Education experts spar over affirmative action at University of Manitoba

Rodney Clifton, professor emeritus of education at the University of Manitoba, is worried the faculty's new affirmative action plan will take away spots from students more qualified to be teachers.

Faculty of education to set aside 45% of spots for students from 'diversity categories'

The University of Manitoba plans to introduce a quota to ensure spots in its education faculty go to diverse students. (Shutterstock / Lucky Business)

Rodney Clifton, professor emeritus of education at the University of Manitoba, is worried the faculty's new affirmative action plan will take away spots from students more qualified to be teachers.

The University of Manitoba announced last week its faculty of education will select 45 per cent of its future students from five "diversity categories," such as indigenous people, students with disabilities and those who identify as LGBT.

The policy is an attempt to make teaching staff in Manitoba schools more diverse, university representatives said.

Clifton believes the affirmative action approach will not result in better outcomes for students.

"All students deserve the best possible teachers that they can get," said Clifton. "We know that there's a substantial difference between good and poor teachers."

A 2014 report by the Council of Ministers of Education found Manitoba's math, science and reading scores were the worst in Canada.

Clifton believes better qualified teachers would make a huge difference in those test scores.

"There's considerable evidence that the racial background or sexual orientation of teachers has no effect on students' performance," said Clifton.

Manitoba needs this policy, says Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair, associate professor and current head of the department of the native studies at the University of Manitoba, defends the school's action.

The lack of diverse teachers in the classroom is not serving Manitoba students well, he said.

"We really need this policy," said Sinclair.

As a student growing up in Winnipeg, Sinclair said, he had 70 teachers and not one was indigenous or from a minority group.

The University of Manitoba plans to reserve 15 per cent of space in the education faculty for Canadian indigenous people, roughly in line with the proportion of aboriginal people who make up Manitoba's total population. 

Diverse teachers, such as indigenous teachers, bring knowledge to the classroom that non-diverse teachers lack, Sinclair said.

"They bring diverse intellectual knowledge from not only their cultural perspectives but from their historical perspectives," he said. 

But Clifton said if the University of Manitoba wants to improve student test scores in the province, focusing on the background of teachers is a distraction, not a solution.

"I don't care what colour, or what ethnic group, or what gender teachers are. As long as they're proficient," said Clifton.

The University of Manitoba's plan to increase the diversity of students in its education faculty will come into effect in 2017.