Rae's New Agenda

BOB RAE IS GOOD with a crowd. Not Johnny Carson good, but good all the same.

Rae's New Agenda

BOB RAE IS GOOD with a crowd. Not Johnny Carson good, but good all the same. On a balmy evening last fall, while most Canadians were preparing for Thanksgiving weekend, the former premier of Ontario sat at the front of a nondescript lecture hall at Niagara College, facing a capacity crowd of disgruntled parents and students, professors and presidents. In suits and ties, shorts and Birkenstocks, on crutches and in wheelchairs, they had come to air their grievances with the province's ailing post-secondary system. "I'm warning you," said Rae, as he watched the turquoise plastic seats fill up, "this isn't Oprah! We're not handing out free cars." He paused. "This is your night. I'm just here to listen."

And listen he did, as one by one they took the mike. For two straight hours, they told him about their lives: of crowded classrooms and student debt, of big dreams and dead ends. He nodded and prodded and bantered. He made no bones about the fact that Ontario, home to 40 per cent of Canadian students, ranked dead last when it came to provincial per-student funding. At the end of the evening, he made a promise: "This is not a theoretical exercise. Something is going to happen." And as he headed out, he closed with a joke: "You know my wife's definition of a defeated premier? Someone who gets into the back seat of a car and is surprised when it doesn't move."

Nice joke, now a little dated. Last week, Rae was squarely in the driver's seat, delivering his blockbuster blueprint for overhauling Ontario's post-secondary system. Coherent, pragmatic and passionate, Rae's report outlines a comprehensive series of recommendations that, if implemented, would significantly change the quality of learning in Ontario, if not the very future of the province itself.

Calling for a $2.1-billion fix, Rae wants to see an investment of $1.3 billion in operating grants for colleges and universities by 2007-08, money to boost overall quality; $540 million for building and equipment; and a further $300 million in student aid, ensuring free tuition for the most needy. He wants an immediate expansion in graduate education and skills training. And he's challenging the federal government, with its hefty surplus, to be a "steady partner" in that reinvestment: he's asking for a dedicated transfer for colleges and universities. Good for him.

And tuition? Rae is recommending that colleges and universities be free to set their own fees - after there has been a total overhaul of the hugely flawed student loan program. Once a new system is in place, he believes Ontario's tuition freeze should end. In other words, he's asking everyone - governments, families and students - to help fix what's broken.

You have to hand it to Premier Dalton MCGUINTY: it was an inspired move to get his predecessor to do the heavy lifting on this one - in essence, an enormous exercise in public relations. Rae and his team spent months crossing the province, meeting with more than 5,500 people in round-table discussions and town hall sessions. For the ex-premier, what was the toughest part of the job? He doesn't pause: "Convincing the public that reinvestment is urgent."

We baby-boom parents have high expectations of our universities. We were the beneficiaries of a well-funded system, a brilliant federal-provincial partnership - and yet we have not made reinvestment a priority. For some time, Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and chairman of the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity, has been warning that our under-investment in higher education accounts for a sizable portion of our prosperity gap with the United States. "Health care is an 800-lb. gorilla," says Martin. "It crowds out other investments - primarily in education - that are absolutely required for prosperity."

Last week, in debt-free Alberta, Premier Ralph KLEIN made it clear that education would be a top priority this year. In a televised address, he unveiled a tuition freeze and a pledge for a new tuition policy, plus plans for 60,000 new post-secondary spaces by 2020. This on top of the recently announced grants for education saving plans and a $500-million endowment for medical research. As one university administrator said: "This year, Christmas came in February - and there's more to come."

Bob Rae has done a masterful job in urging Ontario to follow suit. Now, there remains just one question. When a former premier gets into the front seat of a car, will the car actually move?

See also COMMUNITY COLLEGE; UNIVERSITY.

Maclean's February 21, 2005