02/16/2013 09:03 EST | Updated 04/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Why the Best Canada Is Built on Education


The Liberal Party of Canada must be a party of principle. Over the course of this campaign, I have proposed key principles that should form the basis of Liberal policy: equality of opportunity, a positive approach to freedom, a grounding in science and evidence, and a commitment to embrace Canada's diversity as a driver of strength and unity.

These principles are related and mutually reinforcing. Together, they form a foundation on which to build a truly modern, progressive political movement that will speak to, with and for all Canadians.

The greatest of these principles is equality of opportunity. It is key to all the others. To be successful, we Liberals need to be the voice for the millions of Canadians who share this belief, who believe that in a fair society, hard work should pay off.

While many policy areas influence -- positively or negatively -- equality of opportunity, education is first among equals. Canadians know this. It's what we tell our kids at breakfast tables from St. John's to Victoria: stay in school if you want a good job. It is the question businesses and investors ask: where can we find the most highly skilled workers to compete and grow?

Now, I am well aware that Section 93 of the Constitution allocates responsibility for education to the provinces. I respect and support that division of power.

At the national level, there is a long history of federal efforts to supplement and support provincial policy goals. From the Canada Student Loans program, established in 1964, to the more recently created Research Granting councils, the federal role is well-established. The federal government's responsibility for First Nations education is as unquestioned as it is poorly executed. Overall, given the clear evidence linking educational attainment to personal economic prosperity, there is now a pressing need for national leadership.

It's time we took education more seriously as a driver of economic success and security right across the country. We know that seven out of ten of Canada's future new jobs will require post-secondary education. A Liberal Party led by me would make it the highest national economic priority to raise our post-secondary education rate to 70 per cent of Canadians.

In short, the core of Liberal economic policy should be to make Canada the best educated country on Earth. We will build Canada's competitive advantage around a highly skilled, creative and innovative workforce, because Canadians' ingenuity and work ethic represent the best investment we can make in an era when change is the only constant.

The path was once much more straightforward. A young Canadian studied hard in school, which guaranteed entry into an affordable college, university or an apprenticeship program. Upon completing the program, she was able to find a steady and secure job that allowed her to pay down what little debt she accumulated. That job lasted a long time, perhaps even until retirement.

Well, that world is gone. Competition is fierce for post-secondary education. That education is much more expensive, but also more essential. The cost of post-secondary education has grown significantly at a time when middle-class incomes have stalled.

Today, Canadians can expect to change careers about six times over the course of our working lives. Sometimes these changes are forced upon us by economic dislocation; other times, people choose to seek more meaningful, fulfilling work.

No wonder so many Canadians are feeling anxious, unsure even, about whether we can afford the education our kids will need to secure a better life. We are also concerned about whether we can afford to upgrade our own skills and knowledge, to keep pace with the changing world around us.

The very idea of progress is under real threat in this country, for the first time in generations. The Canadian promise, that if you get educated and work hard, you can guarantee a better life for yourself and for your kids, is being seriously questioned. Canadians are rightly concerned that their leaders have lost focus on the policy that is at the heart of this promise: access to affordable, high quality education.

So what should the federal role look like? It should be principled, specific and targeted at the overall goal of raising our participation rate from just over 50 per cent to 70 per cent. It should respect provincial jurisdiction. It should support the efforts of individual Canadians to achieve post-secondary education, whether university, college or in the skilled trades. It should support Canadians' efforts to continue their education throughout their lives.

There are many specific ideas worth examining closely. For example, we should take a serious look at repaying financial assistance according to the income Canadians earn after graduation. We should also consider establishing a personal RESP program, to ensure working Canadians can also improve their skills.

We should partner with the private and non-profit sectors to increase the amount Canadian workplaces invest in training their employees. The remainder of this campaign, and the two years that follow, should be about examining the effectiveness and affordability of these ideas, and many others.

Leadership is about setting priorities based on principle. I believe that there is no more important principle than equality of opportunity -- and the progress it generates -- for individual Canadians and for Canada. I further believe that guaranteeing Canadians access to affordable, high quality, lifelong education is the single most important policy goal to strive toward.

The economic payoff of an educated citizenry is irrefutable. We live in an era of global uncertainty that will continue for the foreseeable future. Our best insurance against that uncertainty is to invest in each other, to create opportunity for all.

Given the right tools, Canadians will work hard to build a better country, as we always have. Ultimately, this is about more than just economics. If we get this right, we will create a country of high-performing economic actors, yes. But we will also create something far greater: a country of free-thinking, powerful, committed citizens. We need political leadership that is dedicated to making that vision of Canada a reality.

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