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College Quarterly
Winter 1993 - Volume 1 Number 2
The Economic Challenge for Canadian Education: Part I
by F. R. Kleiman and Judy Miles

We in Canada have been wealthy. In 1870, Canada was the ninth richest country in the world; Japan was not even in the top twenty. In 1988, Canada was third, based on per capita internal purchasing power, what your income could buy in your own country; Japan was thirteenth. We were tenth, based on external purchasing power, what your income could buy outside your country; Japan was third.

Up to now, wealth came from having the comparative advantage in one or more of four factors: natural resources, capital, technology, and skills. Because of our abundant natural resources, our wealth as a nation came relatively easily. In the new knowledge economy, we are seeing a historic shift in the importance of each of these factors as well as in the relationship among them. The role of natural resources is greatly reduced, whereas knowledge is becoming the ultimate resource, adding value to natural resources, generating new technology, and creating capital the building block of economic growth.

Economic Directions

This shift to human resource capitalism can be characterized as a shift from manufacturing (from the Latin manus, hand) to mentifacturing (from the Latin mens, mind). It's a shift from manual to mental processes in the creation of wealth. To keep our high wealth status in the mentifacture economy, the critical question is: which industries are most likely to support a high standard of living in the twenty-first century? Consensus has emerged in the United States, Germany and Japan and the list is short: materials science, telecommunications, microelectronics, biotechnology, robotics and machine tools, computers and software, and civil aviation. As measured by the share of global exports in 1989, Canada does not rank in the top five in telecommunications, microelectronics, medicine and biologicals, robotics and machine tools, and computers. To thrive, we need to forge a national consensus and develop an economic agenda.

Educational Challenges

What are the implications for education and training in Canada? We need to provide broad foundation skills and specific technical skills which employers will demand and workers will want to provide to sustain a high standard of living. But can we identify the human resource needs of an industrial strategy? While the specific features must flow from the industrial strategy itself, we can at least describe their characteristics in a competitive global economy.

There are two distinguishing features of those nations which have been successful in adapting to economic change: national focus and a high value on knowledge and training. The business of articulating a national focus rests with the federal and provincial governments. With reference to knowledge and training, at the very least Canada needs a rigorous approach to standards and achievement with the attributes of universality, accountability and incentive.

A universal level of achievement for all students should be the focus of educational activity. Streaming or skimming, the focusing of educational activity on the minority likely to attend colleges or universities must be accompanied by activities aimed at the majority who are not proceeding to post-secondary education immediately. Even if the top 25% of the population invents products, processes or services, the other 75% must be skilled enough to produce them competitively.

While we have an extensive array of colleges and universities, Statistics Canada's Canada Year Book 1994 reports that 24% of Canadian students drop out before graduating from high school, 63.7% enter the labour force with no more than a high school education, and only 12.3% will go on directly to post-secondary education. True, an additional 13.8% will return to universities (about 1/2), colleges (about 1/3) and other post-secondary institutions (about 1/6), but in the meantime, seven out of eight students leave school with little or no preparation for the work available. Elementary and secondary education must provide preparation for a much broader range of post-school activities including employment.

The present system is fiscally accountable, but not accountable for the achievement levels of the students. Canada spends 7.2% of its Gross Domestic Product on education, while Japan spends 5.0% and Germany 4.4%. Per pupil expenditure in Canada is a whopping $3,665 versus $1,922 in Japan and $1,941 in Germany. While there is full accountability for the expenditure of funds, there appears to be little for educational outputs, the levels of achievement of all who are compelled by law to attend schools until the age of 16.

Regarding incentive, high achievement by both teachers and students in all fields of educational endeavour must be recognized and rewarded. It is, for example, common for a successful teacher to be rewarded by being promoted out of the classroom and into an administrative position. Success should be rewarded conversely. In the classroom, a successful teacher should be able to continue teaching and still receive the same compensation as an administrator. Such dual-track systems have already been successfully adopted by private corporations.

Similarly, students' achievement should be recognized over a broader spectrum than the present college and university preparatory stream. To repeat, only 12.3% of Canadian students now go on directly to post-secondary public education; yet, the current public subsidy for education in Canada is $15,939 for each college and university student compared with $5,975 for each student through high school completion. Some of these resources need to be allocated to the 87.7% of students who are not going on to full-time college or university studies.

In this context, then, we wish to raise three questions:

  1. What is the role of government in forging a national consensus?
  2. How can educators contribute to the creation of a mentifacturing economy?
  3. Who are the necessary partners in a national strategy to maintain our wealthy status?

This is the first of two parts. Click here to open PART II.

Rick Kleiman is Principal of Greater Regional Technical College in Victoria, B.C. Judy Miles is Regional Director for B.C. Operations at City University in Vancouver.