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History Table of Contents
1993 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1993
The Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change

Delivering Educational Excellence Part 2

DOUGLAS WRIGHT,
Former President, University of Waterloo

The first thing I want to note is that the funding of universities in Ontario is under a provincial formula and all universities receive the same money essential for the same enrollment functions; that is that there is certain unit prices for work in engineering or arts or medicine or Ph.D. work.

And, while Waterloo has had lots of favourable comment, you may have noted an item perhaps in the paper the other day, arguing that Canadian universities do a pretty good job even compared to the private American universities where you can pay $20,000 for tuition.

Now the thing that is of interest is that in Ontario right now, Waterloo and other universities receive $4,000 a year and that is reflecting both tuition and government grants per student per year.

Our elementary and secondary schools, about whom there is a great deal of dissatisfaction, receive twice that per pupil, $8,000. And in fact, universities receive an average of $8,000 per student over the whole population, but that includes medicine, surgery, engineering, Ph.D. work, the whole thing.

Universities therefore, get as much money as the elementary and secondary schools overall. But undergraduate work is funded at half the level. This leads to a nice provocative question.

How is it that Waterloo and other universities seem to do pretty well for $4,000 per student while we remain a largely dissatisfied with the performance of the schools that receive quite a lot more money.

A recent OECD study, which attempted and probably achieved the best international comparisons of measures of education and achievements, inputs and outputs, noted that, in fact for elementary and secondary education, the inputs in Canada are now probably the highest in the world. However, for post secondary education we are down around 14th, as our inputs are hardly half of those of Japan, Germany, France, Britain, U.S.

The amounts of money we spend do not correlate very well with what we achieve.

So if our theme is delivering educational excellence we have to understand a bit more of the context and the background to how we got the way we are and what differentiates our system.

I am old enough to remember a good deal of our recent history. I was just a few months too young to see service in the Second World War and started university at the end of the war in the company of a lot of the veterans.

The economic climate was then very uncertain. Many people were fearful that the Depression of the Dirty 30s would come back and, in fact, we did have a short period in the late 1940s of a recession. But by the early 50s, we started experiencing a prosperity in Canada that was altogether unprecedented.

The kind of circumstances in which this country was in fact established and built was one of unremitting hard work, but associated with a fairly simple understanding that hard work and savings would indeed establish prosperity. Compassion was a result of achieving prosperity.

In the 1950s, we found governments in massive surplus and public expectations for public compassion took on an almost limitless character. There was, starting in the mid 50s, an extraordinary growth in programs and interventions and so much of what we now take for granted, was in fact fabricated, wholly new in a quite short period, through 1955 to about 1970.

We restructured our school systems, we consolidated school boards and schools; there were new universities, whole new educational systems; Ontario colleges, hospitals, medicare, and social assistance.

And these were all introduced without much analysis or understanding.

It was already evident by the late 70s that the assumptions on which they had been founded were not very good. That the programs were neither as efficient or as effective as we needed. And that is not very surprising given the ignorance on which they were designed.

We might then have undertaken some reforms, except that the prosperity continued in an overwhelming way and it was even getting easier.

Well, here we are 12-13 years later and I'm reminded of a phrase I heard in the 1970s in the Cabinet Office of Whitehall: "People tend to see the handwriting on the wall, only when their backs are up against it."

Canadians now have to address – not just in education, but in a whole range of social interventions now almost universally funded by government – new ways in which to do things and ways to do things and spend a lot less money.

The precedent of the affluence of the 60s and 70s is the main burden that our educational systems now carry. There has been no reference to it, which surprises me, because I am sure most of you will know of the Hall Dennis Report.

If you go back and look at that carefully, what you will see in it is a very simple, and I think quite effective reflection of the values of Canadians at that time.

That is, that God had determined that we would be rich, and that it was a burden of the schools to prepare young people to deal responsibly with affluence. In that context, socialization was indeed more important than cognitive development. If maths and science were too difficult, then it was quite all right for young people to choose something else, even if they didn't know what they might want by way of careers. And uniquely in North America it was quite reasonable that at adolescence young people should really abandon serious intellectual effort as they acquainted themselves with the opposite sex.

In fact as recently as two or three years before the recession hit quite so hard, there were statistics in numbers of schools in Ontario that even at grade 12 and 13 levels, three quarters of the kids were spending more hours a week in so-called part-time employment than they were spending in the classroom. So, if you consider how much time it took to earn the money and to spend it, they obviously had very little time, after watching TV to do any homework. No one really cared.

And that is my first major conclusion beyond having to say that inputs do not really much affect outputs. I don't blame the schools or teachers for the problems that we are now acknowledging and trying to fix; schools and teachers reflect like a mirror, the attitudes and values of the society.

This is of course why Mr. McKenna in his speech spoke so strongly about the role of the family.

Excellence in education comes not from the curriculum or unit cost or inputs. It comes from students who are motivated and encouraged by parents and motivated and stimulated by their teachers. I would argue that if we had a society in which families really cared about achievement we could have excellence in our school systems and spend half as much as we do today.

Unit costs are in fact inputs, which provide obviously for people, people in the classrooms, and an awful lot of people who are not in the classrooms and class sizes. There are lots of school systems where class sizes are quite larger than ours where children are motivated and learn effectively.

Educational change, educational excellence therefore in my view requires a change in attitudes in our society.

I believe, as several noted yesterday, that attitudes are indeed changing; maybe, indeed, most of what we need for reform has been achieved. It was noted that in Kitchener-Waterloo the dropout rate is now down to very close to 10 per cent, because parents have seen – and young people themselves have seen – a change in the labour market.

Some years ago, in 1985 I think, when there was a concern about unemployment, I was asked to co-chair a study for the federal government on youth unemployment. We concluded that if UI were denied to anyone under 25 and, instead there was a guarantee of education, training or employment, that we would save money and obviously produce a very different kind of society. At that time, at least, that idea was seen as so outrageous, so politically offensive, particularly in some parts of Canada, that it was locked up and it hasn't seen the light of day yet.

Business leaders are much concerned about education.

The most effective thing the business community, particularly smaller companies, could do to influence educational achievement would be to introduce a form of testing or screening of knowledge and skills for new employees. That would have a shock effect on young people and their parents and, in turn, schools.

Skill, knowledge, literacy, numeracy, problem solving capacity, and the like would not be too difficult to assess.

Another interesting idea is the pattern where young people under 18 are denied drivers licences if they are not in full time education with passing grades. I mentioned that at a conference in Kitchener a while ago and one of the people in the audience, who was an automobile dealer, said he would be happier if I didn't refer to that again.

I haven't said much about the University of Waterloo. All that I can say, indirectly about our universities and the rest of our school systems, is that the universities had done well with so little money partly because they don't have the kind of bureaucratic controls as our social systems, particularly our school systems. Universities are individually managed. And they have, therefore, been able to redeploy resources in ways that I think the schools should be able to; ways I suspect would allow them to be more excellent, as well.