Conseil supérieur de l'éducation

Speaker's notes

Speech by Céline Saint-Pierre, President, Conseil supérieur de l'éducation, upon the release of the above brief at Collège Ahuntsic in Montréal, September 10, 1997.


To the Director General of Collège Ahuntsic,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Council prepared the brief we are releasing today, Pour une formation générale bien enracinée dans les études techniques collégiales, in response to a request from the Minister of Education. Given certain observations made during the Estates General on Education regarding the place of general education in technical programs, and the perception that general education courses are a stumbling block to the success and graduation of students enrolled in such programs, the Minister asked the Council for advice on the place of general education in technical education programs and on measures to better adapt and integrate the general education component and improve success and graduation rates in the college technical path.

Despite the short time frame for this undertaking, the Council set up an ad hoc committee to prepare a draft brief.

This committee, which I chaired, was composed of six members: Nicole Boutin, Council member, President of the Council’s College Education Commission and Academic Dean of Collège Montmorency; Claude Gagnon, at the time Academic Dean at the Collège de la région de l'Amiante; Bernard Martel, Council member and teacher of Business Administration at Cégep de l'Abitibi-Témiscamingue; Micheline Roy, Academic Dean at Collège de Sherbrooke; Michel Toussaint, member of the Council’s College Education Commission and Director General of Cégep de La Pocatière; and Serge Tremblay, Director General of the Centre d'adaptation de la main-d'oeuvre en aérospatiale du Québec (CAMAQ). I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their fine work and their generous donation of time. They were assisted in their task by Claudine Audet and Arthur Marsolais, Council Research Officers, whom we thank for their rigorous analyses and coordination of the committee’s research.

The Council took a two-step approach to its task: the first was to analyze all available statistical data that could help evaluate the reality the Council was being asked to assess (these data are presented in one of the appendixes to the brief). In this regard, we would particularly like to thank the Direction des affaires académiques collégiales of the Ministère de l'Éducation and the Service régional d'admission du Montréal métropolitain for their assistance. Then, in the second phase, the committee invited students, teachers (most of them in charge of college or university programs) and college administrators to present their analyses of the problems students are experiencing. The committee asked for submissions from groups (student federations, unions, associations in general education disciplines) directly affected by these issues. The committee also looked at the context in which the college system was established, with particular attention to the place of the general education component, especially in light of current measures to renew teaching at the college level.


The Council’s analysis: observations and plan of action

The review of the history of the college system showed that the legitimacy of maintaining a common general education component in all college programs has never been challenged. Every committee asked to examine this question has recommended that the practice be continued. However, the periodic reviews of its relevance also indicate that its legitimacy has never been established once and for all. Furthermore, the Council noted that each time the issue was raised, the debate quickly turned instead to the issue of the quality of education. In addition, over the years, there has been a shift in the way the question is raised. Whereas in the past the main issue was the choice of disciplines, the emphasis is now more on their relationship to program objectives and their ability to interest students and lead to success and a college diploma.

The Council also notes that the analysis it received, which led to the Minister’s request, covers the period prior to the current reform; the first graduates of the reformed system received their diplomas just recently, in the summer of 1997.

Although the Council shares the sentiment of the education community that the reform measures should be given time to work, it nevertheless has decided to recommend possible directions for action which, grounded in a highly rigorous examination of the situation, could bring an immediate improvement to student success and graduation rates. I will outline only a few of the Council’s observations and recommendations in the hope that this will encourage you to find out more and to act with the conviction that the success rates of our students can be improved.


What analysis is the Council proposing?

First of all, the Council challenges the widely held belief that general education courses are the primary obstacle to the graduation of college technical students. The Council’s analysis refutes the hypothesis that general education is a stumbling block for many students in technical programs, leading them to abandon their studies.

At first glance, the data show that success rates in general education courses are lower in technical programs than in pre-university programs. The Council finds it disturbing that data on graduation rates show the same discrepancies: fewer than 30 percent of students in technical programs obtain their diploma within the prescribed three-year period.

However, when secondary school records are taken into account, it is clear that students with similar records have similar success and graduation rates in pre-university and technical programs. Thus, the technical sector does not systematically post the lowest success rates in general education courses, nor are the highest success rates restricted to pre-university programs. Furthermore, success rates in French and humanities for students with similar scholastic records are about the same in both sectors.

To date, no study of students who almost completed their technical DECs has attributed failure to graduate to their general education courses rather than their specialized courses. However, when one compares students with identical secondary school averages, there is little difference in the graduation rates and the differences observed do not always favour pre-university education.

The Council notes nonetheless that the technical path has relatively low graduation rates and that, for students in technical programs, the general education component presents greater difficulties than the specialized courses. While the Council invites more in-depth research to gain a better understanding of the situation regarding success and graduation, it would like to draw attention to certain elements that could help in interpreting the data it has compiled: compared with the pre-university programs, technical programs are longer and have more courses, which means more course hours per week and an extremely heavy course load in certain programs; general education courses are always offered and can be postponed to another semester, or even to the end of the program; employers hire students who have not completed their DECs (in computer technologies, for example); there are variations in course requirements in general education (in French-language colleges, success rates are higher in second-language courses than in the language of instruction and literature courses). These are a few of the issues that must examined more closely, over a longer period of time.

In the second phase of its research, the Council identified success rates as one aspect that must be improved and that can be acted on immediately. Throughout its investigation of this issue, it asked what measures would foster higher success rates for technical students in general education courses. Given that our education system includes a common general education component in all technical and pre-university programs, the Council’s primary concern is to ensure that students do not feel that they are being subjected to such courses, but that they gain a better appreciation of the relevance of their general education courses and are able to benefit from them. While the Council was obliged by its mandate to direct its attention to technical programs, it believes that this thinking holds true, to a large extent, for pre-university programs as well, because students in those programs are also experiencing problems.

The Council’s main approach is to foster coherency between general and technical education.

However, the Council sees a need to clarify the ultimate goals of general education at the college level. General education should build on the basic education acquired at the secondary level and provide access to a "common cultural education," which would benefit from being more clearly defined. At the same time, this education must also develop general skills and competencies that are transferable. While these ultimate goals have been consistently reaffirmed since the college system was established, it is clear that they do not make sense to a lot of students in technical programs, who perceive general education courses as a waste of time, or worse, a chore. Many students expressed these sentiments during the hearings.

The Council believes that if we really want to keep students interested, general education must be tied in with program objectives, but also must be relevant to the daily lives of the students. An awareness of the importance of general skills to the exercise of technical specialties, and of how each discipline in the general education component can help them acquire these skills, will build their motivation.

The Council thinks that some of the renewal measures show promise in terms of building closer ties between general education and technical specialization. The program approach now being introduced in colleges appears to be an excellent way to achieve this goal, to the extent that sufficient resources are allocated to its implementation.

The program approach calls for a team approach to the education of students in a program. The Council encourages teachers of specialized courses and general education courses to work together to help their students discover and understand the goals and meaning of their education. The Council also encourages the formulation and implementation of educational strategies such as adaptive teaching, an approach that it finds particularly appropriate for supporting the learning of students who have different learning profiles and varying abilities to achieve the goals set by a program.

One of the eight recommendations made by the Council calls for a commitment from front-line players to improve the success rates of students in technical education, and encourages the Minister of Education to support them in this process by establishing greater coherency between a reform based on empowerment and the sometimes rigid standards governing funding and work organization.

The Council also recommends that the Minister take advantage of the current revision of the secondary level curriculum to make the transition from secondary school to college education smoother, to reduce the need for remedial work at the college level as much as possible.

The Council also hopes that the Ministère de l’Éducation will build connections between its own structures responsible for general and vocational education.

These are some of the highlights of the brief that the Council is releasing today, hoping that it will be persuasive enough to motivate timely implementation of measures that will improve the success and graduation rate of students in technical education programs, because the Council is very concerned about the situation reflected in the data. The Council has prepared this brief to inform the Minister of Education, who requested it, to support college players in their efforts to find ways to improve success rates, and lastly, to provide the public with as much information as possible about these issues.

The brief concludes with a direct appeal to teachers. This is because, as its research and analysis progressed, the Council became increasingly convinced that there is great potential for substantial improvement within the new educational space created by certain measures of the Renewal. The Council places special emphasis on the joint efforts of teachers of specialized and general education courses to improve the success of students in the technical path and help them understand the meaning of their education.

The Council thanks the Director General of Collège Ahuntsic for welcoming us here for the launching of our brief. The Council is also pleased that so many have attended today, as it shows your concern about this issue.


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