Make education nimble, accessible

Posted on October 3, 2007
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            Citizens of New Brunswick are currently considering and debating the recommendations of the PSE (Post Secondary Education) commission. Its authors have recommended reorganizing and melding community colleges and universities into a new structure. One recommendation would combine some college and university programs in polytechnical institutions.

            As is so often the case, the debate seems to be dividing up according to geographic and professional biases. Saint John people seem to tend to clearly see that Saint John must keep its degree program.

            That’s natural. We all tend to be champions for our own communities. Otherwise how can we explain that so many people don’t seem to realize and agree with me that the Miramichi is the centre of the universe?

            From a Miramichi perspective, incidentally, Saint John’s discomfort at the potential loss of a degree-granting institution evokes a strong whiff of irony. Saint John got its campus of the University of New Brunswick as a quid pro quo for the Bishop of the Diocese of Saint John not opposing the Robichaud government’s relocation of St. Thomas University from Miramichi to Fredericton.

            Politics is reality. It will play a role in what finally happens to the PSE report.

            Another reality is that nothing is forever. Government can change direction again.

            One thing does make me a little nervous. The aggregation of programs will create a larger unified bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are hard to kill and often grow when they should die.

            I’d like to know how the new system is going to improve two of the most important challenges in education.

            One is how it will be more nimble. The other is how it will be more accessible.

            Education has to be nimble to provide what students want to know and what they need to know.

            It is popular to complain about how government canceled the old trades programs that were part of apprenticeship programs. Students combined time in school and time on the job to earn trades papers.

            The complainers forget that, at the time, most of the students coming out of the school portion of their training were unable to find the employment hours they needed to complete their programs. It was a serious waste of time, money and life to churn out students who had no chance to find work in their chosen vocations.

            Now we have a shortage of trade skills in a booming Canadian market. At some point that will change again. Education has to be nimble to anticipate and change with the times.

            Accessibility is an essential for education.

            When my first two children were university age, a summer job and a student loan could cover most of the costs of a university education.

            There were still single parents and people on welfare who could not afford post secondary education and that was a tragic waste of potential.

            Now there is one popular opinion that university should be more expensive. “Why,” some people ask, “should the taxpayers subsidize the children of the middle and upper income classes to get an education that is going to make them the most well off people in the country?”

            To my mind, there is an easy answer. Education is just about the best investment society can make toward its own welfare.

            The middle and upper income classes pay a large portion of tax revenues already. Encouraging more people to join them via elevated education levels seems basic common sense.

            Added to the basic equation of better education equals more tax revenue, is the existence of the rest of the world.

            At present Canada is enjoying a high standard of living, national surpluses and a booming economy primarily courtesy of our birthright commodities. We didn’t create the oil and minerals that are making us rich.

            Nor will that wealth continue forever. Remember the wastrel in the Bible who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage?  Eventually, we are going to have to compete with the best minds in the rest of the world to earn our own way. Education is a renewable resource.

            So, how do we stay nimble and accessible?

            One way we can get more nimble is by working harder to identify the natural interests and aptitudes of students and then riding those assets for all they’re worth. No matter where the world goes, people will find their niche if their natural curiosities are fed. Trying to cram square pegs into round holes is as pointless as trying to cram chemical formulas into my head.

            Feeding musical aptitude, on the other hand, can promote mathematical skill.

            Another way to keep nimble is to keep in touch with the leading thinkers in every field. It is not profitable to teach thousands of people to do things that will be done by machines, programs, or the lowest income people in the world in the medium term.

            Early on in the development of the world wide web, it was obvious developers would create programs that would write most of the code and monster server operators would offer server hosting at a fraction of the cost individuals and small companies could.

            A trend is now developing that will see people subscribe to programs and use them online rather than buy them and store them on their own computers. It was inevitable.

            Accessibility includes making training and retraining available as close to where a student must live as possible. The world now requires that everyone must learn new methods regularly. That has to be available to people on the job and to homemakers with children to take care of.

            It also means that the cost of education must be subsidized and success rewarded with incentives. The money for education should be easy to get but their should be incentives to strongly encourage successful completion of the program

            One way would be for government to share repayment of education loans after graduation. Government could contribute a declining share of the payment the graduate makes. For example, if the graduate paid $300 per month each month in the first year after graduation, the government might kick in $100. The second year, it might contribute $75 and so on.

            That would give the student an incentive to pay off the debt as quickly as possible and the ability to have a bit of income for career start-up costs like an apartment, clothes and transportation.

            Let’s hope that, however we deliver education, it encourages and makes accessible a culture of learning.

                                                David Cadogan

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