CANU? A National Strategy for Canadian Universities

The Globe and Mail special series on Canadian universities concluded on October 19th with a two-page essay by Erin Anderssen that focussed on the need to create a national strategy in Canada for post-secondary education. At present, Canada is the only country among developed nations that doesn’t have a national strategy.

I agree with Anderssen that a national strategy would be beneficial in helping to make our post-secondary educational institutions more responsive to labour needs across the country, as well as in helping to facilitate the inter-provincial transfer of academic credits by students. But I feel that Anderssen may have omitted perhaps the most important reason that Canada now needs a national post-secondary education strategy: so that we may begin to rebuild our philosophically crumbling institutions of higher learning on a solid foundation.

In my last blog post (“UAUBUC x 2”), I addressed, in general terms, underlying philosophical disparities among the various proposals for improving Canadian universities in the Globe and Mail series, and mentioned in passing that such disparities also can be found within our universities–including even within individual programs in these institutions. An example that is commonplace these days is tacking onto a fundamentally traditional academic program in the liberal arts some practical work experience in a vaguely-related field, in order to pacify to some extent those who believe that a liberal arts education isn’t sufficiently practical. (The graphics that I incorporated in that post portray, in abstract terms, the philosophical confusion in, and about, our universities these days.)

In general, undergraduates (who were the focus of the Globe and Mail series) are unlikely to find these inconsistencies highly problematic–or, at least, young undergraduates are likely to have more to lose than to gain by speaking up about any perceived problems of this nature. In contrast, graduate students, especially mid-career students who have established themselves to some extent in professions other than the academic profession, may find these inconsistencies highly problematic, on various levels. In professional terms, assuming, or pretending to assume, a philosophical perspective that differs from the philosophical perspective that predominates in their professional community in order to satisfy a particular program requirement may actually hurt them more than help them professionally, particularly if the work in question is made available to the general public–as is the case with most theses. Psychologically, for anyone with a modicum of maturity and self-awareness, it can be a hardship to have to pretend to be somebody one isn’t–or various people that one isn’t, if the program in question is sufficiently fractured philosophically–in order to get through a graduate program. Ethically, for anyone concerned about such matters, it just stinks.

I could go on and on here about the need to create greater philosophical consistency within our universities, and between various professions other than the academic profession and the university programs that are entrusted with providing credentials for these professions, just based on my personal experience. (My personal experience as a student is limited to the humanities and social sciences, including graduate programs in education. I must point out here that problems of this nature are less severe in the natural and applied sciences, and in those professional programs that have close links to their professional communities, such as law.) But griping about problems I’ve personally experienced in universities isn’t the main point of this blog post.

The main point is that I wanted to say here that, like Erin Anderssen of the Globe and Mail, I believe that it is now vitally important that Canada develop a national strategy for post-secondary education–even though the reasons I have for believing this are more wide-ranging than those of Anderssen (or at least more wide-ranging than those she used in her essay to support her case). I’ve also been wondering if there is anything I might now do, as a “private citizen” who is no longer directly associated with a university or college, or any related organization, to help the cause.

For example, in the past, I’ve written many letters to politicians and newspapers when I was passionate about an issue. (Just a few days ago, I wrote a short letter to Vancouver city officials about the recent intensification of the raccoon problem in our neighbourhood, in part inspired by Margaret Wente’s piece about raccoons in Toronto in the Globe and Mail on October 23.) If I were to write a letter, or a few letters, I’ve been wondering to whom I should write, and have been doing some research on-line to figure that out. Thus far, I’ve hit more dead-ends than good possibilities–and am definitely open to suggestions from readers.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) will not be getting one of my letters. I came across a blog post published on October 23 included in their on-line journal, University Affairs, by the deputy editor of the publication, Leo Charbonneau, responding to Anderssen’s essay. In Charbonneau’s post, he states: “The arguments in favour of a national strategy are legitimate, but irrelevant. It’s not going to happen, period. The current federal government has no interest whatsoever in inserting itself in matters of provincial jurisdiction and the provinces themselves have had a poor track record of accomplishing anything of substance through the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (an intergovernmental body founded by the provincial ministers of education).”

Although it was disappointing to read Charbonneau’s post, I’m not going to let the views of someone working for AUCC, an organization that has strong vested interests in maintaining the status quo, dissuade me. The current federal government not inserting itself into Canadian post-secondary education is almost as ridiculous as the City of Vancouver not being involved with the control of raccoons in this city.

I got a response today to my letter about raccoons from the City of Vancouver, in which I was informed that, in British Columbia, raccoons fall under provincial jurisdiction–even if they are in a major city like Vancouver, and even if the City of Vancouver is responsible for domestic animals. I guess I’ll have to write to the provincial government next. Maybe it could be just one letter, about both the proliferation of raccoons and raccoon poop in Vancouver and the need for a national education policy–linked by a discussion of the need for rethinking current jurisdictional divisions.

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