The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’

Ronald Reagan

The Feds and post-secondary education in Canada

My question in the title will be answered by many as: ‘Do nothing’, not only because, as Ronald Reagan hinted, governments can put the kiss of death on anything they touch, but also because in Canada, higher education is the responsibility of the provinces, who jealously protect their powers in this area.

However, you may have noticed that now is not a normal time (whenever that was). While at least the Canadian federal government is more or less able to print money (and has been doing it quite liberally, if you’ll forgive the pun), many of our provinces are in bad shape financially, and will be in even worse shape after Covid-19. This means inevitably that some provinces will start cutting public expenditure, including their post-secondary education budgets.

In addition, universities and colleges have been losing revenue big time from the loss of international student fees, and it may take at least another year before those revenues start to return, at least to their former level. 

So we have at least three federal government ministries with an interest in what is happening in post-secondary education:

So can we think of ways in which the Federal government could really help the post-secondary sector, without pissing off the provinces? Here are my thoughts.

Facilitating economic development through the development of the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age

  1. The economy will be very different in the coming years. It was already changing (see the RBC report Humans Wanted) before Covid-19, but Covid-19 will accelerate the changes, particularly towards a digital economy.
  2. As the RBC report noted, neither employers nor educational institutions are ready for this change. The need is for people with ‘transversal’, high level intellectual skills that will allow them to adapt and change as the work-place changes.
  3. The higher education system though is still focused on teaching methods from an industrial age. Most instructors are not trained in modern teaching methods that focus on skills development, and most were totally unprepared for moving to online or blended learning. Without changes though in teaching methods and modes of delivery we will not develop enough people with the high level skills needed in an increasingly automated economy. Covid-19 has shown that there are best practices to follow in online and blended learning and most instructors are not aware of or trained in these best practices
  4. The need then is to transform the way we teach in order to get the kind of graduates that will strengthen Canada’s economic development. This will require a massive effort to retrain both post-graduate students (the new HE workforce) and all existing instructors in universities and colleges.
  5. There are systemic barriers to this change: the priority of research over teaching in universities; an increasingly part-time, contractual employment of instructors in both universities and colleges; academic freedom which makes any compulsory measures impossible to implement; and in some provinces, (and possibly all following Covid-19), cuts in provincial funding for post-secondary education which leaves little flexibility to find the extra time needed to train instructors on the job

How can the federal government help?

  1. The prime need is systematic and comprehensive re-training of instructors. The federal government could earmark funds to support such training, which would include funding to ‘buy-out’ an instructor from teaching for the equivalent of one semester in order to take training courses and replace that instructor with an adjunct or contracted instructor for the one semester. It would also cover the extra costs of training contract or part-time staff, who at the moment are not paid for the time they spend being trained.
  2. Most Canadian institutions have staff in Centres for Teaching, Learning and Technology who know what training is required. Some institutions are already offering training in the form of online courses on how to teach online, for instance, but these are optional and sporadic, and there is often insufficient time and resources to focus on the broader issue of more appropriate pedagogy for skills development.
  3. The federal funds would be distributed to the provinces, who would be responsible for issuing contracts with the institutions to ensure that the funds are used as intended. This funding could be of a limited nature (over five years) to kick-start systematic training systems, but then such regular training should be built into the regular operating budgets of institutions after that.
  4. Also there is a need for high quality digital learning materials (open educational resources – OER) that can be used by instructors and students and which can be shared across all Canadian institutions. These would be particularly valuable for common first and second year courses. At the moment, these materials tend to be created by individual faculty working alone within one institution, and as a result the quality is often poor. Also the materials are mainly in English. There is a particular shortage of quality francophone OER. There is also a shortage of high quality video and simulations in STEM subjects. It should be possible working with provincial articulation committees to create high quality, universally accepted, flexible OER, using a team approach, if there is a central pool of funding. Since this needs to be cross-provincial, the funding could flow through national networks such as Universities Canada and Colleges and Institutes Canada. This funding should be on an annual or regular basis in order for the stock of quality OER to be maintained.
  5. Lastly, huge shifts are occurring in post-secondary education due to Covid-19. Institutions, provincial governments and the federal government need good data on what is happening. Currently a mainly voluntary group of researchers, the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association, has been tracking online and digital learning in Canadian post-secondary education over the last four years. Although its surveys cover all provinces and territories, it is funded mainly by the Ontario provincial government, and its overall budget is under $175,000 a year and is tenuous, dependent each year on securing funding from provinces across the country. To operate effectively, it needs regular and guaranteed funding of just under $250,000 a year. As this is a national project covering both anglophone and francophone institutions, it would run much more efficiently if it had guaranteed federal funding for a minimum of three years, rather than having to beg provinces each year for relatively small sums of money.

What would it cost?

Training instructors in modern teaching methods

The goal would be for every instructor to receive at least basic training in modern teaching methods within five years. With a workforce of about 200,000 and one semester of training at a cost of $5,000 per instructor, we are looking at a total of about $1 billion over five years, although $100 million a year over five years would go a long way to addressing the issue.

A national program for quality OER

For OER, I am estimating that about $20 million a year (for both universities and colleges) would make a big impact on providing sufficient high quality OER for Canadian post-secondary education.

Tracking the move to digital learning

The CDLRA would track the move to digital learning at an annual cost of $250,000.

Total cost

About $1.5 billion spread over five years. No need to go through the WE Foundation – just send the cheque to me. I will make sure it gets spent properly – scandal free.




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