Canada needs a federal ministry responsible for postsecondary education.
The problem isn't that the federal government is not involved in postsecondary education. It is. The issue is that no single ministry will take responsibility to ensure that those activities requiring national attention actually receive national attention.
Canada can't count its students, report on their progress, or demonstrate the quality of their programs. Canada was unable to report figures for 60 percent of the information gathered by the other 29 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries covered by a recently released annual education report. Canada ranks last among the OECD member and partner countries when it comes to the amount of postsecondary-education information provided for this annual survey–lagging behind such countries as Croatia.
Although this lack of any effective and integrated national coordination is obvious in the case of providing statistics, it applies equally to areas such as the Canada Student Loans and scholarship programs and federal research initiatives.
Several Canadian organizations have studied these and other, related areas of concern.
Paul Cappon, president and CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning, addressed this problem: "The absence of a pan-Canadian focus explains our country's lack of national goals and benchmarks for [postsecondary education] in accord with social and economic interests–and the consequent failure to develop measurements against which to assess our progress in postsecondary education."
But nowhere is it more important to Canada than in the area of quality control and international recognition of our postsecondary education system.
The CCL, in a December 2006 report titled Canadian Post-secondary Education: A Positive Record–An Uncertain Future, had this to say about the subject: "Canada has not brought in any process of p>quality review at the national level, nor has it put in place a regionally based institutional accreditation system such as that in the United States. As a consequence, there is a strong risk that Canadian institutions, anxious to attract and retain students–especially from abroad–will turn to American accrediting agencies."
And the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials weighed in with the following from a 2004 fact sheet: "The absence of a formal, national system of accreditation for postsecondary education providers in Canada makes it challenging to obtain a clear picture of how quality is assured at both the institutional and program levels."
The only pan-Canadian agency is the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, which excludes any federal involvement. The council recently acknowledged that problem: "However, it has become apparent to jurisdictions over the last few years that it is important to have a set of consistent and coherent standards at a pan-Canadian level to facilitate mobility and transferability domestically and to increase understanding of Canada's postsecondary education institutions internationally."
The council rotates its lead minister every two years; it meets once or twice a year and covers all aspects of education, from K-12 to postsecondary. With all due respect to the council, neither the ministers nor the secretariat have national postsecondary needs as their primary objective.
Why does it matter? It matters because the world has changed and the world is watching. The OECD/Norway Forum on Trade in Educational Services emphasized evaluation of qualifications three years ago: "Qualifications should be readable and transparent in order to increase their international validity and portability and to ease the work of recognition arrangements and credential evaluators. Reliable and user-friendly information sources on national education systems and qualification frameworks should enhance the transparency of qualifications and inform their holders of their academic and professional validity in the various national systems."
The history of postsecondary institutions in Canada has been that they are publicly funded and governed. The quality of the institutions thus created has had a consistency that has been assured by the public processes of governance and accountability. Colleges, institutes, and universities have traditionally had their roles clearly defined.
Under these circumstances, formal accreditation–the rigorous process of ongoing evaluation and review that ensures that the quality, standards, and outcomes of an institution are consistent with its claims and with accepted standards–has not been necessary.
All of this is changing, or has already changed. There are more private universities being allowed and many colleges and institutes are granting degrees. Change makes for some confusion, and understanding the quality of our institutions has become even more important as students from around the world choose to study in Canada and Canadian institutions enter into student exchanges with similar entities around the globe.
One of the first questions asked by international students is whether or not an institution is accredited, and by whom. The U.S. has a very well developed system of accreditation. Europe is developing a comprehensive multicountry system. Canada, with no federal jurisdiction in postsecondary education, has no accreditation system, no common standards, and no way, except by faith in provincial processes, of demonstrating the quality of its institutions. In many parts of the world, the best institutions are private, not public. So just saying "we're public so we're good" doesn't cut it.
The lack of such a Canadian process is forcing institutions such as Capilano College to seek accreditation in the United States. The fact that this should be necessary is a national disgrace.
It is time for a national postsecondary ministry to look after national postsecondary issues–and accreditation should be at the top of the list.
Greg Lee is the president of Capilano College.
Links: Canadian Council on Learning