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Elite? or just educated?

Having spent some time working in the US and frequently immersed in American academic journals and conferences, I am well aware that there is a latent anti-intellectual bias that tends to rear its head during, oh…say national elections, or on the eve of major policy reform. Canadians, apparently, share this apprehension of “minority elites”.

The recent media storm over the Canadian census long form (see my previous post) has ignited a seemingly latent populace that believes that research, and researchers themselves, are pointless exercises in readin’, writin’, book-learnin’ and other geeky pursuits that don’t matter: that data will only be used in order to harass and over-tax the less-educated, privacy-minded general public. (Have a look at some of the articles posted in every major Canadian news outlet concerning the recent Census developments, and more to the point, have a look at some of the comments the “general public” posted.) But it’s not just your “average Canadians” who question the educated population. In today’s Globe and Mail (“Tories stall census probe, ask to hear from average Canadians”), Industry Minister Tony Clement has “already dismissed the controversy as one that only occupies “some of the elites in our country,” a phrase he also used when Canadian academics criticized the federal government’s decision to prorogue Parliament.

Maybe in countries where a university education costs more than a Bentley, it would be correct to state that educated people are a bunch of rich snobs who might be a tad removed from the fray (I said maybe). The vast majority of Canadian universities are public schools, meaning they have government-subsidized tuitions that are considerably lower than their American counterparts. Although tuitions have risen steadily in the last fifteen years or so, Canadian student loans are still readily available to most students. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) offers fellowships for Masters and PhD students. Admittedly, these have become rarer in recent years due to the Harper government’s decision to prioritize PhD topics directly related to the economy, and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) just announced it would drop its Doctoral Fellowship program this year. However, it would seem that funding scarcity hasn’t had much of an effect on our already high education levels.

Higher education is fairly well-distributed among gender, ethnic groups and income levels in Canada. During the 1930s, a quarter of Canadian women were university educated, and to look at graduate schools now you’d be hard-pressed to find a majority of men in any discipline: women have out-numbered men in university admissions since 1981. In the 2006 Census, 25% of the Canadian population had a university degree higher than Bachelors level. By the way, this is lower than the 31% of Americans with this level of education. Almost half of the Canadian population (49%) has a college diploma, trade certification, or university degree. Of OECD countries, Canada has the highest percentage of the population (from 25 to 64 years old) with a post-secondary education (46%), slightly higher than the Japan (40%) and the US (39%), and considerably higher than the OECD average of 26%.

Many immigrants enter the country with educations far superior to those born in Canada. And because the vast majority of population growth in Canada is due to immigration, these university-educated immigrants have a major impact on our cities, our labour market, and our education systems. In 2006, 51% of recent immigrants to Canada had university degrees, compared to 19% of the Canadian-born population. Immigrants also out-perform native-born Canadians in prose, document literacy, numeracy and problem-solving, according to the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey. Even more importantly, immigrants raised in China, India, or the Philippines (Canada’s three largest source countries for immigrants) know the importance of education and instill it in their children. Let me be clear: it is well known in the poorer parts of the world that education offers an escape route out of poverty. In most cases, the only way out. Many of my classmates at the University of Toronto were the children of immigrants who had only been able to complete high school educations or, occasionally, community college. We were the first generation to attend community colleges and universities en masse, and it was expected that we do so, because our parents could not afford to go themselves when they were our age. Despite their scrimping and saving, many of us were unable to pay tuition without government-subsidized public schools, government-funded loans, scholarships and fellowships.

While a university attendance is lower among the low-income population, Statistics Canada published a study in 2007 that found lower rates of attendance were due to differences in academic performance, parents’ level of education, parents’ expectations, the high school attended, and other such factors. Only 9.5% of the youth in the study reported that financial constraints were a barrier to university attendance. While this is still cause for concern, it is somewhat reassuring that the rapid ascent of tuitions in the 1990s have not have more serious effects.

I’m not sure that it’s accurate to describe this one-quarter of the Canadian population with Bachelors degrees as elite, or “the most powerful, best educated or best trained group in society” (Cambridge Dictionary). Can the half of the population with post-secondary educations, or the half of recent immigrants with university degrees, all be considered elites? While there are some groups in Canada who are under-represented in higher education (only 8% of Aboriginals have university degrees, but 41% have post-secondary educations), we are generally an educated bunch.

Perhaps that’s the real crisis in the Harper government: realizing yet again that Canadians aren’t as dumb as his 2008 re-election might suggest. First, we rose up in the tens of thousands to protest proroguing Parliament, and now that over 200 groups have protested the removal of the Census long form, he’s had to personally speak out on what he probably considered a minor technical issue that would only concern “elites”. After both of these crises, the Conservatives dropped in the polls, creating considerable distress for Harper’s minority Conservatives. An educated populace is a problem when your government acts more like a monarchy than a democratically-elected minority government that could topple at any time.


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