Tag Archives: policy conference

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.

Reporting Back: Green Party of Canada Policy Conference, Halifax

I’m back in Toronto today after being in Halifax yesterday for the first policy conference in a series for the Green Party. It was a great experience, and the organizing team (Chris Alders et al) is to be commended.

The conference was on Ecological Tax Shifting and Environmental Economics, which is of course a key issue for us. As of yesterday morning, there were 150 people registered. An hour before lunch, Chris Alders counted over 170 people in the room.

Here’s the kicker: most of them — about 125 of the total — weren’t Green Party members. The conference was free to attend, and open to the public. How’s that for doing politics differently? This strategy had at least three major benefits:

  1. It got the attendance of the conference up to a critical mass, giving it credibility and productivity.
  2. It meant that ideas that most Greens would take for granted (for example, that unlimited economic growth can’t continue) were immediately challenged by people who didn’t have the same assumptions as the rest of us. This forced the group to recognize how our policies will be interpreted, and what we have to do to be convincing.
  3. We weren’t only preaching to the choir. I’m confident that the majority of newcomers in attendance left with a more complete and positive understanding of what the Green Party stands for, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them take up memberships and get involved in the days to come.

Of course, this also meant that the conference didn’t make formal decisions or pass resolutions. That’s ok, that wasn’t the point. The point was to listen to a series of experts on the topic at hand, ask questions, and make policy recommendations to the leader (Elizabeth) and the Shadow Cabinet (to be announced this week) to further develop into a platform that’s consistent with existing policy.

For the meat and potatoes of what went down (from my humble perspective and note-taking skills), please follow the links below. These posts aren’t really “easy-reading,” but I thought it was important to document what happened at the conference for those who are interested in the details. For those who aren’t, you might wanna skip this stuff.

  • Dr. Ron Colman – GPI Atlantic – Presentation on Genuine Progress
  • Dr. Peter Victor – York University – Presentation on Economic Growth
  • Amy Taylor – Pembina Institute – How Environmental Tax Shifting Works
  • Andrew Van Iterson – Green Budget Coalition – Implementing Environmental Tax Shifting
  • Paul Lansbergen – Forestry Products Association of Canada – Effect on Industry of Environmental Tax Shifting

See also:


Dr. Ron Colman – “A Sobering Place to Begin”

The following is one post in a series: “Reporting Back: Green Party of Canada Policy Conference, Halifax

Dr. Ron Colman, founder and Executive Director of GPI Atlantic, began by placing Environmental Tax Shifting (ETS) in context. ETS, he explained, is a second step. The first step must be to assign real value to things like our environment and volunteerism, for example, that are currently not valued by our economic indicators at all. That’s a sobering place to begin, he said, because of course we should already be valuing these things. But we’re not.

On the flight to Halifax, I flipped through an issue of The Economist. The good news is that a large amount of the magazine was dedicated to the dangers of climate change (including, but not limited to economic dangers) and the need for action. Yet, there, at the back of the magazine, was the standard two-page spread of the GDP of countries around the world.

The GDP isn’t a problem in itself; the problem is how we use it. Increasingly, the GDP is assumed to be a measure of wellbeing (generally, how well things are going). That, despite warnings over sixty years ago by GDP architect Simon Kuznets, who said that’s exactly the sort of thing the GDP shouldn’t be used for.

In Economics 101, the economy is described as a perpetual motion machine, completely separate from other systems. Of course, the reality is that the economy is a sub-system of the biosphere, with both inputs and outputs. Conventional economics still ignores that, and, in the words of Colman, is therefore “being taught all wrong.”

There are some fun examples that demonstrate why we live in what Colman called a “distorted market economy.” The extreme example that I’ve used before is that if we cut down every tree in Canada, our GDP would skyrocket, yet of course that wouldn’t actually be good for the economy or anything else. A real-life example is the Exxon Valdez, which contributed more to the GDP of Alaska by spilling its oil (because of all the money spent on the clean-up) than if it had delivered its cargo.

Colman gave another example to illustrate the absurdity of not including volunteer work when measuring the size and value of an economy. If you hire a housekeeper, he explained, the GDP goes up. Marry your housekeeper, and the GDP goes down. That’s entirely false, since no actual expansion or contraction of the economy has taken place, just a transfer of work between the paid sector to the unpaid sector.

So, that’s the problem. The solution is a Genuine Progress Indicator, or GPI. The GPI tracks genuine progress by creating a set of new accounts that value human, social, and environmental resources. Only within the context of genuine progress, Colman argued, can we make any subsequent tax shifts “systemic” instead of “episodic.” In other words, once triple-bottom-line resources are accounted for, externalities are internalized, and prices reflect the true costs of production, the market will be more efficient, less wasteful, and require less government intervention.

“This room should be full of right-wingers,” observed Colman. “Market economists should love this stuff!”

Dr. Peter Victor – Managing Without Growth

The following is one post in a series: “Reporting Back: Green Party of Canada Policy Conference, Halifax

Dr. Peter Victor from the University of York York University went next, with a presentation called “Managing Without Growth.” Building on what Colman had said, Victor observed that economic growth has become “the over-arching policy objective” (as in, the ultimate objective of most government policies, towards which their effectiveness is measured) of countries around the world.

This development is extremely new, having only emerged about fifty years go. Go back only a little further on a evolutionary timeline — say, four hundred years, and we didn’t even have the modern notion of “progress.”

Victor demonstrated three main realities:

  1. Whether you like it or not, growth is not possible in the long term.
  2. Growth does not bring happiness. While real income has increased in the US since 1945, the percentage of people who describe themselves as “very happy” has decreased. While early levels of income increase do contribute to happiness, the effect drops off after a point. The results are matched around the world.
  3. Growth is not particularly effective at eliminating poverty, creating full employment, or safe-guarding the environment. Since 1976, as both the GDP and greenhouse gas emissions have gone up consistently, levels of unemployment and poverty have bounced around.

(During the question and answer period following his presentation, we discovered that point number one really needs to be hammered home with some economists. They’ve been taught that growth is not only good, but critical. Victor kept repeating something to the effect of, “ok, fine, but you can’t have growth for ever, so even if you’re right about how great it is that’s irrelevant.”)

Much of Victor’s presentation was actually very technical, but also possible for a lay person like me to understand. He’s created an economic model called LOWGROW, where he can plug in different variables (income tax, carbon tax, etc.) and see what happens to the economy (GDP, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, unemployment, etc) over a timeline. It’s sort of like a simulation video game, where the goal is to lower GHGs as much as possible, while also raising levels of employment and holding the GDP steady.

The fun thing (well, fun for nerds like me at least) is that you can play with the model yourself if you want. It’s available for download here.

It’s important to note that Victor is not advocating for a zero or low growth policy exactly. He’s simply trying to demonstrate that you can have a healthy economy and environment without growth. That’s important, because concern about maintaining economic growth is often a barrier for people who would otherwise be sympathetic to green policies.

Elizabeth May often points out that humans stop growing once we enter adulthood. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to “develop” in a qualitative sense.