Skills, strategy, bumf and bargle

(February 23, 2021)

Observing the first efforts of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration Minister Wayne Ewasko, I am in awe of the Pallister government’s ability to make a bad situation worse, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Of course, Ewasko is no more responsible for this latest debacle than he is for the Winnipeg Jets’ decision to trade Patrik Laine. Given the newly created (no website) department and the newly minted minister, it’s no stretch to realize someone else was behind the tortuous language of “Manitoba’s Skills, Talent and Knowledge Strategy.”

Premier Brian Pallister seems to have a compulsion to turn allies into antagonists, coupled with very poor political memory.

In the 2017 budget, Pallister’s government phased out the tuition fee rebate for graduating students who remained in Manitoba, supposedly saving $52 million a year and giving graduates yet another reason to move elsewhere to pursue their careers. These are the same young people Ewasko now wants to stay and enable both our pandemic recovery and a sustainable future for Manitoba.

Forget the awkward homilies about useful education, Mr. Premier — restore the tuition tax credit, or watch them continue to leave and put down roots elsewhere.

Then, in 2018, the government made international students ineligible for provincial health care, supposedly saving $3.1 million a year. That same year, by our tone-deaf government’s own numbers, international students from 100 countries contributed $400 million and supported 4,250 jobs in Manitoba. Bizarrely, that same government then went on to proclaim 2019 as the Year of International Education in Manitoba.

FYI: removing the probate fees in 2020 (the tax on dead rich people) cost the government at least the $9.2 million collected in 2018-19 – or roughly three times more money than it saved by cancelling the international students’ health care.

When Pallister has a bee in his bonnet, there is always money to spare. When it comes to post-secondary education, however, his attitude oscillates between ordering us to “Do More with Less” and then claiming “Less is More.”

In real dollars, post-secondary funding has dropped every year under Pallister’s watch. To make things worse, the government lurked and threatened outside labour negotiations in 2016 with faculty at the University of Manitoba, if it did not actively interfere. As the University of Winnipeg Faculty Association renegotiates contracts that expired in 2020, how Ewasko implements this new post-secondary strategy is therefore critical.

After all, there is a difference between education and training: education develops the whole person, while training provides or increases a practical skill set. As someone who taught for 11 years at Red River College (until early retirement), and continues to teach at both the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg, I have often discussed this difference with colleagues.

Good post-secondary education for Manitobans requires both education and training – but not necessarily at the same time, or in the same place.

At RRC, the focus on training comes at a personal cost to students, as “harder” skills development can overwhelm the “softer” and perhaps more important aspects of their education. They may get a job at graduation, but keeping it long-term is another story.

We often heard that the normal “shelf-life” of a diploma was three to five years past graduation, after which students required retraining, perhaps in an entirely new field. In a crowded curriculum, therefore, how could we also include “soft” courses that encouraged the lifelong learning skills and abilities our graduates would soon require?

I participated in the attempted shift to a polytechnic model, in which RRC tried to deliver both kinds of courses — but, thanks to reductions in funding and unimaginative new leadership, that initiative morphed into building new facilities instead of investing in new staff and dynamic programming.

For more than two decades, I have witnessed inspired, dedicated teaching and service from many colleagues in all three institutions. But I have also seen administrative decisions about faculty hiring and program curriculum that were driven by incompetence, insecurity and privilege, without much concern for students or their futures in Manitoba or anywhere else.

All post-secondary institutions in Manitoba could do better: communications skills, critical thinking skills and ethical reasoning are important for the employability and well-being of all future citizens, but they need to be taught to everybody — not just expected to appear.

We also need an intentional focus on sustainability in all post-secondary educational settings — grounded in principles of ecological, racial and social justice — because our graduates will live in the future we are choosing together every day.

Whatever bumf and bargle has been foisted on him by his predecessor (and by Pallister), Wayne Ewasko — as a former teacher and guidance counsellor — should know by now what good education and effective training both require.

He did not write that befuddled homily — he just delivered it — but Ewasko will certainly wear the consequences of its implementation.

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Close to home is where we need to live

(February 9, 2021)

Nine years ago, I began to write a trilogy of books on the sustainability problem – what was wrong, how we got here, and what we could do to avert the disaster that lies ahead.

The title of the third book, published in in 2016, was somewhat prophetic, given our current pandemic situation. I called it Live Close to Home.

One of the things I had realized about our unsustainable western culture was that many of us are more interested in things at a distance than in things close at hand.

Instead of eating staple foods that are produced locally, we import them from away — often, far away. Instead of spending time at home, we escape from there as often as we can — again, sometimes going far away. Instead of spending cash we already have in our pockets, we buy more and more on credit, which is money we hope to have, sometime in the future. We fume about politics and global affairs in other places, but ignore what is happening in our own city or neighbourhood.

When it comes to the environment, we worry about global warming, pollution and environmental degradation and how these affect people and planet somewhere else, but don’t think much about what we eat, drink and breathe ourselves, right here.

If you think about our relationships with other people, there has been a similar shift there, too. We don’t really reach out and touch someone – too often, we use our communications technology to do it instead, from a distance.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has only made this situation worse. So, with physical distancing morphing into social isolation, it’s not surprising that we worry about our mental as well as physical health during this pandemic.

I remember watching people, supposedly out together to talk over coffee, yet both on their cellphones messaging someone else instead. After all, when you text and message instead of talking face to face, your partner literally can be anyone, anywhere in the world. Often, these partners are far away — because distant avatars may be more exciting than an actual person picking the food out of their teeth, seated across the table.

Surveying students, especially international students, I found many are spending six to eight hours a day on their phones and computers, and others confess they are online from the moment they wake up, all day long. So if the internet goes down or the cell service stops, it seems we are utterly cut off from everything and everyone that matters.

Of course, this is not true. But that’s how it feels.

Obviously, isolation and loneliness are not new problems. You could argue the pandemic has merely removed the distractions that used to keep us from noticing how alone we really are. A night at the club, the pub, the concert, the game — all these activities allow us to avoid the awkward fact that the crowd would not have missed us if we had stayed away.

In the end, we can’t escape who and where we are. For the sake of our own good health, we need to live close to home, focusing first on ourselves and where (and how) we live, and to make that the foundation of everything else.

Living close to home provides other benefits for a green recovery and a sustainable future, too. We can buy local food to cook for ourselves; shop local, in community stores; help neighbours struggling with chores they can’t manage on their own; drop food on the doorstep of someone who feels just as isolated as we do. We can be kind, rather than cranky, when someone makes a mistake because of the stress they are under, too.

We are trying to spend less and stretch each dollar further, because our future income seems not as certain as it used to be. We now know more about our kids’ education than perhaps we ever did before, because we help them with it every day — or perhaps we have become their teacher.

Favourite restaurants provide us with takeout food that families are now eating together, instead of everyone alone and apart. We can no longer easily escape the people we live with, a fact that can be both painful and hopeful at the same time, as we are made to focus on what is happening close to home.

And yet while we have learned, the hard way, that nothing on a screen can replace a hug from someone we love, no one is ever really alone when there is someone, somewhere, who appreciates us for who we are. Especially when our communications technology is used to develop or enrich our personal situation, not just to escape it, living close to home can be a healthy and positive approach to coping with pandemic stress.

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