Monday, February 6, 2012

Canada #1 in education: For what?

Education has been regarded by many as a great equalizer. The sad thing, however, is that not many have access to tertiary or college/university education after high school.

A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Education at a Glance 2011 recently stated that the countries with the most highly educated citizens are also some of the wealthiest in the world. Not surprisingly, most of the countries in the top 10 list of most educated countries in the world have also the largest GDPs.

Finland, which is considered the envy of the world today in educating its nation’s children, is number 10 while Canada is at the topmost of the list. The United States is at number 4 while two Asian countries, South Korea and Japan, also crack the Top 10 list.

According to the OECD report, 50 per cent of Canada’s population have attained postsecondary education. Canada has an average annual growth rate of 2.3%, the 5th lowest and with a GDP per capita of $39,070, the 10th highest in the world. Tertiary education spending accounts for 41% of total education spending in the country. Nearly 25 per cent of university students in Canada come from an immigration background.
Students at computers. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Comstock Images.
Canada was ranked number one by OECD report among the Top 10 most
educated countries in the world.
Canada selects new immigrants on a points-system and awards applicants with higher education with more points. Since the adoption of this system of selecting immigrants, newcomers to Canada by and large possess at a minimum a baccalaureate degree from university. Some of them have also completed masteral and doctoral degrees. With highly educated parents, it is no wonder that children of immigrants have also picked up from their parents’ motivation to go to university after finishing high school.

However, Canada’s emphasis on high education for its immigrants is not necessarily correlated to job marketability. Many highly educated immigrants end up taking odd jobs that are below their educational training and skills because the market or employers usually demand Canadian work experience. It is not surprising to see people with PhDs driving taxis or cleaning buildings, jobs that are far asymmetrical to their qualifications.

Take for example the corps of live-in caregivers that Canada brings in every year.

Most Filipino caregivers possess a college degree and are proficient in English as a conversational language. These caregivers have sacrificed pursuing their original dreams after finishing college in order to come to Canada for a better life. Some of them are teachers, accountants, and nurses, and had they stayed home in the Philippines, would not be earning as much as they earn from domestic work in Canada. When they complete their domestic work contracts, they become eligible to explore the open market for jobs and apply for permanent residence.

Brain drain is an unfortunate result for the Philippines. But what can a poor economy like that of the Philippines do to prevent its graduates and professionals from leaving when there are no jobs at home? In Finland, where schools score consistently at the top of world rankings, teaching is a prestigious career. Finnish teachers are highly valued, and it is more difficult to get into teacher education than law or medicine.

In the Philippines, I could still recall that during the martial law period under Ferdinand Marcos, Metro aides—street sweepers and cleaners employed by city governments to ensure that local surroundings are kept clean and immaculate, especially for visiting tourists—were well paid, with salaries higher than what teachers got paid for. It’s therefore easy to understand why Filipino teachers would rather work as housemaids and nannies in Canada than teach in Philippine schools.

However, selecting immigrants with very high education is not necessarily a positive or practical measure in ensuring a constant supply of workers if their skills and training do not directly match industry demand.

The federal government has to implement more effective and equitable programs of accreditation of foreign credentials if it must justify continuing to place more weight on higher education rather than actual work skills that the job market demands. Otherwise, the top ranking of Canada among the most educated countries in world would be deceptive, since a big slice of its population with tertiary education are actually immigrants who are underemployed in jobs beneath their training and education.

New immigrants are not the only ones having a problem accessing jobs equivalent to their training and skills. A far more serious problem relates to the crisis among First Nations children who are unable to complete even high school education. On the average, native students receive about $3,000 less in education funding than non-natives.
A residential school for First Nations children in Manitoba, Canada. Photo courtesy
 of Wikipedia. Please click link to view "Aboriginal Education: Solutions for the Future,"
Aboriginal leaders have expressed their complaint to the federal government that only 40 per cent of youths living on reserves finish high school. Some First Nations adolescents have to leave their families to attend school off-reserve because their remote communities don’t have schools. According to a Toronto Star report, seven kids in Thunder Bay, Ontario, have died in the last 10 years while living on their own seeking an education.

Professor Cindy Blackstock of the University Alberta, who is also the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, filed a human rights complaint in 2007 accusing the government of wilfully underfunding First Nations children services. “It is discriminatory not to give First Nations kids the same chances as other Canadian children,” Blackstock said.

Canada on top of the list of most educated countries in the world is an empty recognition when the reality on the ground tells otherwise.

When you have new immigrants who cannot find decent work despite their training credentials, this indicates something is wrong with the country’s selection system. When you have native children deprived of basic high school education, Canada should not feel proud and worthy of recognition as being the top-ranked most educated country in the world.

Higher education, in another sense, could be a barrier to equal opportunities for success if Canadian universities continue to keep the emphasis solely on high marks. Acceptance to a Canadian university, depending on the academic program one chooses, is becoming very difficult because students need to have lots of A’s in their high school marks in order to qualify. This emphasis on marks as best indicators of post-secondary success has its limitations. Grades are not the only indicators of a student’s potential after high school. Involvement in community activities and other volunteer work, and leadership skills may also provide more objective information on an applicant’s personal profile that is necessary to predict success in a university or college program.

It is uncontested wisdom that education today prepares the students for life and work in an advanced economy. Skilled and motivated workers are required by modern economies, and they can profit from these job opportunities if they are equipped to respond to labour demands.

But this kind of thinking sometimes becomes problematic because the connection between education and work, for example, is made too simple and direct. It distorts the purpose of schooling, i.e., the development of individuals as ends in themselves, and not merely as instruments in the economic process.

Aristotle once said that we educate ourselves in order to make noble use of our leisure, which is diametrically opposed to the contemporary view that we go to school so we can a get a job. A better way to arrive at a compromise is by distinguishing education from training. By training, we mean the process we undertake to prepare ourselves for a job.

Since we start out in school at an early age, we need to be trained in basic numeracy skills—how to add, subtract, multiply or divide, and learn simple literacy skills like reading, spelling and writing. Exactly like an athlete who trains his body to react and adapt to the rigors of his sport. When we have acquired these fundamental skills, we move to the next and higher step, which is education proper. At this stage, we learn how to think and to know how to find and use information, in other words, the process of judgment and evaluation.

The same can be said about the standards we use to select new immigrants, the ways we can help disadvantaged children like those from the First Nations so that they are not left behind, and how we provide universal access to university education.

In the final analysis, the development of the human potential is the most paramount of all. To be worthy of being part of an advanced society, we should not be content with raising individuals as mere tools in achieving social or economic progress. That people are allowed to be the best that they can be should be on top of the Canadian leadership’s agenda.

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