chronicle Herald)

The deal represents a “new start” for Aboriginals (Daily Gleaner)

It’s a “unique partnership” that is “innovative.” (CCLA)

The deal “will contribute to fundamentally changing our communities for the future.” (CBC)

All of this is fine. I’m not in against opening doors or starting anew, but real changes require real solutions. Real change means specific policies and targets. It means hiring people with specific job descriptions and offices and resources. What is actually going to be done? Is there to be more money to fund bursaries and scholarships for aboriginal students? Will there be extra tutoring programs to help students stay in high school and better prepare for university in the first place? Will there be additional academic advisors hired at universities to help students cope with cultural differences and the expectations of university life? Or are there other programs based on needs that haven’t occurred to me?

In the hopes that the problem was with the media reports and not the agreement itself, I started looking around for a copy of the actual MOU. When I first encountered it, on the APCFNC web site, I literally did not recognize it based on the descriptions I had read. Where every media account that I have read suggests that this is an education inititaive (variations on the phrase “opens doors to education” are in almost every article), the actual MOU makes scant reference to education. In fact, the full title of the document is “Memorandum of Understanding with the Atlantic Region Universities Covering collaboration in Research.” That’s right, it’s an agreement whereby universities promise to do more research on economic issues relating to Aboriginal Canadians.

Still, the universities have committed to doing more work in this area, so that’s good right?

It would be if the MOU actually committed universities to anything. But it doesn’t.  The language of the agreement includes so much vague and conditional language that the agreement really doesn’t bind any university to anything. Consider, this key passage, for instance:

This MOU does not require any of the Universities to fund research projects and related initiatives, but the Universities are expected, subject to financial and operation constraints, to assist with the implantation of the AAEDIRP where possible.

In other words, if, in three years,  the university signatories have done nothing, they can, in all honesty, say they have not broken the understanding, because it did not require them to do anything in the first place. And any frustrated expectations can be explained away as being impossible because of  “operation constraints” which could be any reason at all.

Still, the MOU would be a nice gesture towards a worthy goal, except for the fact that it is being presented as a great step forward in getting more aboriginals into universities. The MOU specifies four objectives, and all are related directly to research on economic development. There is nothing there about getting more undergraduate aboriginal students into Atlantic universities. In fact, the only mention of students in the MOU is in the context of students working on research projects, and even then, every reference but one is specifically to graduate students. Again, I have nothing against getting more aboriginal grad students involved in research, but since grad students, by definition, have already graduated from at least one program, research help for grad students won’t help improve aboriginal participation in the system overall.

Universities should work with First Nations in the areas of research and higher education. What they should not do, however, is create vague agreements that commit themselves to nothing and then pretend that they are going to make a big difference. It gives the false impression that something is actually being done about one of our most pressing national issues.

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