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Higher education should not be a priority for governments; it should be the priority, former Ontario Premier Bob Rae told a select assembly of high-ranking politicians and education leaders who gathered at the Université de Montréal on November 21.
Rae said it is imperative for the federal and provincial governments to increase investment in education and to accord universities a greater flexibility over tuition rates and curriculum content. Mediocrity is not an acceptable criterion for Canadian universities, he added, at a time when governments in the United States and Asia are allocating enormous resources towards the pursuit of excellence.
"Bronze is not a goal in life. Education has to be the priority for Canada. I'm convinced that it's absolutely essential for the economic future of the country and the well-being of the Canadian population."
Rae pulled few punches in calling for a new educational paradigm, one in which accessibility and excellence are not competing goals. He challenged the idea that frozen tuition rates promote access or equity, arguing that low rates lead to poor quality programs that serve to create a barrier to real opportunities. A better option, said Rae, is for Canadian governments to emulate England and Australia by providing financing to all needy students, and then recouping a portion of it from the higher earnings they enjoy after graduation.
"Canada needs the drive to win. If it's possible in Hong Kong, the U.S., Great Britain, it's possible here."
McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and her U de M counterpart and former colleague Luc Vinet were co-hosts of the event. They welcomed those in attendance, which included leaders from other universities, the provincial Education minister, Jean-Marc Fournier, and prominent Quebecers including authors of the recent manifeste lucide.
Rae praised the manifesto as courageous, claiming it opened a debate on the future of social democracy in Quebec and across the country as governments look for new means to ensure a prosperous society. This prosperity will be essential, he said, in light of the country's aging demographic.
An investment in education is the prime guarantor of future prosperity, according to Rae, who said the federal government must treat universities with the same priority which has been accorded to health issues in recent years.
The former premier, speaking to reporters later on, refused to say whether he has been approached for a potential cabinet post in Ottawa, and did not state categorically whether or not he will return to politics. His visit in Montreal comes after the release of his report in Ontario earlier this year that called on that province's government to inject $1.3 billion into post-secondary education.
Ontario has acted on Rae's recommendations by injecting millions into higher education, further widening the funding gap between the two provinces' university systems.