Parliament is back in session and despite the “sound and fury” emanating from Parliament Hill, in a very short period of time Canada needs to address a number of issues that are percolating on the public policy back burner but will increasingly demand our attention as soon as the demographic bulge inches closer to “old age” and the new digital and global economy exercises its full impact on the work force.
Despite increasingly strident warnings from two former secretaries to the cabinet, Kevin Lynch and Alex Himelfarb, and countless other policy advisors and commentators, too little progress has been made in Canada on addressing our fundamental challenges. In no particular order, they include maintaining our standard of living in light of global competition, adjusting to the decline of our manufacturing sector, managing the work force transformation to a digital economy, maintaining a viable health care system, and constraining public expenditures.
While it is not easy to decide where to start working on such a daunting list of challenges, a good place might be with our educational system since human capital in one way or another has an impact on every one of these policy areas. In the last several months, the recently disbanded Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) has issued two very important reports that look at the learning challenges facing Canada from two different perspectives – literacy and post secondary education. Neither report is positive. For example, Paul Cappon, the president of CCL, noted that “the number of adults living with low literacy will increase by more than three million to 15 million within one generation.”
With regard to post secondary education, the CCL observed that the average debt for a university graduate more than doubled in the past decade. By 2009, “the average debt for university graduates was $26,680, while the average for college graduates was $13,600.” While increased student debt itself is not necessarily a bad development if it results in higher quality teaching and easier access to the workforce, it is important that debt does not lower participation rates and discourage those who have few financial resources at their disposal.
These are important findings because literacy and post-secondary education are the building blocks for our future economy. All of the previously mentioned challenges for the country need a literate and well-educated population; they are the foundational skills that will be required in a successful 21st century nation.
So, what is Parliament doing about it? Recently, the CCL hosted a literacy seminar on Parliament Hill that was attended by two-dozen of the 308 Members of Parliament. This is a good start but it also suggests that parliamentarians are hardly seized with the importance of these issues.
To move these urgent policy concerns along the decision-making continuum, there are at least two things that could be done in the short-term that might help bring these to the policy fore.
First, there is a need to explore ways for the federal government to use its convening powers to facilitate discussions with the provinces about literacy and post-secondary training that would seek out novel solutions and best practices.
Second, as an indication of the federal government’s commitment to remedying the problems raised by the CCL, it should also consider mounting a serious national effort to focus on underperforming youth. The warning signs are everywhere: 58% of on-reserve Aboriginal youth have less than a high school diploma; more than 40% of Quebec’s francophone young males are high school dropouts; and the average earnings for Canadian-born workers are 50% higher than for young recent immigrants. These three segments of our population are disproportionately at risk because of poor formal education.
In the final analysis, collectively they will be a huge burden on the nation if nothing is done to remedy the situation. In fact, the social and economic costs of our underperforming youth are more than likely to significantly exceed the dollar value of the current infrastructure program that Minister Flaherty so proudly extolled at his Canadian Club speech on September 21. It is time for a different kind of action plan.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (firstname.lastname@example.org).