Coming Back Soon

After a long intermission, the activity on this blog will resume soon – within the next couple of weeks. The focus will remain on Canadian post-secondary education, with a focus on social sciences, humanities, university teaching, and online tutoring. In the meantime, you can follow posts on Twitter @parallel49ed
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Canada’s Local Post-Secondary Education (PSE) Strategies

Ottawa’s Algonquin College encourages its students to leverage their education: “Transfer your course credits with ease to several universities that have articulation agreements with Algonquin College: Athabasca, Cape Breton, Carleton, Lakehead, Nipissing, Ryerson, Ottawa, and more. In addition, there is an in-depth articulation agreement with Thompson Rivers University for several programs.” (For more details visit Algonquin’s articulation page here).

Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa, looking north...

Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa, looking northwards towards the Parliament Buildings from Queen Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the absence of a national framework to regulate this type of arrangements, individual post-secondary institutions strike agreements with other higher education organizations in a largely ad-hoc fashion. Calls for a national post-secondary education (PSE) strategy are not new, although they seem to have intensified in the past few years.

A recent analysis in the Globe and Mail supports the point that Canada’s postsecondary “solitudes” – colleges, universities, polytechnics across sub-federal jurisdictions – and the lack of any integration mechanism hinder the country’s well-being. “Our failure to knit these systems together, and to link education and research to social and economic outcomes, will affect our long-term prosperity and capacity to innovate,” says Robert Luke.

There is talk of an “educational passport” that would allow credit transfers between all these different types of institutions and programs, across Canada. While such a mechanism is unlikely to be implemented at a continental level any time soon (there’s simply no political appetite for bold integration moves in North America), it would be highly beneficial for Canada. It would constitute that first but very concrete step towards a harmonized, truly national education system in this country.

Yet Canada’s educational jurisdictions are locked in standby mode: “we are the only [developed] country that does not have a national strategy for PSE – no established goals, no benchmarks, and no public reporting of results based on established measures,” Senator Art Eggleton points out. Erin Anderssen also notes that “the trend to joint programs between colleges and universities […] is still stymied by institutional snobbery and bureaucratic restrictions around credit transfers.” Agreements such as the ones between Algonquin College and various universities demonstrate however that the cause is not lost. These are definitely steps in the right direction.

Given the traditionally challenging relations between Canada’s levels of government, as well as the provinces and territories themselves (which are formally responsible for education), a national PSE strategy may yet be years, if not decades, away. At a local level, however, the type of dynamic interconnections between Algonquin, Carleton and Ottawa – to use the National Capital Region as a case study – gives one reason to hope.

A Win-Win Situation: Post-Secondary Education as one of Canada’s Key Immigration Mechanisms

I recently reviewed three policy documents – one from earlier this year, the other two from 2011 – looking for existing and potential linkages between immigration and post-secondary education in Canada. More specifically, to what extent can international students use their studies in Canada as a vehicle for becoming permanent residents and, later, citizens of this country.

I expected that there must be some evidence linking these phenomena – on the one hand, the desire to emigrate to Canada and identify best mechanisms to achieve this goal and, on the other hand, the existence of a variety of post-secondary programs that can be accessed by international students. What I did not anticipate was to discover how widespread is the idea of encouraging international students to study in Canada specifically for the purpose of making them citizens of this country.

International students

International students (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(i) British Columbia’s (BC) International Education Strategy (2012) indicates that the province’s “emerging labour market challenges [i.e., not enough people entering the labour market] make international education even more important, as we anticipate significant shortages of skilled workers in certain fields.” The BC strategy points out that the engine of the province’s jobs plan and the economy is people – out of an estimated 1 million job openings over the next decade, immigrants are expected to fill a third of these positions.

British Columbia makes it crystal clear that, in order to “gain the greatest possible benefits from international education, we must make it easier for international students to move into careers in BC and take advantage of residency options after graduation. These improvements must in turn be communicated to potential international students.” To create “smoother transitions” for international students who wish to remain in the province after graduation, the BC Government plans to work closely with private sector employers, business associations, settlement organizations and – very importantly – the federal Government to help these students gain work experience and meet the requirements for Canadian residency.

(ii) The second document reviewed is An International Education Marketing Action Plan for [Canada’s] Provinces and Territories (2011) that makes virtually the same point. Even more significantly, this document is written and signed by provincial and territorial Ministers of education and of immigration – a very important group to push such an action plan. They indicated that one of the key expected outcomes of an international education plan for Canada is “a greater number of international students choosing to remain in Canada as permanent residents after graduation.”

The provincial and territorial Ministers plan to work alongside the federal Government to “ensure that annual immigration-level plans allow room for students who wish to remain permanently in Canada” and to “expand opportunities for international students to work off-campus and after graduation.” This document refers as well, just like the BC strategy, to Canada’s demographic pressures and the need to fill job vacancies – this time at a national level – through immigration. The plan focuses on improvements to foreign-qualifications recognition, extending post-graduation work permits and simplifying the process of obtaining visas and residency papers.

(iii) Finally, the report International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity (2011), prepared by a national Advisory Panel on Canada’s [future] International Education Strategy, is equally direct: Canada’s “specific goal is to double the number of quality international students within 10 years, from 239,000 today [at all levels], with a focus on attracting top talent who will either decide to make Canada their home or return to their home countries as leaders of the future.” To assist with this approach, the Panel suggested, Canada will need to further increase the amount of graduate and post-doctoral scholarships supporting international students.

The provincial and territorial ministers’ action plan (referenced above) highlighted that more than 71% of all foreign students in Canada (2008 figures) were studying at the post-secondary level or training in the trades, and 45% of international students at the post-secondary level originated from Asia. The distribution of international students in Canada by country of origin reveals that most of them originate from China (23%, 2010 figures), the United States, France, India and Mexico.  Other countries of origin include: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.

Overall, these policy documents point out to a strong desire on the part of Canadian private corporations, educational institutions and public authorities to address demographic challenges and labour market shortages through a determined effort to attract international students to Canada. This is definitely a win-win situation: Canada benefits from an influx of qualified and talented individuals, while the latter can pursue their careers and life goals in a very desirable corner of the earth.

Building Bridges between Secondary and Post-secondary Education in Ontario and Quebec

“The Enrichment Mini-Courses Program [EMCP] is a unique annual event in the world of Canadian education.” That’s how its organizers start describing this initiative, which allows secondary students from schools in Ontario and Quebec to attend post-secondary institutions for a week. Each May, about 125 mini-courses are offered to nearly 3,000 students from 21 school boards and private schools by instructors at two universities and one college in the Province on Ontario.

The University of Ottawa, Carleton University and La Cité collégiale host each year secondary students from Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec (grades 8-11 in ON and II-V in QC – 13-16 years of age) for 25-hour courses. The mini-courses are offered “in a variety of disciplines, such as information technology, psychology, engineering, journalism, music and law. They are highly interactive; they combine brief presentations, practical exercises, laboratory exercises, group discussions and field expeditions; and they provide an unforgettable learning experience!”

The Desmarais building at the University of Ot...

The Desmarais building at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The University of Ottawa, for instance, is expecting approximately 1,800 students in 2013 and will offer approximately 92 courses (48 in English and 44 in French). Carleton offers courses in English, while La Cité collégiale offers courses in French. Staff and graduate students at these post-secondary institutions are invited each year to submit proposals for mini-courses and are reminded that course “titles and descriptions must be ‘appealing’ to students of the levels [they] wish to reach.”

The students selected need to demonstrate excellent academic performance, yet student “placement is based on a random computerized process that occurs once all the application forms are received. Consequently, the first come – first serve principle does not apply.” Only one course is assigned per student, which they will attend one week long. The course themes are very diverse and cover a wide range of interests.

2012 course titles included: “The F–‐word: Exploring Feminism in Society,” “The Philosopher’s Stone: What Harry Potter, Clark Kent, Buffy, and Captain Kirk Can Teach Us about Philosophy,” “Bippity-Boppity-What? Jumping Down the Rabbit Hole of Classic Disney Movies” (Carleton), “The Holocaust and Europe’s Jews,” “Do You Want Kant and Aristotle as Your Facebook Friends?,” “Relationships and Sexuality 101” (Ottawa), “Découvrir l’animation 3D!” and “L’art culinaire et la gestion hôtelière : un univers savoureux” (La Cité Collégiale).

The program represents an excellent bridge between the secondary and post-secondary worlds in Canada’s two largest provinces. It is equally an investment in post-secondary education and an open invitation to university/college studies from the three post-secondary organizations involved. The latter usually encourage their student guests to take campus tours and explore in more detail their academic offerings.

Establishing such linkages early in a student’s high-school life potentially raises his/her interest in attending university/college upon graduation and increases their likelihood of pursuing post-secondary studies. One of the unintended side effects of the program is that it also assists graduate students and other junior faculty members who act as EMCP instructors in gaining meaningful teaching experience.

EMCP is not a unique program in North America (see Stanford’s High School Summer College and others); other universities and colleges have similar initiatives. This program is however one of Canada’s proven successes – over 50,000 secondary students used it since its inception, in 1981 – and constitutes a model for establishing similar linkages in other parts of the country.

(More information on the Enrichment Mini-Courses Program can be found here.)

The Need for a National Debate on the Future of Canada’s Post-Secondary Sector

Just several weeks apart, the Province of Ontario and the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) released two formal positions on post-secondary education. The first one is a discussion paper released in late June 2012 and titled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge.” The other is a “Pre-Budget Submission Regarding the 2013 Federal Budget” – CAGS, early August 2012. (CAGS is a Canada-wide association bringing together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the country’s three federal research-granting agencies).

Official Flag of Ontario since 1965

Official Flag of Ontario since 1965 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three themes are common across the two documents and constitute core policy positions: (i) Canadian/Ontario graduates need to be “more immediately employable”; (ii) post-secondary institutions need to be more innovative in their approaches and practices; (iii) Canada’s post-secondary education system has to become more closely aware of, and more actively involved in, student international mobility.

(I) LABOUR-MARKET READINESS: Both organizations, CAGS and the Government of Ontario (Canada’s most populous province), place a great emphasis on the need for tighter linkages between post-secondary institutions and the labour market. CAGS quotes Professor Douglas Peers of York University who argues “it is essential that our [universities] prepare graduate students who are flexible, adaptable, and […] more immediately employable than may have been the case in the past.”

Ontario goes one step further, suggesting that the very future of a competitive post-secondary education system depends on it capacity to produce graduates that are career and job ready. “We see a higher education sector that has more fluidity between learning, training, and the workforce. […] We see a sector that fosters and supports our young entrepreneurs.” New three-year undergraduate degrees matching labour market needs are presented as one of the approaches for the province’s future.

(II) INNOVATION: In order to establish and consolidate that “fluidity” between universities and the job market, Ontario imagines a post-secondary sector that is “nimble” and “ready to adapt to the accelerating change of pace in technology and our economy.” Increased innovation has the potential to ensure both better outcomes for Ontario graduates and the financial sustainability of this publicly funded sector, given the Government’s need to balance the provincial budget in the long term.

From a similar perspective, CAGS “requests that the Federal Government invest in innovative skills training for graduate students in all disciplines that will complement their academic skills and make them both more competitive and more work place ready.” This investment is seen as crucially important not just for Canadian university graduates, but also – through them – for Canada’s economy and society.

(III) THE INTERNATIONAL DIMENSION: Both organizations are acutely aware of the importance of international mobility. While the Government of Ontario highlights the need to improve Canadian students’ exposure to other environments, the CAGS proposal is more concrete and potentially more consequential. It argues that Canada needs to attract the very best international talent, in a context in which it faces solid competition from other countries.

CAGS “urges the Federal Government to increase its assistance in marketing Canadian universities abroad in specific markets as it did with the very successful trip this spring (2012) to Brazil led by the Governor General. […] The availability of high quality graduate students – who might remain in Canada – and of highly educated and trained workers cannot be taken for granted. Canada has slipped in the OECD rankings of post graduates from the top to close to the bottom of the pack.” The Government of Ontario’s discussion paper is surprisingly light in discussing the impact of international students on the province’s post-secondary sector!

Taken together, these three themes – job-readiness, innovation, and international mobility – form the basis of a debate that Canada’s post-secondary community needs to engage in.  Canada has avoided it for too long, and these latest efforts to launch a national conversation on university education are most opportune. (Organizations are asked to submit written submissions in response to Ontario’s discussion paper, no later than September 30, 2012, to PSEsubmissions@ontario.ca or by email to Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities).