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Federations Magazine Article
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Excellence Without a Federal Ministry

Excellence Without a Federal Ministry BY Richard Van Loon

Higher education, generally described in canada
as post-secondary education, was not specifically
mentioned in the original Canadian Constitution
when it was adopted in 1867. Instead, the British
North America Act assigns education exclusively to
provincial governments, subject to a number of
qualifications regarding religious schools.
The fathers of the constitution were attempting to create a
centralized federal structure, while still protecting the cultural
and religious integrity of Quebec. What Canada got, through a
combination of judicial interpretation, provincial government
insistence, and cultural diversity, was one of the most decentralized
federations in the world.
The combination of a decentralized federation and the attribution
of educational jurisdiction to provincial governments
might have created a minimal federal role as each province
developed a unique system of post-secondary education. But
the fiscal power of the federal government, together with a conviction
that higher education was vital to the future of the
Canadian economy, has resulted in the federal government
exercising considerable influence over higher education and
paying nearly 40 per cent of the costs.
The substantial entanglement of federal and provincial roles,
however, is not accompanied by coordinating mechanisms
where the two orders of government actually discuss policy.
The fact that Canada has one of the highest higher-education
participation rates in the world and that several universities can
be viewed as world-class institutions is a tribute to the ability of
institutions and diffuse governance structures to create a
decentralized coordination.
More Than 1.5 Million Students Each Year
Post-secondary education is big business in Canada. In 2005,
more than 1.5 million of Canada’s 32.5 million people – four per
cent of the population – were enrolled in higher education, with
80 per cent of them enrolled full time. More than 40 per cent of
these full-time students are enrolled in community colleges,
primarily in two- or three-year technical programs. Canada has
the second highest attainment rate for higher education of any
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development
(oecd) country, although its university attainment rate of 22 per
cent is only slightly higher than the oecd average. It is in the
area of sub-baccalaureate attainment that Canada ranks at the
top of the oecd nations.
Approximately three-fifths of public expenditures on higher
education are funded by the 10 provincial governments, the
remainder by the federal
government. Tuition fees
account for a steadily
increasing level of institutional
revenues, now
about 40 per cent for universities.
Tuition fees
vary widely by province.
They range from c$1,668 in Quebec for in-province students to
c$6,030 in Nova Scotia. The median is c$4,416. Total public and
private expenditures per student in Canada were us$20,000 in
2004, placing Canada third only to Switzerland and the U.S.,
where spending per student was closer to us$25,000. The oecd
average was us$11,300.
In Canada, public universities are highly autonomous.
Individual boards of governors and senates control the respective
management and the academic programs of all universities,
and provincial governments interfere very little in their decisions. Thus several provinces have instituted quality assurance bodies.
All are concerned that student mobility is unduly hindered by
the lack of intra-provincial systems for transferring credits for
courses. Canada has been relatively slow in developing quality
assurance and course credit transfer mechanisms.
Ottawa and Provinces Argue, Then Agree
In the field of higher education, much of the highly decentralized
formal nature of the Canadian arrangements must be
attributed to the insistence by Quebec that education is exclusively
the concern of the provincial government. But $9 billion
per year in various forms of federal support for purely provincial
institutions is not to be disregarded, so provincial
governments have developed reasonable levels of coordination,
all the while incorrectly insisting that the federal role is, at
most, a minor one.
Canada views research as one of the major keys to economic
advancement, and believes that support of university-based
research is a legitimate area of federal activity. And since
research is strongly concentrated in universities (as much or
more than in any other advanced country), this has meant a
major role for the federal government. As a result, over 80 per
cent of public support for university research in Canada comes
from the federal government.
Two other major areas of federal support for higher education
are student assistance and intergovernmental transfers.
Federal student loan programs supplement provincial student
support schemes in all provinces to the tune of approximately
$2 billion per year. In addition, the federal government provides
tax relief for interest payments on all student loans and savings
incentive programs for higher education. Federal and provincial
officials have worked out protocols and procedures to work
together. Intergovernmental transfers for higher education are
paid separately from other social transfers and unconditionally.
However, in the federal budget of March 19, 2007, a 40 per cent
increase was promised for the next fiscal year, dependent upon
the federal government being satisfied that all the money is
going to higher education.
Working Without a Federal Minister
In Canada there are no formal consultative and planning mechanisms
to attempt coordination and there is not a federal
minister of education charged with working with the other levels
of government. Yet, while the systems(s) are far from perfect,
they appear to work effectively, providing a high standard of
education to a large proportion of the Canadian population
and sustaining successful research programs. The paradox is all
the greater since, at a formal level, the Canadian Council of
Ministers of Education, nominally the highest-level coordinating
mechanism available, consists only of provincial ministers
and it excludes attendance by any federal minister.
In fact, the outcome has been one of effective informal coordination.
To some degree, this coordination is done by the
higher-education institutions themselves. Also to some degree,
it reflects the ability of Canadian bureaucrats to plan together,
sometimes despite their political masters. It is also reflective of
the insistence of the Canadian polity that the Canadian federal
system must, in the end, deliver results.