VICTORIA -- Almost daily, we are be bombarded with statistics, and depending on who is using them, the same numbers can mean very different things.
The trouble with statistics and the averages derived from them is that they never tell the whole story. Take Finance Minister Mel Couvelier's latest financial and economic review, released last week. It covers the fiscal year 1987-88.
A table on page 96 of the document shows that in 1987, 40.6 per cent of British Columbia's labor force had attended a post- secondary education institution. That figure was up from 34.8 per cent in 1977. Couvelier's conclusion: British Columbians are better educated today than they were 10 years ago.
While the finance minister's conclusion is not incorrect, I saw something else in those statistics. The figures showed that 59.4 per cent of the province's labor force didn't complete high school. True, that's somewhat better than 10 years ago when 65.2 per cent had not completed their high school education, but it's still a pretty depressing figure.
Here's the breakdown, provided by Statistics Canada. Of the combined labor force, totalling 1,484,000, only 13.8 per cent had a university degree, and another 14 per cent had graduated from high school.
A further 12.8 per cent had "some post-secondary education," while 53 per cent were listed as having had "some high school," and 6.4 per cent had between zero and eight years schooling.
Those figures should scare the living daylights out of us. If we can't motivate more than 14 per cent of all students to get a university degree, there isn't much hope for staying in the global race for economic excellence.
The problem isn't confined to British Columbia. In a recent U.S. poll, 23 per cent of those surveyed believed that the sun rotates around the earth. Sorry, Galileo.
I have seen the enemy, and it is not free trade; it is not lack of environmental concern; it is not unemployment; it is not poverty, and it is not the fiscal deficit.
The enemy is ignorance. Ignorance alone is keeping societies everywhere from achieving their potential. Ignorance keeps people in economic subservience. Ignorance breeds economic decline accompanied by all its ills.
If we are to play any role at all in the global economy of the next century and beyond, we must learn to regard as intolerable the fact that nearly 60 per cent of our labor force does not graduate from high school. Whatever the cost, those statistics will have to change.
The first step towards improving the odds against becoming little more than a cheap labor pool is to determine who's to blame for the sad state of affairs. The second step is to put pressure on the culprits and force them to bring about the necessary changes. Some blame must go to governments. They provide the educational infrastructure. They have the last word on funding the education system. They can provide incentives for education or erect barriers against it.
The federal government could start by infusing more money, a lot more money, into research and development. The economies of Japan West Germany and East Germany didn't make it into the top five by slashing research and development funding, as the Mulroney government did four years ago.
The provincial government, too, is not without fault. Although there have been improvements in the education budget, it is still suffering from the shortfalls created by cutbacks a few years ago. To be truly effective, a university education must be free. Instead of devising complicated formulae for student aid in the form of loans and grants, the government should abolish the tuition fee. Until that happens, a university education will always be restricted to students from more affluent families.
These are not socialist ideas; they are common-sense ideas. If we could provide 50 per cent of our young with a university education, just watch Canada move to the head of the pack.
In fairness, though, governments cannot be blamed for everything that's wrong with the nation's education system in general and that of British Columbia in particular. The problem starts at the individual level.
Too many students are lured out of the education system by the Short-term gains of often marginal employment, and parents don't seem to be able to provide them with enough guidance to see the folly of that decision.
But regardless of who is to blame, if we can decide that ignorance is the problem, then education is the answer. The sooner we come to that realization, the better.