It’s an intriguing invitation: the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research has issued its first-ever call for proposals for new research ideas that address “a complex question of importance to humanity.” My immediate response was to think of something snide, like “Why the Kardashians?” but CIFAR deserves a more serious reply.
For those who don’t know it, CIFAR is one of those rare private, not-for-profit research institutes in Canada not directly affiliated with a university. As I’ve written before, what they manage to accomplish on their $16 million annual budget is astounding. That money funds 12 wide-ranging interdisciplinary programs, among them: Cosmology and Gravity; Child and Brain Development; Earth System Evolution; Institutions, Organizations and Growth; Nanoelectronics; and Social Interactions, Society and Well-being.
Today, nearly 400 researchers in 17 countries participate in CIFAR’s multidisciplinary, global research networks. Since the institute’s inception in 1982, 14 Nobel Laureates have been associated with it. CIFAR’s president is Alan Bernstein, who is well-known in the research community as the founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research from 2000 to 2007.
CIFAR holds a number of outreach activities each year. In 2010 and 2011, that included a series of public events called the Next Big Question, where CIFAR researchers were asked to make the case for why their topic of exploration represented the Next Big Question facing our world. Here is just a sampling of what they debated:
- What does the future hold for our planet?
- What makes a society resilient?
- Where can quantum computing carry us?
- Can we sustain the information revolution?
- What is the fate of the Universe?
- How can political institutions best promote peace and prosperity?
Well, now it’s your turn. What is your “complex question of importance to society?” For serious responses to CIFAR, you’ll need to hurry: letters of intent are due June 7. In the meantime, let us know what burning question you’d love to have investigated. Serious, and not so serious, replies welcomed.
I remember several years ago hearing Martha Piper, recently retired as president of the University of British Columbia, talking about universities and change. It was a private address at a meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, but she agreed later to let me re-fashion her words into a feature article for University Affairs called “A five-step program for change.”
As I’ve noted before, there has been quite a lot of talk recently about the imminent change or “disruption” facing universities (mainly from MOOCs) and the metaphors used to describe it: A tsunami! An avalanche!
Dr. Piper saw things from a different angle. She acknowledged the need for change, but knew it would be slow in coming. Universities, she said, “relish the past. They’re built on the history of centuries. They pride themselves on not changing” (emphasis hers – it may have been accompanied with some fist thumping on the podium as well). “Scholars are taught by scholars who were taught by scholars. Teaching methods and cultural values have been handed down from generation to generation to generation.”
Of course, universities do evolve. Over the past 40 years or so, Canada’s universities have gone through tremendous change as they’ve responded to the ever-increasing demands placed on them by governments, society and the economy. In the process, modern universities have become incredibly complex and, as a result, change can seem imperceptible. An insightful blogger commented that the apocalyptic metaphors were likely well off the mark and “that what is really going on is better viewed as a rather slower ‘tectonic’ movement.”
But it’s this slowness of change, I think, that can occasionally drive governments to distraction. Newly appointed ministers of education, in their haste to do something, occasionally throw out only-half-thought-out policy prescriptions, to which universities respond in a very deliberate way that Alex Usher perceptively calls “embrace and contain.”
To be fair, governments usually have mandates that last no more than four years, or less if they’re in a minority situation, and can’t always focus on longer-term change when they are facing an impatient electorate. I think that the push by the Ontario government to have universities prepare strategic mandate agreements, and for Alberta’s universities to sign “mandate letters” with their provincial government, are in part a response by these governments to try to force change more quickly.
In Ontario, the provincial government asked the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario recently to reviews these mandates. The expert panel concluded that “bottom-up processes like that used with this [strategic mandate agreement] exercise will not produce the system changes we believe are necessary. The government will need to demonstrate discipline, consistency and commitment to direct changes over the several years it will take to implement them.”
And how to do this? “Funding,” said the panel, “is the major lever available to government to motivate and steer change.” This is very similar to what HEQCO president Harvey Weingarten said to me when I visited in Toronto earlier this year. What’s important, he said, is that the government decide what type of system it wants, and then – most importantly – put incentives in place to get that desired result. With the right incentives, change will happen, he asserted. I think I remember a similar concept from the film Jerry Maguire: show me the money!
This is a guest post by University Affairs’ regular contributor, Rosanna Tamburri.
I graduated from journalism school more than 25 years ago in what in hindsight can only be considered as the glory days for the industry. The economy was picking up. Newspapers were expanding. New ones were being launched. And no one had heard of the internet. Many of us, if not immediately, soon found jobs with dependable incomes and nice benefits. Over the years I have watched friends and colleagues lose those jobs or walk away from them as technological forces have reshaped the industry, wiping out advertising dollars and gutting newsrooms.
Turns out those who toil away in academia have it almost as rough. Earlier this week a panel discussion billed as “The War on Knowledge?” and held in advance of June’s Worldviews 2013 conference on global trends in media and higher education resulted in a lively debate. The gist of it was whether higher education is under attack and what role, if any, the media plays in that. “Internationalization, politics, and worldwide economic trends are forcing universities and colleges to ask themselves tough questions,” a news release promoting the event read. “Criticisms are commonplace in the media, while new communication technologies threaten traditional institutions. So what lies ahead?”
Tony Burman, former editor-in-chief of CBC News and head of Al Jazeera English and now the Velma Rogers Graham Research Chair in news media and technology and journalism instructor at Ryerson University, set the stage with the keynote address. Mr. Burman, who started his career as an education reporter in the 1970s at the now-defunct Montreal Star, argued that higher ed and the media are both “under siege” today. Public distrust of the media is at an all time high while cutbacks have forced the closure of foreign bureaus and hollowed out newsrooms, leaving consumers of news all the worse off. Those that are left, mind you. As Mr. Burman noted, more than 30 percent of Americans have abandoned traditional media outlets. The upshot: this has limited the amount of media coverage of higher education. But the media, however flawed, should be seen by academia as part of the solution, he suggested.
The subsequent panel discussion resulted in an interesting reversal of roles. Janice Gross Stein, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, where the event was held, dismissed the notion that simplistic reporting is hurting academia. “Let’s lay off reporters,” she said. The media are valuable contributors to the public debate, she added, and responsibility for getting academics’ stories disseminated lies with taxpayer-funded professors.
Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed and former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, took a less favourable view of his colleagues. He noted that in the U.S., mainstream press coverage of higher ed issues has been “abysmal.” He pointed to media coverage of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s questioning the value of anthropology degrees and the 2012 ouster of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan for not climbing on the MOOCs bandwagon quickly enough as examples of the media’s failure to ask critical questions when reporting on such events. “Is the press scrutinizing these claims,” he asked. “I don’t think they are.”
University Affairs blogger and York University PhD candidate Melonie Fullick, who also participated in the debate, noted that here at home the closure of federal libraries and archives, the continuing cutbacks at Statistics Canada, and the government’s unabashed attempts to muzzle its scientists have contributed to the attacks on academia.
The event was all cheerfully moderated by novelist, playwright and Toronto Star columnist, Rick Salutin, who in a lighthearted moment came to the defence of Twitter for its democratizing values. He said he likes the way that 140 characters can quickly rob someone of authority, like the observer at a recent event who tweeted: “Check out Salutin’s shoe-sock combo.” An apocryphal story perhaps, but Mr. Salutin delighted the crowd with it.
The event set the stage well for the full blown conference taking place in Toronto June 19 to 21 which will feature some of the same cast and others including: Sir John Daniel, former assistant director-general of Unesco, Phil Altbach, director of the Center for International Education at Boston College and former U of T President David Naylor. A complete list of speakers and sessions can be seen here.
Oh, yes, there was one more thing. During the debate, Dr. Stein let drop this interesting tidbit: she’s heard that a major Ontario university, which she emphasized is not U of T, is considering going private. Hmm. Any guesses?
According to a survey last fall, 89 percent of U.S. adults and 96 percent of senior administrators at colleges and universities said higher education is in crisis, and nearly 4 in 10 in both groups considered the crisis to be “severe.” More fodder for the crisis literature in higher education.
In Canada, I’d say there isn’t quite the same sense of foreboding doom, but we do certainly have our own home-grown examples of the crisis literature. This comes to mind because of a stray comment I heard recently from Glen Jones that it has been ever thus. Dr. Jones, professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said one of the first papers he ever had published, nearly a quarter century ago, was an editorial on the crisis literature in Canadian higher education. It had the somewhat cheeky title, “Imminent disaster revisited, again.”
The nature of the crisis, perhaps not surprisingly, changes over time. In 1956, the National Conference of Canadian Universities (precursor to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada) claimed the higher education system was in crisis because of a grave lack of capacity – something we don’t hear much of now. Over the years there has also been, Dr. Jones noted, a “moral crisis,” a “crisis of confidence,” a “crisis of management,” a “crisis of mediocrity,” and the ever-popular “funding crisis.” (Remember, this paper was written nearly a quarter-century ago – what other crises could we add since then? The “skills gap” comes to mind as the latest trope.)
One of the most serious shortcomings Dr. Jones identified in most of this crisis literature was a failure to provide convincing evidence that disaster was imminent. “The crisis argument,” he wrote, “often is built on anecdotal reflection, unexplained causal relationships, or case studies supposedly demonstrating what the author assumes to be a sector-wide problem.” While the failure to provide convincing evidence in support of an argument does not necessarily imply that the conclusion is incorrect, it does bring the argument into question.
The second problem he identified was that the crisis literature is not “progressive,” by which he meant that contributions to the literature are not built upon or based on other contributions to the literature, and there is rarely any follow-up or critical analysis of the validity of these predictions. There is also rarely any explicit criteria for what constitutes a crisis. This leads to the misleading sense that the system is in a constant state of crisis. Or worse, this can lead to the “crying wolf” phenomenon. What if this time it really is a crisis? How will we know?
Prior to the unveiling of the federal budget last Thursday, there was lots of talk about a “skills mismatch” in Canada which had some within the university community concerned. That’s because at least some of the reporting contained blithe assertions like, “there are too many kids getting BAs and not enough welders,” or hoary clichés about “all those bartenders and baristas with expensive university degrees.”
In the end, the skills provisions in the 2013 budget likely will have little practical impact, positive or negative, on universities. The budget’s signature new Canada Jobs Grant program to help train or retrain Canadians for “labour market demands” is meant to be of short duration and is aimed at community colleges, career colleges and trade union training centres. There is some doubt about whether such a program will have the desired effect or is needed, but that’s a different matter.
In the run-up to the budget, Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates had a couple of excellent posts on his “One Thought to Start Your Day” blog questioning some of the assertions around the “skills shortages” debate (see the posts here and here – they’re well worth a read). “Much of the talk about skills shortages in Canada is data-free, and factually challenged,” he asserts.
The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada quickly jumped into the fray to address some of that lack of data with a document entitled “Canada’s skills gap: 11 quick facts.” Among the facts it cites: According to a recent CIBC report, most jobs in high demand in Canada require a university degree; and between July 2008 and July 2012, 700,000 net new jobs were created for university graduates, compared to 320,000 net new jobs for college and trades graduates.
Earlier, in a speech (PDF) to the Empire Club of Canada on March 7, University of Toronto’s outgoing president, David Naylor, also addressed the issue of whether universities “ought to produce more job-ready, skills-focused graduates.” He added facetiously, “Stop all this liberal arts guff and this social science silliness. What Canada needs to compete and win in the world economy are more folks with college diplomas, and universities that focus on preparing people for careers – for the real world.”
His response: Canada is already the world leader in college-level attainment, but ranks only 18th among OECD countries in university (baccalaureate-level) graduation rates. “If Canada’s competitiveness problems were going to be solved by colleges and polytechnics, or by universities that behave like them, we’d already be rolling in tax revenues,” he concluded.
James Knight, president of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, was asked about the skills gap in a Q&A interview in the Globe and Mail. One of the questions posed was: “We’ve seen data earlier this month from Statistics Canada that a B.A. holder still earns 41 percent more than a high-school graduate while college graduates earn 22 percent less than B.As. I wonder about the wisdom of encouraging high-school students to think about college rather than focus on university?”
His response was that “StatsCan data is hokum.” He proceeded to cite his own study (n=1) of his son’s experience. “My son went to Carleton [University] and got a degree in economics that had no value in the job market whatsoever. After a year of wandering around, he went to George Brown College for Sports and Event Management and the moment he graduated he was picked up by the Ontario Cycling Association” and now works for the national cycling organization.
I am happy for his son, but anecdote is not evidence.
Mr. Knight also might have added a bit of detail about the college program he cites. I can’t find a program called “Sports and Event Management” at George Brown, so I’ll assume he was referring to the “Sports and Event Marketing” program, which George Brown does offer. This is what the college calls a “postgraduate” program, which is in fact marketed, in part, to undergraduate degree holders and requires a degree or college diploma for admittance. And, while I will accept Mr. Knight’s assertion that it was the postgraduate college certificate which landed his son his job, might it not have been the combination of the degree and the certificate?
U of T’s Dr. Naylor in his speech to the Empire Club seemed to anticipate this line of argument: “What we aren’t doing,” he said, “is celebrating the fact that tens of thousands of university students who have finished a baccalaureate go on to get a college diploma or certificate. That’s seen somehow as a mistake. … Why shouldn’t a young person get a liberal arts education, learn to think better, acquire some breadth of competencies and general knowledge, be challenged intellectually by professors and peers – and then go on to get specific vocational skills?”
My point is not to pick a fight with Mr. Knight – in fact, quite the opposite. I think if colleges and universities are pitted against each other, the whole postsecondary educational sector, and the country, loses.
I’ll give the last word to Graham Carr, from his presidential speech (PDF) to the annual general meeting of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences on March 23: “For me, the debate should never be of universities vs. colleges but of the PSE sector working together more effectively to provide real educational choices in all their complexity that foster a spirit of inquiry, imagination, discovery and collaboration.”
Study abroad is one of those things that many educators just want to believe in. Personally, I love to travel and would have jumped at the chance to do a study term abroad as an undergraduate, but at the time I was unaware of any such opportunity. I also believe deeply in the intrinsic value of travel – I have learned a great deal about the world around me, and about myself, through my travels.
But, of course, it would be good to know empirically that there is a pedagogical benefit to a study-abroad program, a point addressed in an article in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education. The article, “Student Engagement and Study Abroad,” is by Liam Rourke and Heather Kanuka at the University of Alberta.
The two authors looked at a short-term study abroad program that consisted of a group of Canadian undergraduates spending six weeks in Mexico. The program included a 10-day bus tour, three half-credit courses and accommodations with local families. The two authors had the novel idea of using a modified version of the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, to investigate the extent to which the students engaged in their learning activities while abroad. The authors administered the NSSE twice – once at the conclusion of the students’ school year as a sort of baseline measure, and six weeks later at the end of their study-abroad program – and compared the results. (I’m oversimplifying, but you can check out the paper yourself for the full methodological detail).
Their results weren’t terribly encouraging. The authors report that there was “a pattern of results favouring the study-abroad experience” but the effect was modest: “Participants reported levels of engagement during their study-abroad experience that were similar to levels in class, on campus.” The results, they say, “are consistent with those of several others who find limited empirical support for short-term study abroad in higher education.”
The next part of their discussion seems pretty damning, so I’ll quote at length:
An examination of these reports suggests that the lack of an unmistakable difference may be a gulf between the potential of study abroad, which captivates proponents, and the actual effect that is observed and reported by researchers. The potential is students engaging in goal-directed behaviour – linguistic, cultural, disciplinary, personal, or professional goals – amid the complexity of their subject matter unfolding in real time. What actually happens, in those instances when the benefit of study abroad is equivocal, is students circumventing immersive, goal-directed activity. The students in our program … spent the bulk of their time travelling in a tight group, moving from the classrooms where they passed much of their days to the Internet cafés at night to work on assignments. Avoiding any real need to grapple with intercultural issues, they were in continual contact with their friends and family back home via Facebook, email, and text messaging.
University Affairs reported something similar regarding students doing short-term volunteering abroad. The article quotes Rebecca Tiessen, associate professor of international development studies at Royal Military College, who said: “Universities and colleges are somewhat blindly pushing short-term assignments in developing countries without truly understanding their efficacy as learning opportunities, the ethical implications, or their true impact.”
What surprised Dr. Tiessen, in particular, were students’ motivations for going abroad: “The desire to help others ranked really low,” she said. “It was probably one of the lowest ranked motivations compared to more personal development factors like skills-development, resumé-building, and adventure and travel.”
Now, it must be emphasized, that we’re talking here about short-term experiences abroad. The results may very well be quite different for a longer-term program of a semester or more, a point the U of Alberta authors make. I also wonder if there are benefits to these short-term experiences which just aren’t being adequately captured or which could be fortified through student self-reflection activities during and afterwards.
The authors conclude that for a study-abroad program to be most effective, students should be thoroughly immersed in the experience. “Unfortunately, few authors have identified methods to ensure student immersion. The program we studied … seemed designed to discourage immersion.”
It was a week of big news in Canadian postsecondary education (and I’m writing this on Tuesday) with the naming of the two new executive heads at two of Canada’s flagship universities. On Monday, the University of Toronto named the current dean of its faculty of arts and science, Meric Gertler, to become its next president; and on Tuesday, McGill University chose the current president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Suzanne Fortier, to become its new principal.
The two announcements, together with a couple of other recent presidential appointments at the University of Victoria and Dalhousie University, mark a definite changing of the guard at Canada’s universities. As Globe and Mail reporter James Bradshaw noted back in November, the four departing university presidents (David Naylor at U of T, Heather Munroe-Blum at McGill, Tom Traves at Dalhousie and David Turpin at UVic) have a combined experience of 50 years in the corner office.
Interestingly, the article by Mr. Bradshaw also speculated on what type of leaders universities should be searching for nowadays, raising the question of whether hiring committees should look outside the academic ranks for new talent. He reports that U of T officials “toyed with breaking the mould and appointing a non-academic” as president, but “after listening to students and professors,” decided to choose the insider (Dr. Gertler, as mentioned, is U of T’s current dean of arts and science and joined the university in 1983). Likewise, Jamie Cassels, who becomes UVic’s president in July, comes from within; he is the university’s current vice-president, academic, and before that was UVic’s dean of law.
Suzanne Fortier is not quite a McGill insider, but is an alumna, having received her BSc and PhD at McGill. And although her most recent experience is as head of NSERC, she has a strong background in senior academic leadership in Canada, serving at Queen’s University as associate dean of graduate studies and research, VP research and then VP academic.
Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells picked up on some of this in a blog post. He writes:
In hiring close to home, both universities [U of T and McGill] can be taken to be demonstrating either quiet confidence in the maturity of Canadian academe, or a chastened realization that in a time of limited resources, even the biggest schools are wise to stick to their knitting. Both schools instituted global searches and wound up bypassing candidates from afar in favour of local produce.
The only outlier of the group – barely – is Richard Florizone, who becomes president of Dalhousie in July. Dr. Florizone is the current VP of finance and resources at the University of Saskatchewan, but has significant experience outside academia, for instance as director of strategic initiatives for Bombardier Aerospace. He also had been seconded for a one-year administrative leave while at USask to serve as a senior adviser to the International Finance Corporation in Washington, D.C.
Ross Paul, the former president of the University of Windsor and Laurentian University, wrote a book on the subject of university presidents in Canada in 2011, entitled Leadership Under Fire. Dr. Paul examined 47 recent presidential appointments in Canada – not including the four most recent – and found that 85 percent of them had held senior academic administrative positions at another Canadian school before being hired. “We’re very parochial, I believe, and I think we really need to expand that base,” he told the Globe’s Mr. Bradshaw.
Non-academic hires do happen in Canada, but rarely. The best example – the exception that proves the rule? – is Allan Rock, president of the University Ottawa. Mr. Rock was a Member of Parliament and served as a federal minister in various portfolios, including justice and health, and later was named Ambassador of Canada to the United Nations. He is a U of Ottawa alumnus, but had never been a university faculty member and had no previous experience in senior academic leadership.
Two other recent examples are Laurentian University President Dominic Giroux and, most recently, Nipissing University President Michael DeGagne. However, Mr. Giroux is hardly a stranger to the education sector: he served as deputy minister with the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, and before that as chief financial officer of two French-language school boards in Ontario.
Nipissing’s Dr. DeGagne earned a PhD in educational administration from Michigan State University and also a Master of Laws degree from York University’s Osgoode Hall, but spent his entire career until his presidential appointment outside academe. Prior to his appointment, he was executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a not-for-profit private corporation in Ottawa.
So, what do you think: Are Canadian universities parochial in their presidential hiring, or prudent?
Postscript, March 6, 2013: An interesting tidbit I forgot to mention above is that we never know who else might have applied for a president’s position, or whether the chosen candidate applied elsewhere, because the search process is confidential. That is, except at Quebec’s francophone universities, where the search process is public and the candidates are even expected to “sell” themselves to the university community. Because of that, we know that Dr. Fortier had presidential ambitions before. She was in the running for university rector (same as a president) at Université de Montréal in 2004. An advisory committee recommended Dr. Fortier as the top candidate but the university’s board of directors opted instead for Luc Vinet.
Postscript 2, March 6, 2013: I see that Ross Paul has a commentary in the Globe and Mail this morning in which he seems to be in favour of internal appointments. “There are strong advantages to knowing an institution intimately at the outset of a presidency,” he writes, and adds further down: “It is encouraging to see an increasing number of internal appointments in our leading universities. At least, they know what they are getting.”
As Quebec debated this week whether to index tuition fees to inflation, a far more radical overhaul of tuition policy plays out in England. The Quebec government announced on Monday it plans to raise tuition by 3 percent, or about $70 from the current level of just under $2,200. Compare this to the U.K. government, which implemented a plan last year that saw university students in England pay on average £8,500 ($13,300 CDN) for the school year, a massive increase of more than 250% from the previous average tuition of £3,300. (Tuition policy in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland is different, and students in those countries did not experience a similar increase in fees.)
It’s been a wild ride for tuition fees in England over a relatively short period of time. Tuition fees of £1,000 were first introduced in 1998 then were tripled to around £3,000 starting in 2006. In the current system, all students are eligible for loans to cover the full tuition costs and repayment of these loans begins after graduation.
When the recent policy changes in the U.K. were first announced two years ago, student and faculty groups, among others, warned darkly that it would have a disastrous effect on student enrolment and accessibility. At the very least, one policy wonk said it would be a very interesting natural experiment to test whether that would indeed by the case.
Opponents of the tuition hike appeared to have their fears confirmed when the university application rates for 2012-13 were announced and showed a drop of around 10 percent in England compared to the previous year. But, in January, something funny happened to this narrative. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (the centralized service for students applying to university and college in the U.K.) announced the application rates in England for the upcoming 2013-14 academic year rose by 3.5 percent compared to the current academic year. This is still down from the application rates in years prior to the massive tuition hike, but a rise nevertheless. (The full UCAS report can be seen here.) This raises the question: do high university tuition fees affect enrolment rates or not?
The rise in applications for next year was not altogether a surprise. According to Alex Usher (the same policy wonk alluded to above), principal of Higher Education Strategy Associates, this is essentially what happened in the U.K. after both the 1998 and the 2005 tuition hikes – a jump in enrolments before the hike, then a fall immediately after the hike, followed by a rebound in the second year after the change as the system returned to equilibrium. These results, said Mr. Usher, should be sent “to your favourite student leader” and should be plastered “to Pierre Duchesne’s head” (Mr. Duchesne is Quebec’s higher education minister). Mr. Usher added facetiously, “there’s a prize for the first person who can read these and still make a coherent argument for why a Quebec-style tuition increase would have any effect at all on access.”
Of course, not everyone is as sanguine as Mr. Usher. The president of the National Students Union in the U.K. said the UCAS data are welcome, “but they are certainly not the only litmus test against which government reforms are to be measured,” adding, “Excuse me for not engaging in premature backslapping.” Another student commentator said a closer look at the data show that, as a result of the fee hike, students “are shunning humanities and arts degrees, and putting their faith in courses they think will land them a job.”
Claire Callender, professor of higher education at the University of London, said at a recent conference in Toronto that “English higher education should start worrying big time.” In a presentation to the “Academia in the Age of Austerity” conference organized by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, she concluded that the U.K. reforms “herald a retreat from the state’s financial responsibility” for higher education and questioned whether they will perpetuate existing inequalities and social class divisions. The title of her talk, “Austerity in England: Dramatic impact, uncertain future,” summed up her views.
I must say I also wonder whether these reforms are a step too far and what the negative downstream effects will be for a generation holding such substantial debts after graduation – an interesting experiment, indeed.
I was invited to speak to the staff of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario yesterday at their offices in Toronto. The council is a fairly small shop – somewhere around 20 staff – doing very important and interesting work.
HEQCO is an arm’s-length agency of the Ontario government created in 2005 that, according to its website, “brings evidence-based research to the continued improvement of the postsecondary education system in Ontario.” Following the demise of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation and its research program back in 2010, HEQCO is basically the only government-funded agency in the country dedicated to research on higher education. As part of its mandate, the council evaluates the postsecondary sector and provides policy recommendations to Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, with the aim of enhancing the access, quality and accountability of Ontario’s colleges and universities.
I found it interesting to discover that HEQCO is essentially free to decide what sorts of research it carries out, as long as that research falls generally within its wide mandate (you can see its 2012-2013 research plan here). That being said, the agency still must be careful not to deliberately be a thorn in the side of government, nor to alienate the universities and colleges, whose cooperation is necessary if the agency is to be able to do its work effectively. That’s a tough path to negotiate. It would be ever so tempting for a government to see an unobtrusive place to cut a few million dollars and set the agency adrift. Very few people outside the postsecondary education sector would notice, but the province and government policy would be poorer for it.
I had a chance to sit down with HEQCO’s president Harvey Weingarten while there, and although most of the conversation was off-the-record, he said a few things that I think I can safely repeat because he has said them publicly elsewhere. Dr. Weingarten, a former provost at McMaster University and former president of the University of Calgary, said he believes changes must be made to Ontario’s postsecondary education system, although he is somewhat agnostic (my interpretation) about what those changes should be. Some changes might be better than others, he averred, but what’s important is that the government decide what type of system it wants, and then – most importantly – put incentives in place to get that desired result. With the right incentives, change will happen, he asserted.
Among HEQCO’s recent reports is one released on January 29 which examined the implications of expanding the number and scope of college-to-university transfer arrangements. The report, written by David Trick, concludes that a “2 + 2” transfer system – where students would do the first two years in college and transfer to university for years 3 and 4 – could lead to potential savings for students and the government. (Alberta and B.C. have the most-developed system of such transfer arrangements.)
One highly anticipated report – by me, at least – to be released sometime this spring, will look at the impact of graduate student expansion and the experiences of PhD grads and their labour outcomes (a hot topic examined recently in University Affairs).
I was invited to HEQCO to talk about my blog, Margin Notes. I took the opportunity while there to ask these bright minds what they thought were some of the key challenges and issues facing the postsecondary education sector in Canada. Here’s the list we cane up with, in no particular order:
- Value of a credential and credential inflation
- Credentialism vs. a culture of learning
- Teaching quality and teaching with technology
- System design and pathways (also related: the system “hierarchy”)
- Labour market alignment
- Under-represented groups
- Quality assurance and learning outcomes
- Student preparation
- Financial literacy and student debt
- Global competitiveness
- Data sharing
- Uninformed policy-making by government
It seems as good a list as any, and fairly comprehensive. Graduate education was surprisingly left out, but that may be because we had already discussed it at length prior to the little poll. There was also no mention of institutional governance, which is a very hot topic currently in Quebec but seems to have less resonance in the rest of Canada.
Dr. Weingarten pointed out after the exercise that, of the items on the list – all of which he thought worthy – only two are regularly part of the narrow public discourse as reflected in the media: tuition and labour market outcomes. That’s too bad.
Any other challenges, or comments about the list, that you would like to add?
Our feature, “The PhD is in need of revision” (the cover story for the March 2013 print edition of University Affairs and published online Feb. 6), has garnered much attention, quickly becoming the most read article of the past week and receiving loads of comments.
What was not immediately obvious about the story is that the article contains exclusive data not publicly available elsewhere on the completion rates and times to completion of PhD students in Canada. The data are not comprehensive – they’re from only eight of the 15 most research-intensive universities for which there are comparable data, and none of the institutions were identified. Nevertheless, it’s a start.
The data show that the proportion of students who successfully completed their PhDs within nine years ranged from a high of 78.3 percent in the health sciences to a low of 55.8 percent in the humanities (see graph below). Mean times-to-completion ranged from a low of just under 15 terms – or five years, based on three terms per year – in the physical sciences and engineering, to a high of 18.25 terms, or just over six years, in the humanities.
The data were provided by the group known as the U-15, whose executive director is Suzanne Corbeil. We first requested the information about a year ago and there was quite a bit of back-and-forth with the group before they agreed to share it with us, for which we are grateful. If we hadn’t gotten the data, we were planning to use 10-year-old data which we had published, also exclusively, back in February 2003.
I point this all out because it demonstrates well the difficulty of getting good data about Canada’s universities and the university sector in general, which I think hinders good policy development and analysis. I don’t blame the U-15; they politely reminded us that they are not primarily a data-gathering organization and that their data is usually collected for sharing internally. Statistics Canada is the obvious organization where one would expect to get this type of information, but they have actually cut back on some of their data gathering, most notably their discontinuation in May 2012 of the University and College Academic Staff System, the most complete and reliable source of information in Canada on university faculty.
On a more positive note, I’m pleased to point out the “PhD is in need of revision” story as an example of some of the excellent reporting we’ve had recently in University Affairs. The article’s author, Rosanna Tamburri, is an award-winning journalist and regular contributor to University Affairs whom we rely on greatly and hold in high regard. She’s also the author of “All about MOOCs,” which has quickly risen after just three months of publication to the third-most-read article of all time on our website.
I’d also point to our “Sessionals, up close” article by Moira MacDonald as another example of University Affairs setting the agenda. And, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the great insight and commentary from my fellow bloggers: Melonie Fullick at Speculative Diction, Jo VanEvery and Liz Koblyk at Careers Café, David Kent and Jonathan Thon at The Black Hole, and Margo Fryer at Taking the Plunge.