Academic Research vs. Political Propaganda: Lessons from the Fraser Institute’s Study of Minority-Language Education

In 2012 the Fraser Institute published a 138-page study entitled Official Language Policies of the Canadian Provinces: Costs and Benefits in 2006 that examined the financial impact of providing bilingual government services. It calculated that the provinces spend $900 million each year, mainly for minority-language education – English schooling in Quebec, French instruction elsewhere. A complementary report distributed in 2009, Official Language Policies at the Federal Level in Canada, estimated that the federal government spends a further $1.5 billion. In its news release for the latest publication, the Fraser Institute concluded that “Canadian taxpayers are footing an annual bill of $2.4 billion for bilingual services, a cost of $85 per Canadian.”

The principal author, François Vaillancourt, now retired from the University of Montreal, is a recognized expert in the economics of bilingualism. His research methodology is clear and transparent; he states his assumptions, lists his sources and explains his calculations. He also claims, rightly, and with understandable pride, that the study is the first attempt “at systematically measuring and comparing these provincial costs” (p. 109). His research project is ambitious but the potential payoff is substantial. Reliable factual information is the foundation of sound policy-making.

An addendum notes that “the Fraser Institute maintains a rigorous peer review process for its research” (p. 137). Major projects are “reviewed by a minimum of one internal expert and two external experts.” Disputes between authors and reviewers may be resolved by appeal to the Institute’s Editorial Advisory Board, a panel of distinguished international scholars that in the past has included three Nobel laureates in Economics (James M. Buchanan, Friedrich A. Hayek and George Stigler). This rigor creates credibility and, as the Fraser Institute observed in its 2010 annual report, is “persuasive among policy makers and experts,” resulting in “hundreds of academic citations annually.”

But can we trust the Fraser Institute – financed by wealthy business patrons and committed to promoting private enterprise – to sponsor an objective study of public services? Since the Institute explicitly seeks to boost free markets and to limit government regulations, it attracts rich backers from the Canadian corporate elite – notably Sonja Bata, Serge Darkazanli, John Dobson, and Fred Mannix. Does this threaten its much-vaunted freedom? With unconscious irony, the addendum asserts “In order to protect its independence, the Institute does not accept grants from government or contracts for research” (p. 137).

Scholarly ethics require that researchers put truth-seeking and truth-speaking ahead of personal interest and private advantage. Not an easy task. Tobacco foundations have refused to publish studies revealing the health dangers of smoking. Pharmaceutical companies have blocked the release of findings showing the harmful effects of medications. As the old saying goes, “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Would free-marketers pay for research that might – potentially – find government intervention to be advantageous? Wouldn’t they be tempted to downplay the benefits of public services and exaggerate the costs? Let’s see.

Benefits of Bilingualism

At a 1995 research colloquium, Professor Vaillancourt suggested that bilingualism provides several possible benefits. For an individual, these included increased intelligence, improved cognitive function, and enhanced social skills. (Vaillancourt excluded higher income because, in his words, “it represents a private advantage associated with a social cost.”) For a society, these included increased export capacity, improved immigrant recruitment, better knowledge development, and added international influence.

But this is barely scratching the surface. Official bilingualism – public services in two languages – has been a fundamental principle of Canadian democracy since the time of our first modern Constitution. The 1791 Constitutional Act (s. 24 and s. 29) guaranteed the official status of English and French in both Lower Canada and Upper Canada. This guarantee was given for moral reasons; it was thought unjust that the French-speaking population be governed in the English language. And it was given for practical reasons, as it was widely feared that discontented French Canadians would emigrate to the United States.

The Constitution Act, 1867 (s. 133), still in effect today, continued and reinforced this principle. Indeed, when it was debated in 1865, John A. Macdonald, Attorney-General for Canada West and future prime minister of the Dominion of Canada, explained: “It was assented to by the deputation from each province that the use of the French language should form one of the principles upon which the Confederation should be established, and its use, as at present, should be guaranteed by the Imperial Act.” Without official bilingualism, there would be no Canada.

Almost a century-and-a-half later, in 2012, the Fraser Institute report seems largely oblivious to any potential benefits. In evaluating minority-language education – the bilingual service most often provided by Canadian provinces – Vaillancourt and his co-authors now remember only one possible advantage: increased language capability might lead to increased export capacity. By speaking French, Canada might sell more products and services to French-speaking countries. They rule out even this possibility, however, since “almost all exports of goods and services by Canada are made using English” (p. 6). Have they not heard New Brunswick’s proud boast that its educated and bilingual population has sparked a booming call-centre industry with 17,400 employees, a $700 million payroll and growing telecommunications exports? Isn’t this a noteworthy economic benefit?

The report also claims that since “export capacity is the result of linguistic skills in private firms, a change in provincial language policies is unlikely to have any effect on this except perhaps in the long term. So this is not a relevant argument here” (p. 7). Really? Isn’t it likely that a province’s education policy will have an impact on the language skills of its population? (Don’t private firms hire Canadian-educated workers?) Isn’t it possible that the benefits of education – even if long term – are still relevant considerations?

Fortunately, as regards healthcare – a bilingual service offered by three provinces – the authors do agree on a benefit, and it is an important one: “A person’s welfare will increase if services are available in his or her preferred language” (p. 7). And, in fact, there is research in Health Sciences that demonstrates the positive effects – and reduced errors – of serving patients in their own language. (Come to think of it, there is also research that recognizes the positive effects of teaching minority students in their own language.)

But the authors have great difficulty in measuring this benefit. First, they assume a situation where the provincial government has cancelled bilingual services. Second, they attempt to guess what proportion of the minority population would still want the now unavailable services. Third, they try to predict how the minority might obtain replacement services publicly, informally, or privately. Finally, they endeavour to estimate how much these new services would cost.

This formula is perplexing; it ignores real benefits. It does not measure research observations; it quantifies ungrounded speculation. Worse still, it introduces an unproven assumption that the Fraser Institute later announces, in its press release, as a major conclusion: “The study concludes that provinces with large francophone populations and a substantial number of government services provided in French could offer those services at a lower cost by contracting them out to the private sector on a user-pay basis.”

As for the other seven provinces, the report notes that they have very few bilingual services – certainly not enough to justify privatisation. And it is supposed that these services would not have brought significant benefit anyway: “Presumably, the francophones who live there do so mainly by choice and thus are satisfied living in an environment where few public services, with the exception of Manitoba in some specific areas, are available in French” (p. 8). Although it claims otherwise, the Fraser Institute report does not, in fact, study the benefits of official bilingualism.

Costs of Bilingualism

What about the other half of the analysis, costs? Here, at least, the authors begin with a realistic and insightful premise: the true cost of French-language minority education is not the total cost, but the extra cost. Regardless of language, schooling costs money. But how much more must taxpayers spend for French-language schooling, compared to equivalent English-language schooling?

Let’s examine a specific example that, as a professor at the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean, I know well: university education. The authors estimate that Alberta taxpayers spent a total of $13.8 million (or $23,359 per full-time student) for French-language university education. Of course, most of this cost relates simply to education and not to the French language. The relevant figure, therefore, is not the total cost, but the extra cost.

Alberta taxpayers spent a total of $1.2 billion (or $16,684 per full-time student) for English-language university education. Therefore, the authors calculate that the extra cost of French-language education was ($23,359 – $16,684 =) $6,675 per student, and ($6,675 x 592 students =) $3,951,600 overall. In short, they claim that Albertans had to spend an extra $4 million.

Sadly, these calculations are specious: superficially plausible, but fundamentally false. The figures for French-language education are fabricated; the numbers for English-language education are misleading.

All French-language university education in 2006-2007 was provided at the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean. The authors confess, however, that they “were unable to obtain information on the cost of a student attending Campus Saint-Jean” (p. 16). Consequently, they imported data from New Brunswick’s universities and applied it to Alberta. Not a good decision.

Information on Campus Saint-Jean’s costs is publicly available and easily accessible. It reveals that Alberta’s taxpayers spent $10.7 million (or $18,144 per full time student) for French-language university education. This includes Campus Saint-Jean’s direct costs for providing French-language services to its own students and its shared costs for obtaining predominantly English-language services available to all University of Alberta students. Thus, the Fraser Institute study has mistakenly inflated French-language costs by 29 per cent.

English-language university education in 2006-2007 was provided at four universities: Athabasca University, University of Alberta, University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge. The authors err, however, when they assume that these universities form, without any adjustment, an appropriate measuring stick. Campus Saint-Jean is a full-service university institution; Athabasca University is a distance-education university, and it costs only $4,300 per full-time student.

The University of Alberta, alone, would have been a more appropriate comparison: it costs Alberta taxpayers $19,852 per full-time student. Augustana Campus, offering a largely Arts and Science program, is a much better frame of reference as it has a similar enrolment to Campus Saint-Jean.  Except that Augustana, more distant from the university centre in Edmonton, has greater difficulty accessing the full range of University of Alberta services. To compensate for this discrepancy, we will focus on Augustana’s campus-specific expenditures and discount its shared costs.

Nevertheless, even when those costs are excluded, Alberta taxpayers still spent $17.4 million (or $20,349 per full-time student) for English-language education services specific to Augustana Campus. If we use this as our benchmark, then the Fraser Institute study has underestimated comparable English-language costs by 18 per cent.

Thus, although the authors claimed a cost of $23,359 per student for French-language university education and $16,684 for English-language university education, the correct figures are $18,144 for French education and a minimum of $20,349 for comparable English education. Instead of $6,675 per student in extra costs, there was in fact $2,205 per student in net savings.

Aunger1

Taken as a whole, then, French-language university education did not cost taxpayers $4 million; it actually saved them at least $1.3 million. Should this saving be deducted from the alleged costs of other bilingual services? The authors don’t think so. They make no allowance for possible tax savings. In Quebec, where minority- language education (in English) is found to be cheaper, the authors simply count it as “zero” extra cost.

The Fraser Institute study also suffers from a fatal methodological flaw: it does not include any control variables. Without such controls, we cannot conclude that the cost differences observed are actually caused by language, rather than some other factor. (Campus Saint-Jean offers full-service education and Athabasca University distance education. This, not language, explains that cost differential.) In short, we still do not know whether minority-language services are costing money or saving money.

Regrettably, many Canadians, reading only the press releases and the media headlines, will conclude that English-speakers are paying excessive taxes so that French-speakers can enjoy unnecessary services. The Fraser Institute report implicitly fosters this insidious nonsense. The authors state disingenuously that they “cannot ascertain if the benefits of a larger, more vital francophone minority are worth having or not for a typical Albertan” (p. 18). As if to ask, why should “we” be paying for “them”?

Some years ago, I participated in a debate on official bilingualism with Ezra Levant, then a Sun newspaper columnist and a Fraser Institute intern. French Canadians, he complained, were the only first-class citizens in Canada. By comparison, the rest of us were relegated to second- and third-class status. Government spending that catered to French-Canadian interests was responsible for our huge national debt. He had recently visited Regina, and if its French-language radio station “that nobody listens to” was closed, we could all drive around in gold-plated Cadillacs. Ha! Ha! Very funny!

More than a century earlier, another Albertan, Hugh Cayley, member of the North-West Legislative Assembly and publisher of the Calgary Herald, led a successful campaign to abolish French-language services in Western Canada. In the legislature, he argued that this would result in significant cost savings. But he was trumpeting illusory costs in order to cover jingoist motives. In his newspaper, on February 24, 1890, he proclaimed “the absolute necessity of securing for the English language in Canada that supremacy which British arms, British blood, British courage, British ideas, British institutions may fairly claim, at the close of this nineteenth century in a country over which the British flag has waved for a century and a quarter.”

Consequently, in 1892, the North-West Legislative Assembly decided to make English the only language of instruction in publicly-supported schools, thereby destroying in a single stroke a thriving French-language school system that had existed for more than seventy years. The decision also imposed financial hardship on many French-speaking parents, now doubly penalized, paying school taxes for English public schools and tuition fees for French private schools.

The Alberta government further harassed these French-language schools by refusing to accredit their teachers and their programs. One private school, Edmonton’s Collège Saint-Jean, founded in 1908, adroitly circumvented the barriers, however, by affiliating variously with Laval University in Quebec and the University of Ottawa in Ontario. Alberta finally relented, in 1968, by permitting publicly-supported schools to use French for up to 50 per cent of their daily instruction. In 1970, it also allowed Collège Saint-Jean to affiliate with the University of Alberta.

Conclusion

The Fraser Institute study masquerades as an independent and peer-reviewed cost-benefit analysis of minority-language education. Thus disguised, it gains credibility and garners attention. Media headlines scream out that minority-language services waste billions of public dollars every year. Informed public debate is undermined. Scrupulous academic research is undervalued.

On June 24, 2013, Maclean’s Magazine headlined its “Letters” page with the title “Talk to Albertans about how we feel about the $2.4-billion-a-year ‘French fact.’ We’d rather keep our money.” The writer, Sharon Maclise, explained: “Amazing as it may seem to self-absorbed Quebecers and their central Canadian media propagandists, we are not the least bit impressed with the $2.4 billion per year that our ‘taste of worldliness afforded by Canada’s réalité francophone’ is costing us. We would much rather keep our money, please, and you can keep your language, merci.” The Edmonton-based Maclise is an outspoken advocate of cost-benefit analysis in public policy. She is also a former vice-president of Alberta’s right-wing Wildrose Party.

In its 2010 annual report, the Fraser Institute thanked donors for their (tax-deductible) contributions totalling $11 million and explained how effectively this money was being spent: “The return on your investment in the Institute is enormous. Our capacity to inform and educate Canadians about public policy is partly reflected in the media attention paid to our work. According to external agencies, in 2010, the advertising dollar equivalency of the Institute’s media presence was nearly $44 million, roughly four times as large as our annual research and education budget.” Finally, a cost-benefit analysis that all Canadians can understand! Spend one dollar on research services; receive four dollars in political propaganda.

References:

François Vaillancourt et al., Official Language Policies of the Canadian Provinces: Costs and Benefits in 2006, Fraser Institute, 2012, 138 p.;

François Vaillancourt, “Coûts et bénéfices économiques des langues officielles: quelques observations,” Actes d’un colloque tenu le 5 mai 1995, Langues officielles et économie, Patrimoine canadien, 1996, p. 107-121;

Edmund A. Aunger, “Language Legislation and Official Bilingualism: The Uneasy Coexistence of Canada’s Language Communities,” Canada: Confederation to Present, Chinook Multimedia, 2001;

Edmund A. Aunger, “Justifying the End of Official Bilingualism: Canada’s North-West Assembly and the Dual-Language Question, 1889-1892,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 34 (2001), 451-486.

Edmund A. Aunger is Professor Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Alberta, Campus Saint-Jean. He has extensive experience evaluating scholarly manuscripts and adjudicating research grants.