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President’s message / Social dimensions of education policy

February 2017
by James Compton
James ComptonEven among well-heeled Canadian CEOs, some CEOs are more equal than others. Only a few days after ringing in the New Year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a report documenting the widening earnings-gap between Canada’s top CEOs and average Canadian workers. As the author of the report put it: “Thirty years ago they managed to scrape by on 40 times what the average person is paid, and now, it’s 193 times.” Astounding, yes, but that isn’t what caught my attention.

Buried near the bottom of the CBC.ca story I was reading was a throwaway line that said only two women had made the CCPA’s list of Canada’s 100 top earning CEOs. Even among those most fortunate in our society, gendered divisions remain stubbornly in place

The same gender inequity is found on Canadian university campuses where, in 2016, only one of the 27 Canada Excellence Research Chairs — each worth $10 million over seven years — was a woman. More evidence that equity imbalances persist within institutional spaces nominally organized based on the principle of meritocracy. To make this claim is not to take away anything from the current chair-holders. It is, instead, to highlight persistent social patterns that require dedicated policy solutions. The current Liberal government has repeatedly said it takes issues of equality and equity seriously, and indeed, a lot of goodwill was generated when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed an equal number of women to cabinet. What other steps might the federal government take to address equity issues in post-secondary education?

In October, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan addressed the issue by placing rules on a competition for 11 new CERC chairs. Competing universities must submit a detailed equity and diversity plan as part of their application. The move extends beyond the chair-holders themselves to include plans to ensure participation of women and underrepresented equity-seeking groups in the hiring of the broader research teams associated with the awards. Well done, but concerns remain.

The Liberal plan continues the tradition started under the Conservatives of using these extraordinarily large research awards to pursue government-determined research priorities — such as business innovation — as opposed to allowing the research community and scientists to make their own decisions through a more open, collegial process of peer review. The enormous size of the awards also means that resources are provided to only a small number of researchers, leaving less funding available for younger scholars struggling to establish their research programs.

Indeed, increasing federal transfers to post-secondary education would go a long way towards addressing shortfalls in other areas. Decades of cuts to government operating grants have taken a toll, leading to rising tuition, larger class sizes and an increase in less secure contract employment for academic staff. Current federal cash transfers for post-secondary education are roughly $400 million short of matching 1992–1993 funding levels when adjusted for inflation and population growth.

Giving credit where credit is due, the Liberal government used its first budget to reverse years of cuts when it injected $76 million for Canada’s granting councils. However, adjusting for inflation, double that amount will be required each year for the next three years to get us back to where we were in 2007.

The Truth and Reconciliation Report drew attention to the historic wrongs perpetrated against Indigenous Peoples in Canada and how education policy can play an important role in supporting the reconciliation process.

Revivifying the Post-Secondary Student Support Program would be a good start. Since 1977, the PSSSP has provided First Nations and Inuit communities with grants to cover the costs of a university or college education. However, the program’s budget has been capped for years while demand and costs have risen. The squeeze has led to nearly a 19 per cent decline in the number of Indi­genous students funded by the program since 1997.

The Trudeau government has said that it intends to reshape the federal government’s relationship with Canada’s First Nations. A significant step would be to recognize education is a treaty right, and provide appropriate funding to the PSSSP. Investments in education would benefit First Nations communities, and provide a long-term and sustainable plan for Canada’s economy.

We should recognize the importance of the government’s decision to reinstate the University and College Academic Staff System survey. The survey was cancelled by the Conservative government in 2012 leaving the entire post-secondary system without reliable data on salaries, gender and the age of academic staff. In the future, it will, for the first time, begin collecting information identifying the number of contract academic staff across the country. The return of UCASS means it will be much easier for policymakers, institutions and academic staff associations to identify employment trends and challenges, and to increase equity in the profession.

So, while progress is being made, the federal government has an opportunity to take a leadership role in reinvesting in research and post-secondary education in an effort to increase access to education, equality of opportunity and the equitable treatment of people learning and working in Canadian universities.