Although it's now widely accepted that an affordable, accessible and high quality post-secondary education is critical to the development of nations, governments in Canada have been slow to make universities and colleges a priority. Instead of a co-ordinated approach between Ottawa and the provinces, we've ended up with a patchwork of different programs and initiatives that have failed to address the real problems faced by students, staff and our institutions. However, there are signs these problems are becoming too conspicuous to ignore any longer.
Last month, Liberal Senator Elizabeth Hubley, from Prince Edward Island, called for a special inquiry into the future of post-secondary education in Canada. In introducing her motion, Hubley bemoaned the fact that more and more young Canadians are forced to mortgage their futures in order to acquire the knowledge and skills now demanded in the labour market. And she made it clear the current problems we're facing stem directly from a lack of federal leadership and vision.
"Successive federal governments have maintained a non-interventionist and indirect support role through fiscal transfers to the provinces, research and development funding for universities, the Canada Student Loan Program as well as other limited scholarship, grant and savings initiatives," Hubley said. "While this is the safe and traditional federal role - one that respects the jurisdictional primacy of the provinces in education - it is also a role that I believe lacks strength and vision and one that is incapable of providing the leadership necessary to fully realize our national promise in higher education."
These are refreshing words to hear from a federal politician. CAUT has long argued that Ottawa needs to play a more active role in post-secondary education. In our submission to the Finance Committee in November, we proposed that the federal government, in co-operation with the provinces, adopt a post-secondary education act. This legislation, modelled on the Canada Health Act, would guarantee stable long-term federal funding in exchange for greater transparency over how this money is spent.
Hubley agrees the time has come for the federal government to make post-secondary education an immediate priority. She wants the Senate to launch an inquiry that would focus on how the federal government can ensure universities and colleges are adequately funded and are accessible to all qualified students.
It's my hope that her inquiry starts a long overdue national discussion about the kind of post-secondary education system we need and want for the 21st century. At a time when even the federal government admits that nearly three-quarters of all new jobs being created require some post-secondary education, we need to being doing more to broaden access to universities and colleges.
I believe we need to adjust our thinking and change the definition of basic public education in Canada. In the last century we recognized that obtaining a high school diploma was so important that we made the decision to provide free high school education. Today I believe the completion of a degree or diploma at a university or college is equivalent to what a high school diploma was in the past. If we broaden our understanding of basic public education to university and college, then of course we must be willing to publicly support it and make it available to everyone as a basic right.