The recent release of tuition fee data from Statistics Canada certainly gives ammunition to students’ groups in their perennial campaigns to freeze or drop fees. Tuition fees for undergraduate students rose on average 3.6 percent for the 2009-2010 academic year, while inflation for the 12-month period up to August 2009 actually dropped 0.8 percent.
Ontario was ranked as the province with the highest undergraduate tuition fees, with students paying an average of $5,951 a year. The Canadian average is $4,524.
So, the first question: is a degree worth the cost? Well, I firmly believe it is. In fact, it is still a relative bargain in terms of the possible payback in earned income and career options.
The next question: is it affordable? Well, that depends. For some, yes; for others, not so much. But government aid, however imperfect, is available.
But others may counter: those from economically disadvantaged groups are not as well-represented in university. Yes, and that is worrisome – every Canadian deserves a chance to receive higher education. This may be partly due to financial reasons (debt aversion, for example), but these individuals often face other hurdles as well, so the situation is complex.
Either way, I still believe that calls to cut tuition fees across the board are misguided, if not perverse (in the sense of wilfully stubborn). Most studies suggest that tuition fees are not the main barrier to accessibility and that increasing student aid, particularly non-repayable grants, is more effective in boosting access.
Plus, if tuition fees were reduced, how exactly do students’ groups propose universities make up the lost revenue? Do they really think provincial governments, drowning in red ink, will kick in the difference? Fat chance. (Indeed, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty recently said that a tuition freeze is not likely in face of the ballooning deficit.)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that universities don’t deserve additional funding. I fully support University of Toronto professor Roger Martin’s assertion in his article in Walrus magazine that university funding should be boosted and quality improved. And I find former Ontario premier Mike Harris’s recent ruminations – that cuts to postsecondary education during his tenure were the right thing to do – strain credulity (I’m being kind).
And here’s the rub: students’ groups seem to be lobbying both for tuition cuts while also lobbying for increased quality of education. But, I don’t think you can square that circle. How exactly will a drop in tuition fees help universities to improve access, in the sense of allowing them to accept more students, and improve the quality of the educational experience?
A 2004 study on tuition policies in five different countries concludes (pg. 49) that tuition cuts “can reduce the quality of education even as they make it more affordable. Freezes, reductions or elimination of fees can potentially leave the university with less money to do its work.”
Finally there’s perhaps the biggest non-sequitur: a campaign by the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students to “Drop fees for a poverty free Ontario,” which includes province-wide rallies on Nov. 5. According to the group, “with 1.3 million people in Ontario living in poverty, it’s time to Drop Fees and invest in a Poverty Free Ontario.” Sorry, I don’t get the connection.
But, so as I don’t sound too negative, I do think several of the proposals in the Canadian Federation of Students’ Education Action Plan (released in October) are worthy of support, particularly this one:
The federal government should develop a post-secondary education cash transfer payment for the purpose of reducing tuition fees and improving teaching, learning, and research infrastructure at colleges and universities. The transfer should be guided by the principles set out in a federal Post-Secondary Education Act, developed in cooperation with the provinces.
I would just leave out the part about “reducing tuition fees.”
A long-awaited (by me, at least) study was released just this morning by Graham Fraser, the federal Commissioner of Official Languages. He was looking at second-language learning opportunities at universities and he concludes that they’re somewhat wanting.
He credits universities for offering some second-language courses – what we might call “service” courses that teach students the basics of another language (think conversational French). But, he finds there is a “definite lack” of what he calls “more intensive” course-specific second-language opportunities for students, or second-language courses tailored to different disciplines, such as engineering, business or nursing.
The study is entitled Two Languages, A World of Opportunities: Second-Language Learning in Canada’s Universities. Mr. Fraser commissioned the study in 2008 with the assistance of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
It includes a survey of 84 universities and identifies “important gaps that keep students from developing their second-language skills as they pursue higher education and prepare to enter the workforce.” In addition to the study, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has launched a nifty on-line interactive map to help students to locate universities that offer intensive second-language learning programs and opportunities.
The impetus for the study was the realization by Mr. Fraser and others that while French immersion programs are popular in primary and secondary school, few students go on to pursue second-language studies at university. “The opportunity to learn and perfect second-language skills must go beyond the elementary and high school levels,” says Mr. Fraser.
There are some excellent second-language programs in Canada, including University of Ottawa’s French immersion program, York University’s Glendon College and University of Alberta’s Faculté Saint-Jean. But, as a rule, it’s true that most universities don’t see this as a priority.
It’s a topic I addressed in a 2008 story, “The rise of the monoglots.” (The second half of the article deals specifically with second-language learning and quotes Mr. Fraser at length.)
Here’s more from the press release accompanying today’s study:
“The federal government and Canada’s universities have a responsibility to prepare our youth to have the skills for a knowledge-based society and to compete in an increasingly global job market,” said the Commissioner. … “But for [second-language learning] initiatives to succeed, there must be broad-based mobilization as well as the necessary funding. This would make the post-secondary level the stepping stone – not the missing link – on the road to bilingualism for young Canadians.”
Mr. Fraser calls on the federal government, via the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, “to convene universities, educational organizations, language experts and governments to discuss how to improve second-language learning opportunities in universities and determine the investment that needs to be made so that Canadian youth can take full advantage of our country’s linguistic duality.”
If you’ll permit me a little self-congratulatory plug: this blog, Margin Notes, was named the best blog at the first-ever Canadian Online Publishing Awards on Monday. It won in the “blue” division for business-to-business, professional association and scholarly websites. (The full gallery of finalists and winners is here).
I’m very pleased and honoured for the recognition — of course, you’d expect me to say that — but even more satisfied for the roughly 2,500 unique visitors who check out this page each month. I know some of you are regular viewers, while many others may simply come across me in passing; either way, I hope you find something of interest.
And please, I’d love to hear from you. If you do or don’t agree with something I’ve said, or wish to add another perspective or other information, don’t hesitate to use the comment function just below and add your two cents’ worth. That certainly makes it a richer experience for me personally, and I believe for other readers as well.
P.S.: the University Affairs website was a finalist in the categories of overall best magazine website and overall best design; and my colleague Carolyn Steele was also a finalist in the best blog category for her Career Sense blog. Congratulations to all.
There will be at least a dozen new faces when the presidents of Canada’s universities meet in Ottawa next week for the annual meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. They’re part of what appears to be quite a dramatic turnover in recent years in the head offices on Canadian campuses.
According to information supplied by AUCC (publisher of University Affairs), there are 53 university heads (presidents, principals or rectors) who are serving a first term at their respective institutions. Twenty-eight of these first-term heads have been appointed since the beginning of 2008.
Looked at another way, there have been 96 changes in leadership at Canadian universities in the past five years. However, 29 institutions have had no change in leader during that time. Therefore, the 96 changes have occurred at the remaining 65 institutions (AUCC has 94 member institutions).
Let’s read that again: there have been 96 changes of leadership at 65 AUCC member institutions (universities and university colleges) in the past five years.
To be honest, I do not know if this sort of turnover is unusual. It might simply reflect a generational change happening at the top of Canada’s universities, an issue we addressed last year in our feature, “The search is on at the top.” Or, as I suspect, it may also reflect the more challenging role university presidents are expected to play today – a topic we addressed in a 2007 article, “The evolving role of president takes its toll.”
Among some of the recent university presidents who did not complete their first term, for various reasons, was Don Cozzetto at the University of Northern British Columbia, Karen Hitchcock at Queen’s and most recently Kathleen Scherf at Thompson Rivers University.
It’s not an easy job being a university president.
AUCC holds workshops for new presidents every year or so to help guide them in their new roles. A revamped version of that workshop, called the Professional Program for Presidents of Canadian Universities, is being held in January 2010 in collaboration with the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Development.
It will be one big, brainy party. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gairdner Awards, the Gairdner Foundation is hosting next week what is being billed as the largest gathering of the world’s top scientists ever held in Canada.
For three days, from Oct. 28-30, more than 60 past Gairdner Laureates will gather in Toronto to participate in lectures, panel discussions, forums and other events, most of them open to the public. The full schedule of events is here.
Says the foundation:
The 50th Anniversary will be a spectacular culmination of everything the Gairdner Foundation has achieved in becoming Canada’s premier international prize, and one of the top three biomedical prizes in the world. It will be a vehicle to raise awareness of the fascinating world of biomedical science and its importance to lives.
The Gairdner Foundation was created in 1957 to recognize and reward the achievements of medical researchers whose work “contributes significantly to improving the quality of human life.” The first awards were made in 1959.
A measure of their stature is the fact that of the nearly 300 individuals (including 42 Canadians), who have received Gairdner Awards, 75 have subsequently gone on to win the Nobel Prize. The two latest, just this month, were Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, who were named co-winners, with Jack W. Szostak, of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2009. Drs. Blackburn and Greider were Gairdner winners in 1998.
In honour of the 50th anniversary of the awards, the federal government gave $20 million to the Gairdner Foundation to increase the cash worth of the prizes to $100,000 each, and to institute a new individual prize in global health, the Canada Gairdner Global Health Award. As well, starting this year, the awards were officially renamed the Canada Gairdner International Awards. There is also the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award given each year to a Canadian.
University of Toronto’s Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, takes us back to the ugly days of the 1990s (for universities, at least) in an article in the November issue of Walrus magazine, with the provocative title, “Who Killed Canada’s Education Advantage?”
The answer: parsimonious federal Finance Minister Paul Martin for his cuts to transfer payments, abetted by Ontario Premier Mike Harris for bludgeoning provincial funding for postsecondary education.
At the time Harris became premier, Ontario had still not recovered from the deep deficits created during the recession. Having pledged to leave health care alone, he turned instead to education, which was already suffering from a per capita spending decrease during [Bob] Rae’s tenure. In Harris’s first two years, education expenditures dipped $1 billion, or 5 percent. The centrepiece of this program was a 14.3 percent cut in funding for Ontario universities. … Across Canada, other premiers also dealt with reduced federal transfer payments by targeting education spending, though not to the draconian extent Ontario did.
For those in academe who lived through those years, this will be familiar territory, but the article is still an informative and detailed accounting of the damage done.
What is most interesting about the piece, for me, is Professor Martin’s argument that even though funding for universities has increased at a reasonable clip over the past 10 years, Canada has not even remotely recovered the commanding advantage it had relative to the U.S. before the 1990s in terms of PSE support.
This leads to his best line: “We now find ourselves in the position of a cross-country runner who has lost visual contact with the runner ahead, and so has no idea how fast to run in order to catch up.”
This is backed up by a quote from McGill University Principal Munroe-Blum: “We cannot just measure ourselves against what we did twenty years ago. … Other nations, not just the United States, are devoting increasing resources to their education systems, well aware that the road to prosperity runs via knowledge and effective preparation and talent.”
Professor Martin’s conclusion: it will take an increased annual education expenditure of over $21 billion across all levels of government in Canada — and $10 billion in Ontario alone — to return to the per capita spending position we enjoyed relative to the U.S. in 1995. Will our governments step up to the challenge?
On a related note: the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations just released a study yesterday which concludes the province lags behind its peers in Canada and the U.S. in terms of the student-to-faculty ratio and urgently needs to hire more faculty to maintain the quality of higher education.
A nod to Rob Annan at the Researcher Forum blog for his interesting examination of the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings released last week.
He says the rankings show that Canada’s approach to academia and research is successful and balanced. We have a good number of institutions which provide widespread world-class research and teaching across the country, but we can also claim more than our fair share of “elite” institutions.
According to his calculations:
[A]fter the U.S. and the U.K. – who completely dominated the rankings – Canada has more universities (11) in the top 200 than any other country, save Japan and the Netherlands (who both also have 11). Canada has more universities in the top 200 than Australia (nine), Germany (10), and France (four).
However, this widespread success is not being achieved at the expense of mediocrity, he says. Canada has three institutions in the top 40, “which ranks it among the world’s elite – no country apart from the U.S. and the U.K. has more than that.” Japan, a country with more than four times Canada’s population, has three in the top 45. France has two universities in the top 40, but only two others on the entire list. The Netherlands has the same number of universities in the top 200 as Canada, but their highest-ranking school is 49th. By comparison, McGill is the second-highest ranking school (at 18th) not in the U.S. or the U.K.
A bit like having one’s cake and eating it, too, he says.
On Oct. 7, the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology held the first of what is expected to be several sessions devoted to the accessibility of postsecondary education in Canada. The motion creating the terms and references for the study was brought by Catherine Callbeck, Senator for Prince Edward Island.
(Ms. Callbeck, coincidentally, was featured in our recent “Alumni through the decades” story as part of University Affairs’ special 50th anniversary issue.)
The official transcript of the inaugural session is not yet online, but I have a copy of the unrevised transcript. Ms. Callbeck, in her opening remarks, said “it is important that this committee complete this study because we need as many Canadians as possible getting a postsecondary education … to increase our productivity and our progress as a nation.”
Appearing as witnesses to the first hearing were Paul Cappon, president and CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning; Paul Davidson, president and CEO of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada; Herbert O’Heron, senior advisor, national affairs, at AUCC; and Patrice de Broucker, chief of education indicators and special projects at Statistics Canada.
In their presentations and the subsequent question-and-answer period, the invited guests touched on numerous topics, including the need for a national strategy for postsecondary education; how best to direct research funding; the level of funding for PSE, both public and private; and how to attract more international students.
There was not much discussion specifically on accessibility; but, to be fair, the hearings are just getting started.
Mr. Davidson did point out that there are more than 1.5 million students in the higher education system across Canada today, a 40 percent increase from last decade. “Those are real accomplishments that parties on all sides of the house can take pride in.
He added, “That said, there is more to be done on accessibility and particularly with regard to Aboriginal accessibility.”
Later, in his closing remarks, Mr. Davidson referred to “the crisis in Aboriginal education,” calling it “one of the most compelling national issues we all must face.”
Aboriginal education was also mentioned as a priority by AUCC the next day in its brief to the House of Commons finance committee. The association is asking the federal government for increased financial support to Aboriginal students, investments in university programs and services which support Aboriginal students, and the creation of a pilot project fund that will see universities partner with Aboriginal communities to help raise K-12 completion rates.
I always thought Australia would be a fine choice for Canadian academics looking to relocate. But, a new report (.pdf) by the L. H. Martin Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Management warns Australia’s academic workforce is headed toward crisis, suffering from low satisfaction levels and high work loads.
A news report from the University of Melbourne says the study reveals:
[...] that Australian academics are less satisfied with their work than international colleagues and are more likely to change jobs. They report one of the lowest levels of satisfaction with institutional management and support, sit slightly below the international average in terms of the extent of fixed-term contracts and work among the longest hours.
There is also a looming shortage of faculty, although that could be viewed as a positive for young Canadian academics looking for work:
Over the next five years, 24 per cent of senior academics will retire and another 23 per cent will follow in the following five-year period, equating to a loss of around 5000 senior academics across Australia. Current numbers of young academics are unlikely to be enough to replace this loss.
However, the looming shortage of academic staff has been compounded by a 107 percent increase in student numbers between 1989 and 2007, with only a 28 percent increase in staff numbers during the same period, the study notes. Add to that the fact that the Australian federal government has a target of 40 percent attainment of bachelor degrees among Australia’s young adults, and the result will likely be further stress to “already compromised staff:student ratios.”
Oh well, it’s still warmer and sunnier down there.
I try not to make too much of these things, but Canada has 11 universities in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings for 2009, released today.
A few things of note, from the survey sponsors: U.S. and U.K. institutions still dominate the top 10; and there was a “dramatic” fall in the number of North American universities in the top 100, from 42 in 2008 to 36 in 2009, reflecting “the growing presence and impact of Asian and European institutions on the world higher education stage.”
I’m not a big believer that university rankings tell you much about a particular institution. But, for what it’s worth, bragging rights go to McGill University, the highest-ranked Canadian university, up two places this year, at 18th.
Another ranking of sorts was released this week: the College Sustainability Report Card, which provides “sustainability profiles” for colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. There were 17 Canadian institutions on the list. Here are the top five Canadian universities, each receiving a B+ grade (the links go straight to their sustainability profiles, which are quite interesting to peruse): University of British Columbia, McGill, York University, University of Alberta and University of Calgary.