Wherefore art thou higher education

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When the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission stipulates that university enrolment in this region is down, the proper response is not: Oh, how dreadful!

The proper response is: Really, who cares?

It’s not like we haven’t seen this coming for years, if not decades. In fact, according to its own spin the MPHEC cobbled itself together in 1974 as “an arm’s-length  organization accountable to the ministers responsible for post-secondary education in the Maritime provinces.”

At that time (and presumably since then), it assisted “institutions and government in enhancing the post-secondary learning environment. . .The commission’s primary orientation in carrying out it duties is to give first consideration to improving and maintaining the best possible service as lifelong learners.”

So, then, how has that worked out for everyone?

The MPHEC is clear on the question. Its press release last week was as declarative as it was morose:

“Overall. . .the number of people from the Maritimes enrolled in the region’s universities has dropped by 16 per cent (down 8,904 students) since 2003-04. Over the same period, Maritime universities have recruited more students from elsewhere in Canada (up 11 per cent since 2003-04; 1,429 students) and more international students (up 77 per cent since 2003-04; 4,500 students).

What’s more, “Program choice has shifted. . .Enrolment in the Arts and Humanities has decreased by 31 per cent since 2003-04. Students from the Maritimes and international students are more often choosing programs that have a clear connection to the labour market such as health, business or engineering.”

Indeed, “The greatest impact of increasing international student numbers has been on business programs. International students now represent nearly one in three students enrolled in business.”

All of which leads some reviewers of the MPHEC data to conclude that universities in this region are, at some fundamental level, failing local students, communities and, by extension, the economy, by not making our young and earnest “job-ready”.

But, again, when did we ever really care about that?

Was it when successive provincial governments failed to make good on their promises to fund the coordinated development of early childhood development?

Was it when those same governments succumbed to political pressure and voided their attempts to redesign secondary and post-secondary institutions into a more productive, educationally engaged, socially relevant system of practical colleges, polytechnical schools and institutes of advanced education (each serving different, various and crucial needs of diversely talented and interested students)?

Or was it when we – policy makers, politicians, pundits – failed to notice how and why other jurisdictions in the world do so much better educating their children as they prepare them for economically productive careers?

In Finland, for example, “The principle underlying pre-primary, basic and upper secondary education is to guarantee basic educational security for all, irrespective of their place of residence, language and economic standing. Finnish early childhood education and care includes various systems and possibilities to arrange family affairs.”

That comment comes from Liisa Heinämäki of the Finland’s National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health STAKES, Jyväskylä Satellite Office.

And here’s the happy result for her country: The highest post-secondary placement in the developed world; the finest academic attainment scores on international tests anywhere; and a culture that does not consider education a chore to endure but a joy to embrace.

If we truly care about changing the dynamics of higher education in the Maritimes, we’d best start at the beginning.

After all, shouldn’t we know our own minds before we complain about how universities train those of our children?

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