Category Archives: education

TVO Battle Blog: Religious School Funding

Crossposted to Today’s question: “An Ipsos-Reid survey released on September 10 reported that 62% of Ontarians are against religious school funding. Did John Tory make a mistake politically by promising to fund faith-based schools?” (400 word limit)

Currently, Ontario uses public money to fund the schools of one denomination of one religion (Catholicism) to the exclusion of all others. On two separate occasions the United Nations has censured Ontario for this clear discrimination on the basis of religion. There are historical reasons why this may have made sense back at the time of confederation, but surely we can agree today that the status quo is unfair and unacceptable.

Given that, I personally concluded several years ago that there were only two options: we must either fund all religious schools or none. And there, in a nutshell, we have the positions of the Conservatives and the Greens, respectively. The fact that the Liberal party and the NDP argue that our government should continue to discriminate on the basis of religion is beyond my comprehension (particularly the cynical Liberal position, which is to pretend to oppose the funding of religious schools, when what they’re actually opposing is the equal funding of all religions).

On this specific issue, therefore, I don’t have much of a desire to criticize the Tory position too strongly, since at least it advocates for fairness. I do not believe, however, that their solution is workable or acceptable to most Ontarians. The Liberals are at least right when they say that the money to fund religious schools would inevitably have to be diverted from public schools, and I’m not sure I want my government getting into the business of deciding which religions are “legitimate” enough to deserve school funding. Did John Tory “make a mistake politically?” Maybe. More importantly, I think he’s mistaken in thinking that his solution is the best for Ontario.

The Green Party position [pdf], on the other hand, is to create one publicly funded school system, where children of all religions and creeds can learn together, and from each other. It is the most realistic and sensible position, and enjoys the support of most Ontarians. We can do it without opening up the constitution, just as other provinces have already done. In addition to resolving the current inequality, this will also eliminate duplications in administration, facilities and transportation between the Catholic and public school boards, getting more out of every education dollar. For me, it’s the obvious choice.

TVO Election Battle Blog

TVO has asked each of the four major parties to blog on their site throughout this provincial election, dealing with several specific issues/questions each week. I’m blogging on behalf of the Green Party of Ontario, beginning today. I’ll crosspost everything to here, but the back-and-forth between myself and the other bloggers will happen on the TVO Election Battle Blog.

Today’s Question: “What do you think will be the most important issue of the 2007 Ontario Election campaign?”

Of course, absent a crystal ball it’s impossible to know what the most important issue will be in this election, and most campaigns end up taking unexpected twists and turns. So far, funding for religious schools has probably played most prominently in the media, and I know several people plan to vote based on that issue alone. From a strictly selfish/partisan point of view, I wouldn’t mind if that stuck. With the Liberals and NDP supporting the status quo of one religion receiving funding to the exclusion of all others (in opposition to most Ontarians’ sense of fairness, as well as two separate United Nations censures for religious discrimination), and with the Conservatives’ wildly-ridiculed and unrealistic plan to divert money from the public school system in order to fund all religions, the Green Party of Ontario’s plan to create one, publicly funded and cost-efficient school system is clearly the most reasonable, and, according to polls, enjoys the support of most voters.

I think a more interesting and important question, however, is what should be the most important issue of this campaign. Or, in other words, when we look back at the end of the next government’s term, what will we wish we’d spent more time debating? In that case, three things come to mind. First, for those of us familiar with the science of climate change and the fact that it’s accelerating far more rapidly than climatologists predicted, it’s hard to consider that any other issue could be more important than meeting our green obligations to ourselves and the world. When we’re talking about climate change, we’re talking about the uncertainty that our planet will continue to be able to support life as we know it via clean air, drinkable water, and fertile soil. And we are no longer talking about “the world we leave for our grandchildren;” The IPCC says we only have 8 years to make the significant changes that must be made. By the time we have another provincial election in 2011, half of that window will have passed. Therefore, it’s critical that our provincial government makes the right decisions in the next 4 years in areas where they can make a difference, like, for example, energy policy.

Which brings me to the second issue I think voters should think carefully about: the Liberal/Conservative plan to spend $40 billion dollars on nuclear power. If in the next 30 days we decide to go down that path, we will have made a mistake with a million-year legacy. The reasons to oppose nuclear power are many, and I’ve outlined them in detail on my blog. For now, suffice it to say that nuclear is extremely fiscally irresponsible, and, despite expensive PR campaigns, is ineffective in addressing the climate crisis. The last nuclear plant built in Ontario went 270% over budget, and we’re all still playing down the debt from those plants. Do we really want to add another $40 billion to that debt, to say nothing of the environmental or health concerns, or the fact that nuclear takes 12 years to build, and we’re in an energy crisis now?

Finally, and somewhat ironically, the most important issue in this election may have nothing to do with which party or candidate you vote for. October 10th is not just a provincial election, it’s also the date for a referendum on electoral reform. In my opinion, the most important vote I’ve cast in my lifetime will be to vote for Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), as recommended by the 103 randomly-selected citizens who worked on our behalf. MMP is not a perfect system (nothing is), but by a vote of 94-8 the Citizens’ Assembly concluded that it’s better than the one we have now. Under MMP you’d get to cast two votes: one for your preferred candidate, and one for your preferred party. It would also mean that a party that got 40% of the vote would get 40% of the seats (not 60%), and that more women and minorities would be represented in the legislature. For more information, visit

Reporting Back: Green Party of Canada Policy Conference, London

The other main event of my most recent trip to London (besides my conversation with Raffi) was the second Green Party of Canada Policy Conference in the ongoing “Green Plus” series, this one on post secondary education, held at the University of Western Ontario. I won’t go into as much detail about this policy conference as I did about the first one. That is to say, this post will be not quite as long as a novella.

Instead of segmenting my summary by speaker, I’ve decided to do it more by topic. This is largely because of the degree to which the speakers agreed with each other, or at least spoke to the same themes. (I should again reiterate that the meeting was not intended to create policy, as that can only be done by a vote of the membership in a general meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to learn more about the issue and have a critical discussion, which will help inform the creation of policy in the future.)

Our Cast Of Characters

  • Dr. Karin Cope, Acting Director of Writing Resources at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD)
  • Trevor Hanna, Vice-Président aux affaires internationales et fédérales, Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ)
  • Sean Junor, Manager of Knowledge Mobilization, Educational Policy Institute (EPI) Toronto
  • Dr. Andrew Potter, Public Affairs columnist for Maclean’s, visiting scholar with the Educational Policy Institute, Toronto

First, The Good News

All speakers began by emphasizing the positive. Namely, Cope pointed out the fact that Canada leads OECD countries in the number of people with tertiary degrees, and that having a post-secondary degree generally means higher income, better sex (I’m going to refrain from theorizing on why that might be), and generally happier people. That being said, there are some looming areas of concern. Two of the most obvious examples are the increasingly critical amount of student debt and deferred infrastructure costs, as is the case in Nova Scotia, where the deferred maintenance bill is around half a billion dollars.

The real trick, explained Cope, will be to figure out the true cost of education, as well as the true value to society. Those things aren’t easy to measure, but of course that’s just the kind of challenge that Greens like to embrace.

Undergrad is the New High School

Potter spent the most time on this, but it was echoed by Junor and Cope as well. They argued that undergraduate programs, from both the perspective of the student and the professor, have become a lot like high school used to be.

There are two main arguments behind this observation. First, more people are pursuing post-secondary education than in the past, which means that a BA, for example, is becoming almost as common in the job market as a high school diploma was several decades ago. Second, university professors are spending increasing amounts of time teaching basic spelling, grammar, and writing skills to university students — skills they should have learned in high school.

Commodification and Massification

All of this contributes to the commodification of the undergraduate degree, and the massification (you can rarely escape a university lecture hall without hearing at least one made-up word) of the graduate degree.

Commodification of undergrad programs referrers to the sense that students are now buying a brand name credential, as opposed to participating in a community or increasing their ability to think critically. That was my own experience, in fact. Whenever I had a complaint or question about why my undergrad was being pursued in a certain way, the reaction from my peers was always something to the effect of, “Chris, it doesn’t matter. Everyone knows we’re just buying a $40,000 piece of paper.”

This situation is further aggravated by the increasingly prominent belief by some students, and particularly business students, that cheating, plagiarizing, and buying your way through university is fair game.

Massification of graduate programs referrers to the fact that, according to Potter, we’re giving out the same number of masters degrees today as we were undergraduate degrees forty years ago.

The result is what he calls an “educational arms race,” where people seek out greater and greater credential (either a masters degree, or a prestige undergrad) in order to distinguish themselves in the job market. The problem with that, Potter argues, is that the extra time and resources being spent on this arms race don’t actually raise the population’s level of education or contribute to the economy. He cautions against any federal policy that would feed into this system.

Teaching and Research Don’t Mix

The original intention of our university system (still Potter talking) was to have small schools like Trent focusing on undergraduate programs (ie. teaching) and large schools like University of Toronto focusing on graduate programs (ie. research). However, the Canadian preference for universalism has meant that all schools have tried to be everything to everyone.

The problem with that is that the skill set that’s required to be a good teacher and the skill set that’s required for research are very different. While it’s commonly assumed by professors that there’s some kind of symbiotic relationship between teaching and research, that’s not true. Studies show that for most faculty members, there’s a reverse relationship between the two (high research hours mean low student contact and vice versa).

The solution is to somehow create a more clear distinction between the two functions of teaching and research. In reality, that’s happening anyway, though in a less than desirable way. Cope pointed out that undergraduate teaching duties are increasingly carried out by temporary, contract employees with little to no job security or benefits, which leads to little to no loyalty to the employing institution or their students. Likewise, tenured professors spend most of their time on graduate work.

How to actually accomplish this distinction is a more difficult question. Potter and Junor both advocate for a “grand bargain” whereby the federal government would take control of graduate studies (since research is largely a federal responsibility) while leaving undergraduate studies with the provinces, but neither one of them thinks that could be achieved politically. A more practical solution may be to separate the two distinctions in an intramural fashion, assigning teaching and research responsibilities to different faculties. In addition, faculty members should be allowed to decide at the time of their hiring weather they want to be evaluated and promoted based on their teaching skills or their research abilities.

Free Education

A great deal of the question and answer time was spent discussing whether or not free education is a desirable goal. I was surprised to hear some interesting arguments that it isn’t.

The conversation was initiated by a Green Party member in the audience who referenced Canada’s international commitment to the goal of free post-secondary education by way of our signing of a 1970s United Nations agreement. Potter countered by saying that the federal government had no business making such a commitment in the first place, since education is clearly a constitutional responsibility of the provinces. There was a general consensus from the panel that, if free education is going to happen, it should happen at a provincial level.

And yet, Cope and Junor questioned the desirability of free education from a social point of view. Junor began by identifying that the two barriers to participation in a post-secondary education are accessibility (determined largely through high school grades) and affordability (determined by ability to pay). Even if you made education free, it would still only be accessible to those with the highest academic credentials, who, for the most part, also happen to be those who can afford university anyway. The problem of access, therefore, is larger and more systemic than can be addressed through universally free education.

Cope also pointed out that when tuition fees are reduced, that disproportionately benefits higher-income students because they make up a larger percentage of the university population. The money it takes to lower tuition would be better spent on needs-based grants to ensure that it gets to those who need it most.

Junor summarized his argument by saying something to the effect of, “If you asked me if the cost of tuition for lower-income Canadians should be close to zero, I’d say that’s about right. And if you asked me if the amount of government assistance going to the wealthiest Canadians should be close to zero, I’d say that’s about right.”

In other words, it’s cheaper, more feasible, and more socially just to make education free (or close to free) only for those who can’t afford it through needs-based grants than to try to do so for the entire population through the lowering or elimination of tuition. Also, if the ultimate goal is accessibility, we need to address larger systemic inequalities in addition to dealing with affordability.

Meanwhile, in the Real World

Of course I didn’t agree with everything the speakers said, but I came away feeling like I had a better understanding of the challenges facing post-secondary education in Canada, and what some of the solutions should be. Then four of us walked around the campus trying to convince students to vote in the advance polls. The mixture of confusion and amusement that I received from many regarding this “voting” idea was not as encouraging. It’s no big mystery why politicians find it so easy to ignore university students.