For the first time ever, Canada's Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) have agreed to a set of principles and broad outlines for post-secondary education across Canada. Their Report on Public Expectations of Postsecondary Education in Canada is a first of its kind. This in itself is commendable, as are the key areas of expectations: quality, accessibility, mobility and portability, relevance and responsiveness, research and scholarship, and accountability.
Moreover, the CMEC's list of five key functions of post-secondary education is laudable -- to inspire and enable individuals to develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout their life; to advance, preserve, and disseminate knowledge and understanding; to serve the learning and knowledge needs of an adaptable, sustainable, knowledge-based economy at local, regional, and national levels; to foster the application of knowledge and understanding to the benefit of the economy and society; and to help shape a healthy, democratic, civil society.
The ministers agree that "...postsecondary education is a long-term societal investment," and that "Governments provide funding to postsecondary education because it is in the public interest to do so." They recognize "the distinctive and often autonomous management of postsecondary institutions and academic standards," and that institutions should "safeguard free inquiry and expression in scholarship, research and education."
In this context it is unfortunate the report does not refer to UNESCO's Recommendation on the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel, which clearly outlines the rights and freedoms, including academic freedom, of university faculty members in both their teaching and research functions. CMEC supported the UNESCO recommendation and articulated Canada's position for UNESCO.
While admitting that post-secondary education is a long-term societal benefit, the ministers reject the idea of using input measures such as the amount of money spent per student, or the number of library volumes per student, to assess that benefit because such measures are used by faculty associations and administrations alike to show the level of government underfunding.
Instead, the ministers favour outcome measurements of performance, such as student learning outcomes, success in finding or creating jobs, and the measurable results of research funding. But such performance measurements are clearly inadequate to measure quality in universities.
Unlike the U.S., Canada has no independent national system for accrediting higher education. In 1993 the CAUT-commissioned Independent Study Group on University Governance recommended that such an independent body be created in Canada. Only a national and independent accrediting system would be able to provide the appropriate measurements of quality.
Perhaps the chief weakness of the CMEC report is contained in its admission at the very outset that, "This document is not concerned with how to achieve the expectations nor with what level of public funding is allocated in what manner. These are important issues, but they fall within the purview of individual provinces and territories."
Not to talk about the rising levels of tuition and debt load, or about student aid, in the context of the key notion of accessibility; not to address the specifics of funding in the context of massive cutbacks to core funding of universities between 1989 and 1998, is to leave the report on the shelf marked "Pious Platitudes and Inconsequential Wishes."
Salaries and working conditions in Canadian universities should be compared to the salaries and working conditions in equivalent universities in the United States; federal and provincial money for research and infrastructure in Canada should be compared to that available in the United States. So should federal and provincial funding for universities, university pension plans, student grant and loan programs, and many other crucial measures affecting the key areas of expectations outlined in the report.
Without such comparisons in the areas which count most, there can be no answer to the question, "How can we achieve the expectations?" Worse still -- we won't even know what they mean.