Mr. Speaker, I join in this debate with great delight today, since I am one among all members of this House who have received an education.
I remember seeing a bumper sticker which said: "If you can read this, you're too close", but I think a much more poignant bumper sticker reads: "If you can read this, thank a teacher". All of us are beneficiaries of the education system in this country, myself included.
I began my schooling in a very small rural school in Saskatchewan. As a matter of fact I was instrumental in saving the school from being closed. I was the fifth student and that was at the margin where it would have been closed. Later on I had the privilege of being one of the first young men from my community to go to university in Saskatoon. There I jumped into classes of 200 to 250 students which was a remarkable transition from my earlier school years.
I am one who is a very firm believer in education as are all the members of the Reform Party. I think I can say that unequivocally not only for the members of this caucus but also for the members of our party throughout this country.
There was a question asked not long ago in this House by the parliamentary secretary. He asked one of his fellow Liberal members to explain the Reform position on education. Fortunately the Liberal member declined.
During the last campaign various attempts were made at stating what the Reform position was by our opposition parties. If I can say so with great respect, there was a great deal of distortion in the explanation by our opposition.
It should be known that we based our position on consultation with a wide variety and a large base of our constituents, of people in our ridings, on a consensus for what the priorities of spending should be. It is totally clear that this country is in financial trouble. I am going to come back to that a little later in my speech, but we are going into debt at the rate of $1,200 per second. That is how fast we are going into debt. That cannot continue if we are going to keep this country from going down the tube. Consequently the Reform Party has assumed leadership in asking the people of this country what should we do first, what are our priorities?
Contrary to what many people said about us, our own members, Canadians, told us-and we are a party that responded to it-that the very first item to be maintained in terms of spending and keeping it healthy and strong was our health care system. That was the very top item. That was in our platform. We stated it, it was in our documentation, and there was no excuse for there being any misunderstanding on that point.
The second point on which we were unanimous and where we said it was very important for us to be strong and healthy was in the education of our youth. In fact our policy stated-and I challenge any member here to check it out if they want to go back to the documentation from the campaign-that present levels of funding for education should be maintained or even increased, if possible. There will be found in the Reform Party a very strong level of support for education.
All of us know how important it is. I do not think I need to spend a great deal of time speaking about how important education is. Can we imagine living in a society where very few of us could read or write? The majority of us can read and write, but we occasionally hear of this thing called marginal or functional illiteracy.
That is something that we must continue to address but the fact is that in this country every individual is entitled to that starting education. As students proceed through the years, for various reasons they reach a certain level of education and stop their formal education.
I want members of this House to know that I have a lifelong career in education. I chose to become a teacher when I graduated from high school. On the influence of a very effective teacher whom I had in high school, I changed my career choice to one involved with young people.
I was a young person at the time, but he challenged me to become involved. I am still young, yes, half way to 110. I was challenged to work with young people. Frankly, I have enjoyed it. I taught high school for four years. During the first three years of that career, I was the math department in a small rural school with some 150 high school students. I taught all of the maths from grades 9 to 12. It was a delightful experience.
I taught in a very large city high school for one year. For reasons that I will not go into here today, I decided not to stay there. A wonderful opportunity came up. I received the opportunity to work in a technical institute, a post-secondary education institute in Edmonton, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
Prior to this rather abrupt career change that I experienced last October, I worked there continuously for 27 years, teaching and working with young people. I always felt that I was a failure as an instructor if I only taught my students what I knew. I had to go beyond that and teach them how to learn.
My greatest successes were those students who passed me in knowledge and who went on from the technical institute. In some cases they went back to the university and exceeded even what I knew which-I suppose I should be modest here-is not that great.
During that time I encountered a number of students who quit school during the time they were at the institute. They stopped for various reasons. Some realized that after they got into this program of studies it was not the right one. Some left because of home pressure or home difficulties. The most heart wrenching ones were those who stopped because they ran out of money.
I feel very close to this question today. How do we effectively arrange our affairs so that our students can go on in their education to the very apex of what they are capable? Only as we do that will we have a society which benefits from that.
I know that we are all pleased that the majority of us can speak, read and write. Unfortunately in my field of math the academic strengths out there are not that strong. In fact, I have been doing a little ongoing survey. When I tell people that I am a math instructor, I find that about 95 per cent of them right away respond by saying they hated math. I guess there is a flaw in that.
Not many years ago the question of sex education in school came up. When we were discussing whether this should be taught in schools, one of my colleagues indicated: "Why not? If the schools teach it the way they teach math and physics, the children will lose all interest in it".
I need to get back here. We want to train our young people to the very apex of their abilities. Though we like the majority of them to be educated, it is true that we owe our high standard of living to a select few among them. These are the students who go past high school, past their undergraduate degrees. They become our scientists, engineers and researchers and we must do all that we can in order to accommodate them.
In his opening comments today in introducing this bill, the minister said that we need reform. As soon as I heard the word my heart just fluttered with delight. After that he said we need fundamental reform. While I gave an accolade to the government for at least addressing the question and recognizing that in the past number of years our financing and our help for students to carry on with their education had suffered, I looked to see where this real reform was coming from in this proposed bill.
I would like to humbly recommend some changes to this bill. We need to get down to the fundamentals. What I observe in this bill is not a reform, a rethinking, a reinvention or real good creative thinking. What I picked up was "We are going to take what we have done before and just make more of it". Where we used to limit the loans to $2,500, we will now make them $4,000. Where we used to have students under great financial pressure to pay their loans back, we will now make that a little easier for them. I applaud that. Those are very necessary steps if that is the route that we are going to take.
However, there is a marked absence of creative and lateral thinking in actually looking at the solution to this problem. Regardless of which method is chosen to finance education, it costs the taxpayers money. We want to use that money as efficiently as possible. There is no doubt in my mind that dumping money from the taxpayer to the different levels of government and then dumping it back again with these big dump trucks, having no accountability for how it is used, is one of the greatest detrimental features to the effectiveness of our educational system. I certainly think that we should do something a little more creative.
Other speakers in our party talk about the concept of the voucher. It has a great deal of merit. I challenge members opposite to stop and really think about what it does. First, it grabs on to a catchword that we have nowadays, and that is choice. If we were to give individual students a sizeable voucher, one that would cover their total cost of education in whatever university of college or technical institute they choose, they would then have a total choice. Too often their choice of where they go for their schooling is imposed on them by financial restrictions. If we gave them the voucher, they could go to the school where they themselves have determined they can benefit most and therefore return to us the taxpayers the maximum benefit.
I have also thought that we should not have students working when they are studying. Most of the time that is a distraction from their studies. I have thought of this: Why do we not reward them for what they are actually supposed to be doing when they are students? Why do we not give them the opportunity to earn money by being good students? One thing I thought of was why do we not have tuition that is refundable as a percentage of their performance in their classes? Give them a real reward for the effort that they put out.
I was a student way back in the mid-fifties. I realize now in looking back at it that I lived in an ideal world. When I wrote my university exams in spring, if I finished in the morning I was on my job at noon. A week or two before the exams my boss whom I had worked for the year before asked me: "Ken, when can you come to work? I need you". I drove a truck as my summer job. He had some hauling to do and he needed me. It was wonderful.
What is the difference between then and now? I went through school without a loan. I came out of school after five years of university, having been completely self-supporting without any debt. I paid my room and board, my clothing, tuition and books and I had money left over. I made a dollar an hour on my job which was about 50 per cent more than I needed.
What was the difference? There is a remarkable coincidence. If we go back to the mid fifties and sixties-I graduated in 1961-those were the years before our government started cranking us into a huge debt hole. Those were the years when there was consumer confidence. There was business confidence. As a result there were jobs for us during summers and on graduation that were waiting for us.
When I graduated from university, I had a choice of jobs. I cannot help but make the connection that there is some correlation between the level of debts of government and the burden that has placed on all of us and the dampening effect that has on our economy. That is the reason why our young people are now in this bad situation.
I cannot help but think that this government is missing a great opportunity. This government thinks in terms of: "Let's borrow more and spend more and thereby get out of our problems".
I am very disappointed with this bill which among other things provides a mechanism to allow students to graduate from university or college with a maximum debt load. I wish we could stop thinking about borrowing and debt and start being creative so that students can earn their way as they go and come out without a debt as we did away back then. We would really have a strong economy as a result.
I believe that my time is almost up. I conclude by saying that there are some areas in this bill which I think we really ought to look at. I am not sure that we are wise in choosing to target certain groups for special consideration. I really do not believe that we should be saying that you are special if you are of a certain gender.
When I fly in an aeroplane, drive in a car or go over a bridge I really do not care about the gender of that engineer, but I do care a lot about the competence of that person who designed and built the structure to which I am entrusting my life.
I think it is myopic at this stage in our society to keep dividing people into this category, that category and that one. We ought to begin treating all of our students equally regardless of gender or race or ethnic background or what language they speak. Let us treat them equally. Let us give them a voucher. Let us give them freedom of choice. Let us give them the maximum opportunity to go out there and do the very best they can with their lives.
I really encourage this government. I think it is on to something here. It is starting and at least facing the question. I sincerely wish that it would step back and try to be more creative.