According to many people in Canada’s higher-education industry, everything is fine. Our system is among the best in the world, and our population is among the best-educated. The system would be even better if near-sighted governments stopped starving it for money. Canadians don’t appreciate the extraordinary value they’re getting for their buck, as dedicated academics labour tirelessly in their ivory tower to improve the world through research and transmit knowledge to the next generation.
So let’s lob a few grenades across the moat.
Large parts of the country (especially Ontario) have a high-cost model for undergraduate education, which too often operates for the benefit of the faculty, not the students. Large parts of the system are badly misaligned with the job market, and students are left in the dark about what kind of return they can expect for their investment. The cost curve, meanwhile, can’t be sustained. In Ontario, per student costs have been growing at 4 per cent to 5 per cent a year, but revenues have been growing at 2 per cent to 3 per cent a year.
Two of the smartest critics of the system are Ken Coates, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, and Ian Clark, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. Dr. Coates’s book, Campus Confidential, is essential reading for students and their parents. Dr. Clark’s book, Academic Reform, is essential reading for policy wonks. Together, they’re blueprints for what needs to change, and why.
The problems start with a basic fact that governments ignore: There’s a fundamental conflict between access and quality. Governments have pursued the goal of universal access because they mistakenly believe that higher education automatically confers higher earnings power. But the more people who gain access to the system, the more diluted the standards inevitably become. As Dr. Coates and Bill Morrison point out this month in their Walrus essay, The Uses and Abuses of University, higher education has turned into “the academic equivalent of intramural sports, where the premium rests on mass participation rather than on high achievement.”
The misalignment of higher education with the job market is now acute, they argue. Universities are more focused on what professors want to teach than on what students need to know to land good jobs. We churn out far too many graduates in some areas (humanities, basic sciences) and far too few in others (applied science and technology).
In academia, this is heresy. Academics insist that universities must not become job factories. Their mission is to guide students to cultivate the life of the mind. But there’s a big disconnect between what academics want and what students want. For students, higher education is all about the job. Yet, they get virtually no counselling about what returns they can expect for their investment, or what their job prospects might be.
Many U.S. states have begun collecting data on how much money students can expect to earn after graduation, based on their university and their major. According to one report on Virginia’s schools, George Mason graduates in computer engineering are paid $59,000 in their first year, while those with a psychology degree from Virginia State get only $26,000. These data have their limits, but they’re a useful start.
University faculties insist that they, not governments, should run their institutions. But if students are to get a better deal, governments must exert more control. Ontario is stuck with a hopelessly high-cost model for undergraduate education that rewards research but not teaching. The province needs teaching universities; yet, every second- and third-tier university wants to be a mini U of T, complete with its own graduate programs to churn out more surplus PhDs.
In the past decade, the downward trend in teaching loads has been dramatic. The most common load in Ontario, says Dr. Clark, is four one-semester courses a year, or about six classroom hours a week during two 13-week semesters. The result is ever larger classes, with more of the work load borne by itinerant teaching serfs who can’t find full-time jobs.
California’s university system, notes Dr. Clark, has 30 per cent more full-time faculty per student, and those faculty do 43 per cent more teaching. Yet, research doesn’t suffer: Its professors have earned 25 Nobel Prizes since 1995.
But our professors love the status quo. Many would rather do more research than more teaching. The system backs them up: Their career advancement depends on research, and research grants supply a crucial chunk of university funding. And so they churn out ever higher mountains of research, most of which will languish uncited and unread.
Dr. Clark says we’ve got to get real. Give more research money to the most productive researchers, and far less to the rest. Let’s abandon our cherished egalitarianism and fund our leading research universities properly, so they can compete on the world stage. Let’s develop a tier of teaching universities that are excellent at what they do. The result would be smaller classes and lower tuition, a win-win all around. Our students’ future is way too important to be entrusted to the academics.
Editor's Note: Earlier, we accepted comments from our readers on the issues raised by this column, with moderators reviewing the comments before posting. Thanks to everyone who participated. The transcript of that debate is below.
- What Canada needs: A national strategy for students
- Five ideas for improving the future of postsecondary education
- Your say: What’s the one thing you would change about higher education in Canada?