The Silhouette sat down with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne during her visit to McMaster on Jan. 12 to discuss education, policy, and getting students involved in higher education.
Why this tour now? Why come talk to students at this point?
The timing of it is we’ve just had an election and I have a plan that we have developed based on all of the work that we did running up to the budget and up to the election, and a fundamental pillar of that plan is investment in the talent and skills of the people in this province. That means starting in pre-school, starting in JK, SK right through until people are ready to go into the workforce, through post-secondary and training. So I think it is really important as a Premier and as a policymaker that I have an opportunity to talk to young people about what’s happening on their campuses and how they made the decisions that they made, and what’s lacking, what they need more of. Sometimes the discussion is narrowed down to a discussion about tuition, but that hasn’t been my experience, as a general rule there are lots of issues that people are concerned about.
You’ve mentioned the idea of a broad-based education, but of course we’ve been following the whole process of the strategic mandate agreements over the past couple of years, where it’s having the universities specialize further and differentiate themselves from each other. I wonder how you see that balancing out with this goal of a broad-based education – how you can have students be both job-ready and well rounded?
There are a couple of answers to that. One is that when I talk about a broad-based education I am talking about it right through our education system. I feel very strongly that kids going through elementary and secondary school need to have a wide range of options and so that we not pigeon-hole kids into a particular pathway too early, that they have the opportunity to experiment with and do creative and scientific and dramatic and technological things – whatever they choose to do. In terms of the system as a whole, the post-secondary system, I still want it to be very broad-based – I want there to be a full range of options and that’s really what the system is about – it’s about making sure that we have a sustainable system that will allow for that kind of choice. If we don’t make sound decisions about which institutions are going to do what and we don’t play to strengths we run the risk of diluting and losing some of the options because everybody’s not going to be able to do everything. So I want to make sure we preserve those options.
I guess the other thing is […] just because someone is taking engineering and just because a school has become specialized in, for example a program like that, or life sciences and medicine like McMaster, doesn’t mean that within those programs there can’t be a broad-based approach. It doesn’t mean that within those programs that if I’m studying science I don’t also have some arts education. I think that you can build it into the programs and then you build it into the system.
I think the skills that employers need, the skills that our institutions and our society needs are technical. There are technical skills that are needed, but there are creative thinking and critical thinking skills that are needed – those run across all disciplines. That’s not just about one – that’s not a set of skills that’s needed just for one discipline, we need that across society.
You mentioned earlier that you were attending a class of Joe Kim’s. On that note, what role do you see online education – blended learning – fitting into this whole model?
I have a lot of optimism around the possibilities with online learning as long as there’s the opportunity for students to interact. I don’t believe that a machine can take the place of human interaction, and so if we can build in the connection and the relationship into the use of technology, I think the sky is the limit. I think if we pretend that somehow the machine and the technology takes the place of that human relationship, then I think we’re on the wrong track.
As a female premier, what are you doing to encourage women in politics?
I think the most important thing I can do is continue to talk to and interact with young women who are interested in going into politics and who are maybe full of questions about whether its possible of not, and to encourage them to take advice but at the same time not listen to negativity if they know in their heart that’s what they want to do. There are always people who will tell how something can’t happen, or what the barriers are. What you want to do is look for people who are willing to work with you – be realistic about it – but find the people who are going to support and enable your dream, rather than throwing barriers up in front of it. I think that’s the most important thing I can do. There are systematic things within the party in terms of making sure that people have access and that there are positions for women at all levels, making sure that I have strong women in my caucus and in my cabinet, which I do. Those are very important aspects of what I can do to help.
The other one I want to mention is the whole issue of women on boards, it’s something that has been talked about a lot. There are policy things we can do to actually encourage – not just the political realm – but the business world to bring women into their ranks as well.
What role do you see students having in terms of having some involvement in education policy outside of a tour like this?
I always look forward to meeting with the student groups who come to Queen’s Park and talk to us. So the two that I have the most experience with are Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and the Canadian Federation of Students. My hope is that those organizations will remain healthy and they will get input from a wide range of students because I do listen to them when they come to Queen’s Park. I know they meet with members from all parties and I think those are very important students voices.