Increasingly it seems we must look to the University of Victoria for good ideas. This year’s Times Higher Education Supplement rankings put it sixth among Canadian universities and 130th in the world. UVic does well in our own rankings too, as you’ll see. Rankings were the first thing David Turpin, UVic’s president, wanted to talk about when he visited me in Ottawa last month. But his other story was more focused and may be more important: Victoria’s success in attracting, retaining and rewarding Aboriginal university students.
In 2006, only eight per cent of Canadians with Aboriginal ancestry had university degrees, compared with 23 per cent of non-Aboriginal Canadians. This is not merely too bad. There is a genuine economic and human cost, because the correlation between higher education and various social goods is exhaustively documented. Post-secondary education attainment is associated with better health, increased civic participation, lower crime rates, higher income, correspondingly higher tax payments, reduced dependence on social benefits, and more.
A February 2010 study by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards suggests that if the gap in educational attainment and labour-force participation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians vanished by 2026, total tax revenue would increase by $3.5 billion and government spending could decrease by $14.2 billion. Obviously that won’t happen, but any progress in that direction helps. Never even mind the human benefits.
The best results I’ve seen in promoting access and achievement for Aboriginal students are from the University of Victoria. Some of this is a long-term trend. The university counted fewer than 100 Aboriginal students in 1999; today it’s nearly 700. The number of graduate students has grown from fewer than 10 to nearly 150.
Since 2005, UVic has been working on programs to solidify and extend those trends. With money from the Liberal-created, now-defunct Millennium Scholarship Foundation, the university came up with seven programs under a blanket name, the LE,NONET Project. (LE,NONET is pronounced “le-non-git.” It’s a Straits Salish word referring to success after enduring many hardships.) Most of the programs are for students. There’s a straightforward bursary program, which paid recipients an average of about $3,500 a year. There was also an “emergency relief fund.” Turpin told me some students were going home to their communities, say for a relative’s funeral, and not returning. Simply covering travel costs helped fix that, and at a cost lower than $600 per student per school year.
Finally, there were programs to keep the whole university experience from becoming too weird and foreign, for students who might be the first in their family to pursue higher education: a peer mentor program that matched young Aboriginal students with older Aboriginal students; a 200-hour internship with an Aboriginal community group outside the university gates; and a 200-hour research apprenticeship with a UVic faculty member. The project also included online counselling and workshops for staff and faculty members.
Did all this help Aboriginal students? They sure thought it did. Seventy-eight per cent thought the peer mentor program contributed to their success. Every other element of LE,NONET scored even higher. Almost 99 per cent liked the bursaries. Clear majorities said the program helped them feel connected both to the broader university community and to “who I am as an Aboriginal person.” Sometimes people suggest being a member of the First Nations and being at university are contradictory. Most LE,NONET participants disagree.
Bottom line: does all this fuss keep Aboriginal students in school? Participants in the program were less than one-third as likely to drop out as Aboriginal students who weren’t selected for the pilot program. They were more than twice as likely to continue from one year to the next. Graduation rates were significantly higher. It’s a safe bet that over their lifetimes those graduates will repay the extra investment many times over.
David Turpin says he’ll share details of the LE,NONET program with any university that’s interested. Many will be. Across the country, there’s been a recent and overdue emphasis on promoting access and success—getting students into university, and ensuring they get out with a degree—among under-represented groups. That includes Aboriginals, but also some immigrant populations and even, by some definitions, young men, who are entering university markedly less often than young women.
It should be obvious why this is all a good idea. An aging population needs higher productivity so a smaller workforce can pay for the benefits of ever more retirees. The needed human capital could come from immigrants, and a lot of it will. But it’s dumb to import brains when there are plenty of good minds right here that can succeed if only they’re given a fair chance and, yes, some extra help where appropriate.
Higher educational attainment needn’t make First Nations students feel forced to deny their identities. The skills and knowledge they acquire can go right to work in their home communities, or they can become part of a network that makes it that much easier for the next cohort of students to follow their example. It’s no coincidence that one of the country’s fastest-rising universities is the one that has pushed all these considerations to the top of its agenda.