A big idea for Ontario's colleges and universities

The Toronto Star

Aug 16, 2007 04:30 AM
Peter MacLeod

With 10 weeks to go before the provincial election, the campaign is still stuck on snooze. What Ontarians want right now is a little well-earned time in the hammock. Billions for transit, green energy or autos barely creates a stir.

So to get things rolling, here's a simple, sweeping idea that would create a legacy for the next government, put higher education on the public agenda and really give people something to talk about.

Ontario should join Erasmus now.

Dubbed "one of the most important programs for cultural exchange in mankind's history," Erasmus is an agreement by EU member states to encourage co-operation between their universities and colleges, boost the mobility of students and educators and improve the transparency and full academic recognition of studies throughout the EU.

Since Erasmus was created in 1987, some 1.2 million students from 31 countries, attending almost 2,200 post-secondary institutions, have benefited from completing a portion of their studies abroad. We're talking arts schools, technical colleges, institutes for advanced sciences, as well as some of Europe's most prestigious universities.

If you're an EU citizen and apply to the Erasmus program, you can start your degree at the University of Copenhagen, complete a semester in Paris, then graduate from the University of Amsterdam.

Same tuition, same credits – representing a degree of collaboration that would make the average Ontario registrar dizzy.

Erasmus, quite simply, is the mother of all exchange programs. And Ontario should want in.


Mobility: In a multiculture, travel policy is social policy is economic policy. Future prosperity will depend not only upon every Ontarian's orientation and familiarity with their own province and country, but with the world. Those who warn that a "brain drain" to other countries – particularly to the U.S. – only strips the country of its best and brightest ignore the healthy aspiration of most young people to spend at least a part of their life living in another country. Rather than resist it, we would do well to accept this reality and match it with an idea of citizenship and post-secondary education that encourages our young to circulate through other countries and cultures.

Prominence: It is in Ontario's strategic interest to be attractive and open to young Europeans, and that a part of their formative experience be a Canadian experience.

Ontario can use reciprocal access to its universities and colleges to distinguish and secure itself a place on the international circuit of talent and trade.

Erasmus should be the first higher education area we join, but by no means the last. Erasmus is a model we can build upon. We should be looking to East Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America to propose the opening up of a free-trade zone for learning where none exists.

The irony of globalization remains that we have created an international infrastructure where it is vastly easier to move goods than people.

Programs such as Erasmus that assist the circulation of students across borders can begin to redress this imbalance – and place Ontario squarely at the centre of a global crossroads of learning and talent.

Excellence: Ontario's universities and colleges rightly place a heavy emphasis on excellence, both in their teaching and research. Any move to standardize systems inevitably raises concerns that a lower common denominator will prevail and devalue reputations.

The Erasmus program is designed to the contrary. Credits may be transferable, but the reputations of its member institutions remain distinct.

Operating in concert with their European peers, Ontario's universities and colleges have an opportunity to see their reputations grow.

Erasmus would make routine the idea that you could begin at the University of Guelph, transfer to Frankfurt and graduate from Prague. For a young Czech or German, their itineraries might well work in reverse.

For all, the result would be a qualitative shift in the academic and cultural opportunities accessible to young Ontarians and Europeans.

John Tory may have worked for Bill Davis, but we just aren't in the business of building new college or university systems any more.

Instead, he, or Premier Dalton McGuinty, could give future generations of young Ontarians access to Europe and the benefit of a continent's worth of higher learning.

To those who wonder whether we'd be admitted by our EU partners: Try knocking. Rumour has it they might open the door.

Peter MacLeod is principal of The Planning Desk and a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University.