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Scholarships being cut

August 14, 2009

The Globe and Mail is reporting today that British Columbia is cancelling a twenty-year old scholarship program designed to reward and encourage top high-school students in that province. The Premier’s Excellence Awards provide $15,000 scholarships to each of 15 high-achieving BC high school grads who choose to pursue undergraduate studies in their home province. The government chose to cut these awards, which cost the government $240,000 annually, in order to “protect programs that make postsecondary education affordable”, according to BC’s Minister of Advanced Education.

While grants and subsidies designed to make universities affordable are laudable, programs designed to recognize and encourage excellence are an important component of encouraging a strong, innovative economy. The sum the BC government is saving is relatively small, and the effect on recipients is no doubt disproportionately large. For a 19-year old heading off to university, a $15,000 recognition from the province not only provides an immense source of pride, but can engender a real sense of accomplishment and responsibility. It tells these students, and serves as a signal even to those who don’t receive them, that there are benefits and rewards for excellence, and encourages them to continue high levels of achievement. The newly minted Vanier Scholarships are designed for just this purpose – to recognize and encourage high-achieving post-grads. Unfortunately, undergraduate merit-based scholarship programs are suffering in the current economic climate.

The BC program cut coincides with the cancellation of the federal government’s Millennium Scholarship program. The Millenniums were also designed to recognize and reward top students from across Canada who were starting their university studies. In neither case has there been a national outcry about the cuts. Imagine the reaction if needs-based financial aid was being cut the same way – student and political groups would be up in arms. Merit-based programs just don’t have the same constituency. The Globe quotes Andrew Woodall, director of the Millennium program, “I think it is a Canadian approach that people are not going to be up in arms about something called excellence or merit being cut”.

It isn’t just undergraduate scholarships that suffer from this apathy about excellence. There is a connection between this story and the discussion that’s been taking place here in the last few days about excellence vs. equality (for lack of a better descriptor) among Canadian universities. Do we want to encourage a few standout insititutions? Or do we want a large number of good, but not great, institutions? The same questions may inform the debate about Canada’s lack of innovation leadership. Do we support and admire risk-taking, innovative industry leaders? Or do Canadians mistrust approaches outside the tried-and-true, middle-of-the-road traditions?

Maybe rewarding merit and admiring excellence just isn’t in the Canadian psyche.

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