Canadian social activist Judy Rebick, writing on her blog last month about Quebec’s student protests, said, “It is incredible that there has been almost no coverage of this extraordinary uprising of young people in Quebec in English Canada.” I don’t happen to share that view – I think the protests have been fairly well covered in the English media. Regardless, I would caution her and other supporters of the Quebec students to be careful of what they wish for. I have found that, generally, there has been a tone of skepticism, even incredulity, in the English-Canadian media about the student uprising.
Up to 170,000 Quebec university and college students are currently boycotting their classes to protest against the Quebec government’s plan to increase tuition by $350 a year for five years starting this fall, a 75-percent hike. Some of these students have been on strike for 11 weeks now.
Many columnists and commentators in English Canada have been unsupportive. Paul Schniedereit, editorial writer for the Chronicle Herald, asked rhetorically, “What planet are these kids from?” and chided the students for thinking that education is free. “Too often,” he writes, “there’s a disconnect between what people want government to do and how they think government pays for what it does. One wonders whether such basic economic concepts were ever taught in school.”
A Calgary Herald editorial flunks the student protesters for their actions and calls the situation “a worrying lesson of what happens when entitlement trumps common sense and respect for the rights of others.” L. Ian MacDonald, in the Montreal Gazette, asks, “What is it about Quebec university students that, from one cohort to the next, they don’t know how good they have it?” and then posits, “At some level, the Western provinces are subsidizing cheap tuition in Quebec, while their own students pay twice as much. In terms of a united federation, the effects are potentially corrosive.”
An interesting side note to the protests in Quebec is that many commerce and science students, as well as those in professional programs, voted not to boycott their classes. The most support for a boycott has come generally from students in the arts, social sciences and humanities, prompting a Gazette reporter to speculate about “two different solitudes” within the Quebec student movement. That may be, but I think the more traditional, and important, two solitudes of language are also at play.
The students’ union at Bishop’s University, for instance, decided to stay out of the tuition fight. At the province’s two largest English-language universities, McGill and Concordia, there has been some support for the student actions and the occasional skirmish on campus, but generally classes and final exams have proceeded as planned with few students boycotting.
Most English media reports are quick to point out that, even after Quebec tuition fees rise as planned, Quebec students will still be paying among the lowest fees in the country (around $3,800 a year by 2017). Commentators have also pointed to studies that indicate that higher tuition does not seem to be a barrier for students from middle- and high-income families. Higher tuition may be a difficulty for students from lower-income families, but the government plans to increase bursaries for these students, with the net effect that they will be paying no more than they currently do for their degree.
But – and I think here’s where the two solitudes really kick in – many French commentators dismiss the whole premise of that argument. What many English Canadians may not realize is that, for at least some Quebecers, this debate has morphed from one about mere tuition hikes to a larger struggle about corporatization, “neo-liberalism” and what they believe is the threat to the Quebec “social consensus” on generous government-supported social programs.
I asked my father-in-law what he thought of the student protests. A retired high-school teacher in Sherbrooke, Quebec, he heartily endorsed them, likening them to the Occupy Wall Street movement and even the Arab Spring uprisings. (Some in Quebec have dubbed the student protests the Printemps Érable, or “maple spring.”)
Many Quebec university professors also support the students. An open letter signed by more than 500 Quebec professors, including some well-known Quebec intellectuals, praised the students. “Thanks to them,” they write, “a space for reflection has opened up, and crucial questions about teaching, culture, the economy and the role of the State are being debated in the public sphere.”
At the risk of overgeneralizing – there is, after all, no single monolithic English-Canadian point of view – I think many in the rest of Canada would be puzzled by such sentiments. Of course, there is no single monolithic French-Canadian point of view either. Le Soleil editorialist Brigitte Breton recently wrote: “It’s true that the extra effort demanded of students is significant. A 75-percent hike can make your teeth grind, but one also needs to keep in mind that, even with the increase, our tuition fees are still among the lowest in the country. Quebecers also enjoy a good system of student financial assistance. Not bad for a province that isn’t paved with gold and which has more generous social programs than the other [provinces].”
As well, surveys show that the majority of Quebecers support the tuition increases, and what support there is for the students has fallen since the eruption of vandalism and violence that rocked the protests late last week.
Thankfully, as I write this, Quebec Education Minister Line Beauchamp has been meeting with the student groups, who in turn have agreed to a 48-hour truce in their protests and the unrest the demonstrations have caused. I have no idea how the discussions will end up, but it’s a welcome start.
Postscript, April 26:
As anyone following this issue will likely have already heard, the talks between the students and the Quebec government broke down yesterday, leading to more protests. Good summaries can be found here and here. The Montreal Gazette also has extensive coverage here and here.
Doctoral students at Canada’s universities seem to be displaying quite a bit of angst lately, judging by the general response to a number of items on our website over the past several months.
Last fall, for example, I wrote a blog post and accompanying news story that questioned whether the country was producing too many PhDs. The articles also raised the issue of whether graduate students were being adequately prepared for careers outside academia, considering that perhaps only one in four or five graduates will eventually land a full-time academic position. Judging from the tweets and comments, the articles seemed to hit a nerve, with many readers nodding in the affirmative.
A recent opinion piece on times to completion in doctoral programs, by Dalhousie University associate dean of graduate studies Sunny Marche, also ramped up the angst meter. Dr. Marche observed that the longer it takes for students to complete their doctoral programs, the more detrimental it is to them and the greater the risk of them not finishing. He said his university is now taking a more proactive approach and at the five-year mark will “ring the bell” advising doctoral students to get a move on to complete their PhD program.
That column, too, uncovered much underlying anxiety, in this case about the pressures of family commitments, the quality of supervision, the adequacy of funding and other resources, and so on. “How is this discourse,” asked one commenter, “promoting a healthy atmosphere for PhD students who are constantly scrambling to do everything they are expected of and still complete in a timely fashion?”
But it was Melonie Fullick, our Speculative Diction blogger, who hit the mother lode of buried angst with two posts around the holidays on PhD students, depression and attrition (read them here and here). Melonie wrote that she felt that clinical depression, extreme anxiety and other mental health issues are becoming more common in graduate programs and that there is a curtain of “thickly oppressive silence” surrounding these issues. The first post received 67 comments and counting – a record for our site – with many of the commenters saying essentially (I’m paraphrasing) “thank you, thank you for expressing and legitimizing my exact feelings.”
There is a conundrum, however. I asked a higher-education policy analyst about these complaints and concerns of PhD students, and he seemed a bit perplexed. Studies consistently show, he responded, that graduate students are very satisfied with their programs. I asked for proof and was sent a PDF copy of the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey.
(You can link to the PDF document here; it is from the University of Calgary and shows data from 2007 for that institution but also the combined data for what was then the G-13 group of research-intensive universities, which account for the bulk of grad students. Nearly 70,000 students were asked to participate and more than 25,000 responded, for a response rate of 36.8 percent. Another iteration of the survey was conducted in 2010 and some individual institutions have posted their results online, but I can’t find combined data for all the responding institutions. However, looking at a few institutions and their 2010 data, the responses do not seem much different from 2007).
So what does the data show? Asked to rate their academic experience at their institution, 68 percent of respondents said either “excellent” or “very good,” with a further 22 percent saying merely “good.” That leaves under 10 percent rating their experience “fair” or “poor.” There were very similar results when asked to rate their overall experience at their university. Asked if they were to start their graduate or professional career again, would they select this same university, 33 percent said definitely and 39 percent said probably – a fairly strong endorsement. Asked if they would select the same field of study, 52 percent said definitely and 29 percent said probably.
Respondents also gave high or relatively high marks for the intellectual quality of the faculty, their teaching quality, the quality of their guidance, etc. The only areas where a majority or near majority responded “fair” or “poor” were in relation to advice and/or workshops for things such as “writing grant proposals,” “career options within academia,” “career options outside academia” and “about research positions.” OK, so there is some latent anxiety there, but overall the responses seem quite positive. What gives?
Well, for one thing, the survey involves both master’s students (58.4 percent) and doctoral students (41.6 percent). There is no breakdown provided by level of study, so it is possible that master’s students, with their shorter and more focused programs, have higher satisfaction levels than doctoral students with their longer, more demanding programs. Also, there is no direct question on the survey about anxiety and mental health issues specifically. However, students were asked about their “student life experience” and nearly half rated it as excellent or very good, with a further 32 percent saying good.
I would be interested to hear other potential explanations for the apparent discrepancy between doctoral students’ anecdotal reports of anxiety and dissatisfaction versus the relatively positive satisfaction levels found in the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey.
It is sometimes assumed that junior (i.e., pre-tenure) professors work much harder and have lower levels of job satisfaction than their more senior, tenured peers. However, a new study of full-time Canadian university faculty published in the April 2012 edition of Higher Education Quarterly (vol. 66, no. 2) concludes that this assumption is incorrect. Junior and senior faculty report working approximately the same number of hours each week, and both groups report high levels of job satisfaction.
Combine these findings with other data indicating that Canadian faculty are well remunerated, particularly at the early stages of their career, and also enjoy a wide range of workplace benefits, and it would be reasonable to conclude that a junior faculty position at a Canadian university is currently a very good gig. Or, as the authors put it more moderately: “Generally speaking, the findings suggest that full-time early-career faculty in tenure stream positions are doing well.”
The study’s lead author is Glen Jones, who holds the Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement and is a professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. The other authors are Julian Weinrib of U of T, and Amy Scott Metcalfe, Don Fisher, Kjell Rubenson and Iain Snee at the University of British Columbia. The study is based on data from the Changing Academic Profession Survey, which involved the administration of a common survey to professors in 18 countries in 2007-2008. Over 1,100 faculty members responded to the Canadian component of the study.
(At the time I post this, Higher Education Quarterly has not yet placed its April edition online – I received a copy of the article in PDF format directly from Dr. Jones. However, you can download an earlier version of the manuscript here, which was presented at a conference in the U.K. in April 2011.)
Looking more closely at the numbers, over 70 percent of both junior and senior faculty in Canada report high or very high levels of job satisfaction. Parallel figures for young faculty at American, Australian and British universities were 61percent, 53 percent and 43 percent, respectively.
The authors did find some differences between junior and senior faculty. While both groups report working approximately 48 hours per week (during teaching terms), junior faculty spend slightly more time on teaching-related activities while senior faculty spend more time on administrative duties. During non-teaching terms, junior faculty report spending slightly more time on research activities and senior faculty report spending more time on administrative duties.
As well, junior faculty report higher levels of stress than senior faculty. Approximately 46 percent of junior faculty indicated that the job “is a source of considerable personal strain” compared with 35 percent of senior faculty. The authors say these findings “are interesting but not unexpected. … For those who have already attained the highest rank in Canadian universities, those at the full professor rank, it is not unreasonable to expect that the absence of promotional pressures and the attainment of the highest position in departmental hierarchies would lower overall stress levels and usher in a more favourable opinion of personal and professional circumstances.”
The authors conclude that there exists a “relatively stable and healthy professional environment for both junior and senior faculty in Canadian universities.”
There is the elephant in the room, however, not directly addressed by the paper: what about the burgeoning ranks of PhD graduates toiling away as part-time, sessional instructors? The authors do acknowledge that “there is evidence that the global shift towards more contingent labour is also occurring in Canada.” However, reliable data are lamentably scarce. Anecdotally, I have heard estimates that perhaps half of all courses are taught by contingent faculty, but that can’t be verified. “The implications of these broad changes in the balance of academic professionals in these quite different employment categories require further study,” the authors write.