Education Policy

 The Education policy in each province is meant to ensure that a structure is in place which will allow for the development of the personal capacities of each individual. The educational structure will also facilitate the development of those skills needed by society, and inculcate and foster those values advocated by the community. The tension between these aims has resulted in controversies over various aspects of the structure of EDUCATION systems, including curriculum (especially concerning sensitive subjects, eg, religious instruction or sex education); rights of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities; the extent and forms of public financial support at the local, provincial and federal levels; and the related question of government control relative to the rights of pupils or students, parents and teachers.

Historically, education was essentially a local and private matter (see EDUCATION, HISTORY OF) undertaken largely at the initiative of parents and clergy. Colonial and later provincial governments legislated a general framework within which municipalities and religious or charitable institutions might establish and operate schools, especially where local taxes provided a public subsidy. The law ensured general public access to tax-supported schools even where these were confessional or sectarian. Provincial governments also licensed teachers and approved textbooks mainly to ensure that public funds would not be expended on schooling that catered only to a particular religious denomination. In some places special provision was made for religious and, implicitly, for linguistic minorities by establishing sectarian or "dissentient" schools.

An attempt was made to offer constitutional protection for education rights for the minority religious group, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, in the CONSTITUTION ACT, 1867 and in the acts creating Manitoba (1870), Saskatchewan (1905) and Alberta (1905). Protections were guaranteed for a far larger number of denominations in the act creating Newfoundland (1949). Canadian education history is marked by controversies over separate schools in one province after another: NB, 1871; Manitoba, 1891-96; Alberta and Saskatchewan, 1905; Ontario, 1912; Québec, 1969, and afterwards and most recently in Ontario and Newfoundland. In the majority of these cases the constitutionally enshrined education rights were ineffective in protecting minorities increasingly concerned with questions of language and religion.

However, public policy initiatives have, in recent years, given more prominence to matters of language, while at the same time appearing to pay less attention to religion in education. Since the early 1970s minority language instruction and, most notably, French immersion programs have become widespread in all provinces except Québec. Under the Constitution Act (1982) the linguistic minority, whether French or English, is guaranteed the right to have their children receive education in their own language. The courts have been quite forceful in enforcing this right when they have been asked to do so and all provinces have now put in place school system governance structures to ensure that this service is available to the rights-holders.

The protection of minority rights is the most visible feature of education policy, historically and currently; but of equal and perhaps even more fundamental importance has been the extension of the government's role in supporting and controlling educational institutions. The provincial governments, and in some respects also the federal government, feel responsible for ensuring universal access to high-quality instruction. From the age of 5 to about 16, school attendance is compulsory. New Brunswick is currently departing from this pattern. Legislation has been introduced (1997) which will make attendance in kindergarten compulsory and which will raise the compulsory school attendance age to 18. Increasing attendance rates and the average number of years spent in school are major policy goals.

Recent policy initiatives in education in every province indicate a desire by the governments to take greater control of the governance and operation of school systems. The number of school systems has been drastically reduced, as has the number of trustees on these boards. Boards are seeing their control over system financing drastically curtailed. At the same time provincial governments have reduced funding to and increased control over many post-secondary institutions. The past decade has seen a dramatic increase in centralization of the educational systems, a centralization which had been initiated over a century ago but which appeared to have leveled off until comparatively recently. The extension of the state's role has been the most far reaching of the changes in Canadian education policies over the past century and has transformed the machinery for implementing education policy.

Policy Formation and Implementation

In all provinces except New Brunswick, locally elected school boards are legally responsible for providing free and public schooling up to but not including the college or university level. In New Brunswick, school boards have been abolished and replaced by a system of school parent advisory committees and district parent advisory councils. The school system is typically divided into a primary level and a secondary level. Most programs of instruction terminate at Grade 12, although in Québec the secondary program ends at Grade 11. Grade 13 has recently been abolished in the Ontario system.

The Constitution Act (1867) assigned education "in and for each province" exclusively to the provincial legislatures, except for the never used federal power of remedial legislation if the rights of religious minorities were being disregarded. Provincial jurisdiction is jealously guarded, and there is considerable variation among the provinces in the structure of education systems. Overall policy is normally set by provincial departments of education. Departmental regulations or ministerial directives prescribe the basic components of the curriculum (see CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT) as well as the range of courses that may be offered at the option of local boards or individual schools.

The provincial government also approves instructional materials, establishes qualifications for teachers, specifies the rights of parents and students (eg, in the case of gifted children or children with handicaps), and sets expenditure ceilings on a per-student basis. Within the fairly narrow limits set by provincial regulations and financial constraints, the trustees elected to county or district boards exercise discretion over curriculum, the hiring, placement and remuneration of teachers, the location of schools and the range of programs offered by each. The degree of centralization in the system varies by province.

The extension of provincial government control has not always been achieved without controversy. The most wrenching conflict occurred in Québec, where prior to the reforms of the 1960s most students going on to university attended private - mainly church-sponsored and -administered - "classical colleges" (see COLLÈGE CLASSIQUE). Traditionally, it was felt the state's role in education should consist mainly of providing financial support for a system of schooling (both public and private institutions) controlled in all important respects by the Roman Catholic Church. In policymaking structures the supervision of the school system was the responsibility of 2 advisory committees, one Catholic (effectively the council of bishops) and the other Protestant. The latter was actually nonsectarian and served the entire English-language population of the province except for the Anglo-Catholics.

By the late 1950s the Catholic system's deficiencies had become obvious, partly from the very low percentage of youth who obtained secondary schooling and partly from the curriculum's weakness in scientific and technical subjects. The plans of Paul GÉRIN-LAJOIE, minister of youth in the newly elected government of Jean LESAGE, to create a Ministry of Education (1964) and to modernize the system were strongly opposed by many traditional leaders of Québec society, who rightly perceived that the transformation of the education system would transform the entire society; it was also opposed by much of the rural and lower-income population who would have to finance a system which they believed benefited primarily the aspiring urban middle class. Many rural dwellers also resented having to send their children to distant regional comprehensive schools ("polyvalentes"). Successive governments nevertheless succeeded in remaking the system from kindergarten to university, revamping the curriculum and creating a network of comprehensive secondary schools and post-secondary institutions, or COLLÈGES D'ENSEIGNEMENT GÉNÉRAL ET PROFESSIONEL (CEGEPs).

The controversial changes in Québec, which still generate bitter public disputes over curriculum and administrative structures, are in some way similar to those experienced elsewhere in Canada at an earlier period and over a longer time. Nonetheless the Québec situation was and is unique; because of the minority position of the Francophones within Canada and because of the former economic dominance of the Anglophones (a linguistic and religious minority within the province), Québec has a special interest in preserving full control over the educational system at all levels. In 1993 the provincial government obtained approval from the Supreme Court of Canada for its proposal to replace the denominational organizing framework for its public schools with a linguistic one. School systems will be, for the most part, French or English, and the religious minority, if it so wishes, may establish separate, denominational schools within these linguistic systems.

The Newfoundland government, acting on the recommendations of the Williams Commission (1992), has moved to essentially abolish the denominational education system which operated all schools in that province. It replaced this system with an interdenominational or nondenominational system. In order to make these changes legal the government acted on section 43 of the Constitution Act (1982) and amended Term 17 of the Terms of Union between Canada and Newfoundland (1949) which dealt with education. This amendment required approval of the federal government approval which was granted despite the efforts of the Senate to temper some elements of the new term.

Following the success of the Newfoundland government's constitutional intervention, the Québec government also resorted to a constitutional amendment in order to implement its linguistic policies in its educational system.

Canada is unique among developed nations in that it has no federal office of education. Nonetheless, while provincial autonomy in educational matters is constitutionally acknowledged and frequently asserted, it would be naive to ignore the fact that the federal government also plays a significant part in education in Canada. At the primary and secondary levels its interest has been limited to the extension of minority-language education through bilingualism grants. However, in recent years it has initiated and funded manpower-training programs, supported initiatives designed to help "at risk" students, and also attempted to broaden access to and rates of participation in post-secondary education. The most visible of these programs are sponsored by the Canada Employment and Immigration Commission and the Department of the Secretary of State, however, at the post-secondary level, virtually all federal departments and agencies are involved in providing some financial support, either directly or indirectly.

Over the past 30 years Ottawa has actively pursued all these policy aims through a variety of direct-expenditure programs (student aid, purchase of retraining services from vocational colleges, and from 1951 to 1967 direct grants to universities) and fiscal transfers to provincial governments. In 1992-93 the federal government transferred some $1.9 billion nominally for post-secondary education, but in fact without conditions. In addition, the provinces obtained $3.7 billion in revenue from "tax points" (a share of the income tax) transferred to them in 1977. The idea at that time was that the cash payments and the tax points together would make up a "fiscal transfer" enabling the provincial governments to offer substantial grants to universities and colleges. Thus the funding of post-secondary education would be shared between the federal and provincial governments. Originally the federal share was approximately 50 per cent. This percentage grew steadily until about 1986, but since then the formula has been revised downwards, and the federal cash grants have declined sharply. (See alsoINTERGOVERNMENTAL FINANCE.)

Educational policy is formulated alongside other government policies and in accordance with meta-policies which governments endorse at any particular time. In the late 1980s government allocations to education began to level off and during the 1990s they have declined sharply. The overriding preoccupation with debt and deficit reduction has led to policy positions which have resulted in reduced funding for public and post-secondary education and increased reliance on student fees as a source of revenue at the college and university levels. It is estimated that between 1990 and 1996, government operating grants to universities fell by as much as $800 per student and now account for only 70% of operating income. In 1990 government grants accounted for 80% of operating income.

As government grants to post-secondary institutions have declined, student fees have been increasing steadily. In many provinces governments have lifted the caps on the size of increases which universities could impose. The fact that fees differ greatly between provinces for similar programs is a further manifestation of the autonomy of the provinces in setting educational policies. No province, however, has escaped the massive increases in fees. Indeed some estimates indicate that fees have more than doubled, on average, in constant dollars, in the past 15 years.

A further indication of a policy shift away from public sector support for post-secondary education in general, and universities in particular, can be seen in the governments' expectations that spaces will be provided for larger numbers of students but no additional funding is available for their support.

These policy changes have had serious effects on how universities and colleges operate. In many institutions there is deep concern regarding the level of student services and physical plant upkeep. There is also a growing concern about the extremely high level of debt being accumulated by students and the increasing numbers of individuals who default in repaying these loans. There is also a worry that increased tuition fees are excluding many suitable candidates from receiving a post-secondary education; that college and university places will only be available to the relatively affluent and well-off.

Critique of Education Policies

Policies in any area must be evaluated according to their objectives. With education policy, individual and community preferences vary considerably. In matters of curriculum it is argued that pupils or students should be allowed to study what they choose at their own pace, while others demand a return to basics and a less liberal classroom atmosphere. Some critics urge respect for linguistic and religious particularities, while others insist that the building and preservation of community requires a common educational experience for the young, according to norms established by the majority. A single issue - whether education is primarily for the development of the individual's personal capacities or for molding character and imparting skills so that people become useful and well-adjusted social beings - underlies these disagreements; it is also at the root of controversies over the extent of public support for education (particularly at the post-secondary level), the importance of private institutions and the degree of government control over the system.

There is, however, widespread agreement that the largest possible number of young people should complete a high-school program and that access to post-secondary education ought not to be restricted by the finances of individuals or their families. In fact, international comparisons of levels of educational attainment show Canada in a highly favourable light, perhaps the highest in the world. In 1997 over 40% of the population over 15 years of age had at least some post-secondary education, while the median number of years of schooling for this group was 12.7. While there remains some variation among provinces in rates of school attendance, earlier disparities have largely disappeared (percentages of the over-15 age group attending an educational institution varied in 1996 from 15% in Nova Scotia to 18% in Ontario and 18% in the Yukon).

Access to post-secondary education is commonly discussed as if it were primarily a question of financial means (see EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY). This factor is undeniably important, and for this reason all the provincial governments have in the past limited the fees that universities and colleges are allowed to charge their students. In 1955 about a quarter of total university operating costs were borne by fees, a figure which dropped over the next 30 years to about 13% on average (though with wide variation among universities).

The large increases in tuition fees within the past decade have students in some provinces now paying between a third and a quarter of the cost of their instruction through fees. This makes the availability of student grants and loans all the more vital, and while the amount of money available as student loans has been increased and access to these monies has been made easier, there is a growing concern at the alarming size of the debts being accumulated by individual students and at the number of students opting for bankruptcy to escape these encumbrances. Except in Québec, loans are funded by Ottawa under the Canada Student Loans Plan, which is administered by the provinces; in addition, the provinces offer grants based on individual students' financial need, although some are far more generous than others.