S.O.S. (Save our schools)

Written by Ian Portsmouth

Today’s entrepreneurs should be pleased with this year’s federal election. Small and mid-sized business issues were back on the agenda big-time — at least compared to other recent campaigns.

But tomorrow’s business owner (read: you) should be appalled by the absence of discussion around an issue that, for entrepreneurs, rivals the importance of global warming to polar bears and health care to anyone sitting right now in one of Canada’s overcrowded emergency rooms (here’s hoping they bagged a lunch). The issue is education.

Canadian competitiveness and standards of living are rooted firmly in the quality of our education system, from elementary schools right up to colleges and universities. Our schools are the incubators of people who will do battle for us in the global economy, where the edge increasingly belongs to countries that can harness brainpower, not manufacturing power.

Yet not only are politicians giving our school system short shrift as a policy area, they’re continuing to underfund it. The result? Universities are losing more top-tier academics to foreign institutions than they’re gaining. Public elementary and high schools are crumbling. Student-to-teacher ratios have risen to alarming levels. Ontario is even considering eliminating calculus from the high-school curriculum. (Currently it comprises just a third of the grade 12 math course; a decade ago it was a stand-alone course, as were algebra and finite math.) The irony is that Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty has been promoting an innovation agenda, funding programs and agencies such as the Ontario Centres of Excellence, whose core mandate is to help commercialize the technologies developed by university researchers. A decade from now, Ontarians could be crying, “What technologies? What researchers? Our kids never learned enough math!”

If we hope to fill the innovation pipeline with world-class knowledge workers, then we need to invest in an education system that can produce them. But this should not mean pouring more money into math, science and engineering at the expense of other disciplines. A competitive knowledge-based economy will require the support of specialists in sales and marketing, HR, law and general business management-which call for the communication and reasoning skills that a liberal arts education can provide. (We’ll need lots of finance people, too.)

We’ll also require more leaders. In a recent column on, tech-guru-turned-futurist Jim Carroll proposed a new academic degree called the MBI (Masters of Business Imagination). MBIs would be able to identify, create and harness change, rather than falling victim to it in our fast times. Jim admits that he’s still working on the curriculum; I can’t wait to see it.

Canada doesn’t need more of one kind of education; it needs more education, period. Let’s put education back on the national agenda. It’s time to save our schools.

Originally appeared on