|January 7, 2000||Volume 7, Number 8|
Evidence shows other approaches to access can work
By Allan Blakeney
I write to comment on the Viewpoint article contained in the November 26, 1999, edition of On Campus News. In the article former editor Wayne Eyre argues that easier Aboriginal access to U of S does no one a favour.
The gist of his argument is that it is students (and in this case Aboriginal students) who must make themselves accessible to the University and adapt to its best standards, not vice versa. He goes on to say that the University should not adapt to Aboriginal students or make itself any more accessible to any particular group of students than it does to anyone else.
When I read that I thought of the line from Robbie Burns: "Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us!"
Surely we must acknowledge that we have made the universities more accessible to one particular group of students than to anyone else. That group of students is those who come from a British Western European Christian background. One need only go to a university convocation to see university officials garbed in robes reminiscent of the medieval Christian church and bearing titles such as chancellor, vice-chancellor, or dean. There is not a chief or grand chief to be found among them.
The university structure, the university calendar, and much of the university curriculum is suffused with the culture of Great Britain, and to a lesser extent western Europe. There is very little recognition that, in Saskatchewan, people of British origin and French origin taken together make up less than fifty percent of the population.
So Aboriginal students or students from South East Asia or Africa or many other places commence their studies in an institution which has been made more welcoming and accessible to a particular group of students than it has been made to them.
As Mr. Eyre acknowledges, there is a clear obligation to make our universities welcoming and helpful to students who are not part of this elite group.
There are clearly arguments based upon equity as to why we should be welcoming to Aboriginal students. Just over a century ago white settlement appeared on the western plains. Virtually the first acts of the white settlers was to destroy the buffalo, and thus to destroy the economy and way of life of Aboriginal plains dwellers. Chief Perry Bellegarde, Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, refers to education as the new buffalo, the new basis for the Aboriginal people of Saskatchewan having a place in the new economy.
Since white settlement rather wantonly destroyed the buffalo, equity suggests that we should not be stinting in our efforts to provide the new buffalo education.
The University of Saskatchewan exists to give intelligent young people an opportunity to develop their intellectual powers for their own benefit and for the benefit of society.
The University must necessarily have a way of assessing whether the student is likely to benefit from a university education. But it is surely far too simple to suggest that the only way of assessing a student's ability to benefit from a university education is to find out whether the student has passed a high school course in literature or chemistry or physics. Nor is it self-evident that to admit a student who has not studied Latin but instead has studied art education is to "lower" admission criteria. Such thinking is another evidence of the ethnocentric history of the university.
Mr. Eyre suggests that to have more flexible admission standards so as to admit students who have demonstrated intelligence but who have not had the requisite high school courses will lead to lowering standards at the university and will damage its reputation nationally and internationally. It is fair to ask whether the evidence supports these dire predictions.
Following World War II, Dalhousie University, and I suspect the University of Saskatchewan, admitted many returning servicemen who did not have all of the requisite high school courses. Did this lead to clearly less well qualified graduates and to a lowered reputation for the universities concerned? I think the evidence will not support this conclusion.
We do not need to look as far back as the post-war period. In 1975 there were approximately four practicing lawyers in Canada of Aboriginal origin. Dr. Roger Carter of this University, sensing that this was simply not good enough, established a course at the Native Law Centre, at the College of Law at this University. Dean Carter was able to find Aboriginal students of high intellectual ability who did not meet the standard admission criteria. A short course identified the ones who had promise, and they were admitted to the College of Law. They were not uniformly successful, but they had a high level of success.
I checked a few years ago and there were something over 300 lawyers in Canada of Aboriginal origin, and that well over half of them had got their start through the Native Law Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. Once Dean Carter had demonstrated that this system worked, other universities in Canada eagerly sought out the students at the Native Law Centre. This program granted easier Aboriginal access to the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. It is an experiment which now has twenty-five years of experience. If this experiment "did no one a favour" it should be easy to demonstrate that fact. I am sorry that no such demonstration was attempted.
I find the hard evidence of the success of Dean Carter's work, so far uncontroverted, to be far more convincing than articles in the >National Post based not on evidence but on ideology.
I believe that you would find very few people that would say that Dean Carter's experiment did not do anyone a favour. Rather, the overwhelming evidence is that it did a favour to Aboriginal people and to non-Aboriginal people alike.
Dean Carter's experiment was a resounding success. Other programs of a like nature can be a resounding success. They need imagination rather than dogmatic historical approaches.
If the University of Saskatchewan again leads, it will be doing everybody a favour.
Allan Blakeney, former premier of Saskatchewan, is a Visiting Scholar in the U of S College of Law.
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