Columns Archive

Canadian Education Requires More Than a Bigger Cheque

Appeared in the Toronto Star on August 29, 2005 as Education Summit Shouldn’t Be Only About Money
Appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on September 1, 2005 as Put E-learning, Access, Research First

The recent provincial premiers meeting in Banff, Alberta brought welcome news of a commitment to focus greater attention on higher education in Canada.  Given the importance of education to Canada’ s future prosperity, this decision, which is likely to lead to a summit with Prime Minister Paul Martin in the fall, is long overdue.

Initial reports indicated that the provinces will seek the restoration of billions in funding that Ottawa clawed back in the 1990s.  While the federal government could presumably win provincial support by simply cutting a bigger education cheque, this would be shortsighted.  Increased funding is necessary to be sure, but it is by no means sufficient.

Together with greater financial support, federal leaders such as Industry Minister David Emerson and provincial leaders such as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy, must ensure that critical policy issues, most of which focus on using new technologies in education, enjoy a prominent place on the fall summit agenda.

From a provincial perspective, the premiers would do well to focus on three issues: distance education, access to knowledge, and an innovative research environment.

Distance education is particularly important.  Canadian universities boast one of the world’ s fastest computer networks, yet government policy has severely hindered those capabilities.  For example, Bill C-60, the copyright reform bill currently before the House of Commons, represents a step backward when it comes to the use of the Internet in Canadian education.  

The Supreme Court of Canada has opened the door to the electronic transmission of copyrighted works by establishing a liberal interpretation of the Copyright Act’ s “fair dealing” exception.  Rather than building on the court’ s vision of a balanced copyright policy in the public interest, Bill C-60 creates onerous barriers to transferring such works.

Moreover, the government prolonged lingering uncertainty, fueled by the misguided 2004 Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage study, about the educational use of Internet materials.  Despite near unanimity among provincial education ministers on how to proceed, the government plans to hold further consultations on the issue this fall.

The provinces should also demand that the federal government do more to facilitate access to knowledge.  One possibility in that regard is the creation of a national digital library.  Digitizing millions of Canadian books would provide students with greater access to Canadians works, while also serving as an important export of Canadian culture to the rest of the world.  

Given the importance of cutting edge research to Canada’ s innovation agenda, Ottawa should also commit to a pro-innovation research environment.  For example, Canadian universities such as Toronto, Waterloo, and Ottawa have the potential to emerge as world leaders on security and encryption research.  While the U.S. has established barriers to such research through its copyright law, Canada could promote global leadership in the field by rejecting restrictive policies that create potential legal liability for security researchers.

While there is much that the federal government can do for Canadian education, it should also use the education summit to demand more from both the provinces and Canadian universities.

Increased dollars for research are always welcome, but that money should be distributed with new strings attached that link the results to open access policies.  That would enable all Canadians to freely share in the fruits of the research investment, while still preserving important opportunities for commercialization.

The federal government should also encourage the type of curriculum reform that increases accessibility to education.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has emerged as a world leader by providing the public with access to hundreds of lectures and other course materials.  Canadian institutions should be doing the same.

Most importantly, Ottawa should prod Canada’ s universities to adopt a more aggressive approach in the use of copyrighted works.  Today Canadian universities spend millions in copyright licenses that are arguably unnecessary.  This expenditure effectively represents a subsidy to Canadian publishers from taxpayers as well as from students who are facing escalating tuition fees at a time that they can scarcely cover their monthly rent.

A survey of the advice emanating from Canadian universities’ copyright offices illustrates that universities have been reticent to exercise rights that the Supreme Court of Canada made clear they have in last year’ s Law Society of Upper Canada v. CCH decision.  Of the copyright web pages of 65 universities, only one, the Universite du Quebec, references the landmark Supreme Court decision.

Meanwhile, only two universities discuss open access policies and just 15 universities, less than a quarter of them, refer to the special education exemption provisions found in the Copyright Act.  In fact, barely more than half (39 of 65 universities) highlight fair dealing, the staple provision that provides students and educators with broad rights to use copyrighted works.

Rather than focusing on their rights, Canadian universities rely heavily on guidelines from Access Copyright and Copibec, the copyright collectives that are the direct beneficiaries of the questionable university copyright licenses.  Eighty-two percent (53 of 65 Canadian universities) rely on the collectives as a source of copyright guidelines.

The federal government can rightly argue that Canadian universities must do better. Canadian higher education must practice what it preaches by exercising its user rights and by educating students on the need for copyright policies that balance the interests of creators and users.

The fall summit is an exceptionally important opportunity for Canadian education.  Much like last year’ s health care summit, the problems cannot be solved through greater funding alone, but rather by placing challenging policy issues on the agenda.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

Comments are closed.