Missing Pieces

An Alternative Guide to Canadian Post-Secondary Education
January 1, 1999

Canadians are guaranteed certain fundamental freedoms: freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; freedom of peaceful assembly; and freedom of association (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). We are also given the right to vote for candidates in municipal, provincial and national elections, the winners of which will then represent their constituents in our governmental institutions.

The Charter, however, does not only guarantee us these specific rights: it recognizes that there are certain groups that have been systemically disadvantaged, and therefore require additional protections under the law.

In other words, the Charter implicitly and explicitly understands that rights are useless if they cannot be exercised. And this balance must be maintained in order to protect the democratic society in which we live.

Our national social programs of health care, higher education and social assistance serve to remind us that true social justice has not been achieved, and, consequently, that there must be a commitment to the well-being of the disadvantaged as well as to the well-off. To ensure we are striving for social justice, we require a healthy system of quality public services, providing the basic requirements of health, shelter, education and sustenance.

These programs are an affirmation of our fundamental belief in social justice and human compassion, as well as to individual and social betterment. Even if it were true that we are all created equal, we certainly have not been guaranteed equal opportunities. Public institutions are evidence of our determination to build a just society.

Historically, Canadians have benefited from Canada's public commitment to broad access, high quality, and to the adequate long-term financing of social programs. However, our readiness to believe that democracy is not an ongoing process but an ideal state at which we have already arrived is a dangerous misconception. And the inculcation of this myth is the means by which our public institutions--our schools among them--have been underfunded and undermined.

Rising tuition and other user fees, the elimination of programs that ensure accessibility to marginalized groups, and the increasing inequality between programs and institutions--a result of closer ties to and reliance on the corporate sector--have precipitated a fundamental shift in our educational institutions. Instead of facilitating democratic and social improvement, post-secondary education is becoming a tool of marketplace requirements.

When the financial opportunity to access post-secondary education is limited or removed, that education effectively becomes a privilege based on socioeconomic status.

Education is more than an individual investment or asset. Our tax system provides for universal education because we all benefit from a well-educated society--whether we personally attend those institutions or not. When the individual pursues his or her education--which has been provided by the Canadian public--it is not only that individual who benefits, but all Canadian society. The opportunity to acquire knowledge and engage in unfettered debate is always a worthwhile investment--for the community no less than for the individual student.

As one of the fundamental cornerstones of a society dedicated to justice and equality, public education is founded on four major themes. These are:

  • Equity: Each person should have equal opportunity to attend or work at the institution of his or her choice. To this end, publicly-funded programs must be in place to ensure that those constrained by factors such as poverty, child care, or disability are not barred from attending educational institutions.
  • Opportunity/Access/Affordability: Each person should have the financial opportunity to pursue an education, and the right to use it upon graduation without becoming indebted.
  • Quality: Each person should have the right to a quality education, which includes a low instructor-pupil ratio, a wide variety of learning styles and subject areas, adequate learning aids and facilities, and job security for administration, faculty and support staff.
  • Accountability: Public education institutions must remain accountable to the public, and not to outside bodies such as external governing boards or private corporations that are primarily responsible to their shareholders.

Financially and structurally, post-secondary institutions have undergone a series of profound changes--changes that, arguably, have made these institutions less accessible, less accountable, and of lesser quality: in short, less democratic.

Too much of the public analysis of post-secondary education has taken the form of simplistic ranking, devoid of context. Such methods serve only to reinforce the rhetoric of restructuring--rewarding institutions that move away from public accessibility and towards market accountability--without examining the source of this rhetoric, and the undemocratic impact of its influence.

Flawed indicators, such as entrance requirements, are used to demonstrate an institution's quality, instead of faculty job security, a wide range of programs, or accountability to the public instead of to corporate sponsors.

Such limited analysis serves to place in doubt both the ability and the responsibility of governments to provide a post-secondary education to their citizens. Public funding had provided for an equitable, high-quality system of higher education across the country. While federal and provincial cutbacks create and reinforce actual inequities between institutions, simplistic school ranking has created an artificial hierarchy between schools. The issue of government responsibility is minimized, while blame is placed on the institutions themselves for their narrowly-defined shortcomings.

As the editors of Missing Pieces: An Alternative Guide to Canadian Post-Secondary Education, we argue that, without examining the forces behind post-secondary restructuring, as well as the serious impacts these initiatives have on both our public institutions and the wider society, it is impossible to recognize the anti-democratic nature of the changes taking place. And, while education restructuring is not limited to Canada, we need to understand how this agenda, strikingly similar across provincial and national borders, is affecting and will continue to affect us as citizens, and as a country.

This report therefore examines some of the less-discussed aspects of higher education: aspects, we maintain, that more accurately reflect the true state of education in Canada. Rather than reinforcing the model of competition between institutions, we have elected to demonstrate the level of commitment--or lack of commitment--to post-secondary education within each province.

We feel that the indicators we have selected produce a more accurate representation of provincial commitment to the four principles of public education: quality, equity, accountability and accessibility (including opportunity and affordability).

More information about the indicators we have selected is available in the full text of our report. Such topics include: tuition fees; loan defaults; job security of the faculty; impacts of restructuring on equity-seeking groups; corporate presence on campus; contracting-out of services; the impact of technology; and student poverty.

Our report seeks to expose the roots, as well as the results, of the restructuring agenda now sweeping post-secondary education in Canada. It is by no means, however, an exhaustive study: there are many issues that were beyond the scope of this initial report--issues that also require thorough examination.

It is our intention that this inaugural report on Canada's post-secondary education system provide a starting point for further consultation, research and analysis of the changes taking place within and to post-secondary education in Canada.

We invite readers to participate in this necessary broader discussion by submitting their insights, analysis and commentary to either of us, care of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with the goal of continuing this discourse.