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Sessional instructors: what we know so far

Posted on 16 July 2014 by

Although the data on sessional faculty in Canada is frustratingly scant, the authors of a new report have made a valuable if tentative contribution to the debate by scouring what little information is available. Their preliminary analysis suggests that “many of the popular assumptions concerning the increasing use of part-time faculty may be incorrect.” But, as with virtually all studies, they conclude with that near-universal refrain: “additional research is needed.”

The report, The “Other” University Teachers: Non-Full-Time Instructors at Ontario Universities, was commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and released on July 15. It is an Ontario-only report, but will have resonance across Canada.

The use of non-full-time university instructors is on the rise in many countries, raising concerns about their working conditions and the implications for educational quality. Nowhere is this more so than in the United States, where the use of contingent faculty is widespread and groups such as the New Faculty Majority fight to improve the working conditions for these instructors. The name of this latter organization is instructive, as it is widely reported that contingent or sessional instructors now make up considerably more than half of all university faculty in the U.S. and perhaps as much as 75 percent (the recent book, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, for example, claims the higher number).

What is the situation in Canada? No one really knows, because most universities don’t release the data. This often forces the media in Canada to rely on anecdotal reports or, worse, rely on the U.S. data.

Into this breach have stepped the four authors of the new HEQCO report. With a bit of sleuthing of institutional websites and other data – and with some additional information from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations – they were able to make at least a few observations.

The authors found that the ratio of sessional instructors to full-time faculty appears to be increasing at some universities while decreasing or remaining stable at others. They also note that the conditions of employment for non-full-time instructors vary by institution. Fees ranged from $5,584 to $7,665 per half course, which is much higher than the average rates for adjunct faculty in the U.S.

Looking at other data, they note that at 10 universities, sessional instructors are represented by the same association as full-time, tenure-stream faculty, while at another 10 there are separate unions or associations. And while sessional instructors have various benefits guaranteed under collective agreements, often including some form of job security related to seniority or promotion, the authors note that sessional instructors “do not have anything close to the level of security associated with tenure.”

University Affairs, I should note, collected its own sampling of pay, benefits and work-related conditions of sessionals in our award-winning story, “Sessionals, up close,” published in the February 2013 edition. We also have a handy chart of these conditions for sessionals (in PDF) on our website. Some of the data may be out of date, but it is still the best snapshot of the situation I’ve seen for Canada.

As for the balance between full-time, tenure-stream faculty and sessional instructors, the authors of the HEQCO report had even less to work with. At one university, the estimated share of courses taught by sessional instructors during the fall and winter terms was roughly 25 percent. Meanwhile, the collective agreements at four universities limit the ratio of courses taught by sessional instructors to between 15 percent and 35 percent. Thus the situation in Canada doesn’t seem to be quite as dire as in the U.S.

In conclusion, the authors call for:

  • A province-wide survey of sessional instructors to learn more about their background (academic and professional), employment situation and teaching load, as well as their perceptions and experiences.
  • A more detailed study of institutional staffing patterns through the collection and analysis of data on employment trends at all Ontario universities; and
  • A detailed analysis of staffing patterns within selected academic units at different Ontario universities and the implications of these patterns for educational quality and student success.

Let’s hope they get it.

Time away to learn and play

Posted on 9 July 2014 by

Sunset over the Adriatic.

I’m back in the office after a recent three-month leave of absence. We’re often told that reflection facilitates deep learning, so in that spirit I wanted to use this space to reflect a bit on my experiences of the past three months. I generally feel that this blog is about higher ed and not the appropriate space to talk about personal matters, but I’m making an exception this time around. I was also inspired by fellow University Affairs blogger Melonie Fullick, who recently reflected on priorities and “productivity” in the wake of her father passing away.

The impetus for this post is admittedly more prosaic than Melonie’s. My wife and I felt it was time to uncouple from the daily routine to travel abroad and spend some quality time as a family with our two boys, aged 13 and 11 – as clichéd as that sounds. We’d originally thought we might take a full year off, but practicalities of work and budget soon suggested that a three-month leave would be more reasonable. I am acutely aware of how privileged I am to be in a position to even consider such things. However, if there is a workplace that offers the flexibility to travel and where it’s viewed positively, I submit it is academia. This should not be a particularly alien topic to many of our readers. As well, we preach to students to seek out international experiences in their learning process and a similar impulse motivated us to do the same with our kids.

The trip was not in any way work- or career-related for my wife and me – purely time off. The children, alas, were not quite so lucky. They were missing a full three months of school and we did feel the responsibility to school them a bit while we were away. They did homework for about an hour a day, which included math exercises, reading and writing a blog about their experience.

We travelled the Mediterranean (Greece, Italy, Corsica and Croatia), coinciding nicely with our children’s school lessons, which over the past few years have included Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Nicolas and Alec were able to experience that history to a certain extent during our travels.

So how did it work out? The trip was everything we could have hoped for. We explored, we played, we laughed, we discovered, we learned. We created a whole set of lifelong family memories. Particularly fulfilling was seeing how our children responded with curiosity and openness to new experiences and how they made connections when confronted with new places, ideas and information. It’s almost as though you could see their brains expanding like sponges as they took it all in.

Whose education is it?

There’s a final reflection I want to share, related to the education system. Many people in Europe we spoke to during our travels were curious about how we could take our children out of school for three months. They were emphatic, every one of them, that this would not be possible in their country – it would simply not be allowed. That flabbergasted me. I must admit I don’t actually know what our legal obligations are in Ontario, but it never occurred to us that we might not be allowed to do this with our children. While we believe strongly in the value of public education, surely we must have the right to take them out for a period of time to offer them a different educational experience?

For the record, we did attempt to meet with the principal of our children’s school at the beginning of the school year to discuss the trip, but she never officially responded, leaving it to each of our children’s teachers to work it out. One teacher was very responsive, meeting with us beforehand and preparing a workbook and other assignments for our younger son that would be used in class. Our son even had a sealed set of final exams to do while we were away, which we scanned and sent back to the teacher. For our older son, we simply put together a teaching plan based on a math text we purchased plus several other exercises we devised on the fly. We don’t actually know if our son was given a final grade for the year or an incomplete. But we are pretty confident he did learn a thing or two.

University PR: it was a simpler time

Posted on 24 March 2014 by
Track and field athletes, Simon Fraser University, 1998.

Track and field athletes, Simon Fraser University, 1998.


We’re changing offices here at University Affairs – nothing major, just moving up a few floors in our current building in downtown Ottawa. But, as part of that, we were all asked to go through our filing cabinets and dispose of everything that wasn’t essential. That’s how I got to browsing through hundreds of old black-and-white photos from Canadian universities, mostly from the 1970s to 1990s.

The photos got me thinking about how things have changed – or haven’t – at universities in general. But, in particular, it made me think about how the role of university public relations has changed. It was in many ways a simpler time back then. Think about it: in the ’70s through to at least the early ’90s there was no social media, no websites and no email. Heck, there was no Internet.

As for the photos, many of these would have been sent to us by mail to accompany a press release. For editors, it wasn’t easy finding decent photos back then, so having a good black and white photo to go with a story certainly increased the odds the story might get published. University public relations offices might have had dozens of these 8 x 10 photos printed and mailed out in envelopes, with the requisite piece of cardboard inserted to prevent them getting damaged. The fancier places might have also sent a colour slide, budget permitting. And, if it was something really important, sometimes you’d get the package within 24 hours by courier!

With that in mind, let’s take a little walk down memory lane. Photo 1, at the top, and Photos 2 and 3, immediately below, are good examples of the type of PR photo I’m talking about. The ones after that all have their own particular charm. I have very few details about the photos: if you happen to recognize them or the people in them, let me know!

One final note: I am taking a three-month travel sabbatical starting next week and so won’t be writing any new blog posts until my return at the beginning of July. See you then.

BC Open University, 1995. Say "ahhh."

BC Open University, 1995. Say “ahhh.”

Graduation ceremony, again at SFU. This photo appeared on the cover of University Affairs, May 1995

Graduation ceremony, again at SFU. This photo appeared on the cover of University Affairs, May 1995


All in the family, University of Prince Edward Island, date unknown.

An electronics lab, University of Toronto Scarborough, 1966(?).

An electronics lab, University of Toronto Scarborough, 1966(?).

A research lab, Université Laval, 1989.

A research lab, Université Laval, 1989. A dot matrix printer!

A library card catalogue, Trent University, date unknown. If you're under 25, this may need some explaining.

A library card catalogue, Trent University, date unknown. If you’re under 25, this may need some explaining.

Residence room, University of Alberta, 1974. The rooms haven't changed, but the hairstyles have!

Residence room, University of Alberta, 1974. The rooms haven’t changed, but the hairstyles have!

The rise of the student entrepreneur

Posted on 18 March 2014 by

In the January 2012 issue of University Affairs, we published a cover story on “campus incubators” that encourage students to create start-up companies and “hatch the entrepreneurial spirit.” While that story is only just over two years old, the campus incubators idea has caught on with such intensity since then at Canada’s universities that I thought the trend deserved acknowledgement and an update.

These incubators are not academic programs, although there may be some academic credit associated with them (many universities already have business degrees with a major or concentration in entrepreneurship). Rather, these are primarily extracurricular programs, often open to any interested student and are not necessarily run out of the business faculty. They usually offer guidance and support through workshops and mentoring, the possibility of some seed money and feature a physical space for collaboration. And they seem to be very popular.

There’s an old saying in journalism that a single event is interesting, two is a trend and three is a story. I bring that up because when I wrote the story assignment for that original article, I had only two examples of campus incubators and needed a third to “make it a story.” I did find a third example after a bit of digging; now I could easily cite a dozen such examples. Here are a few that have opened in the past couple of years:

  • Earlier this month, the Co-operators Centre for Business and Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Guelph opened the Hub incubator program. Those accepted into the program will receive $8,000 in start-up funding, office space and “mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs.”
  • In December 2013, Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business launched a campus-wide venture accelerator called Carleton Entrepreneurs for students and recent grads “from all faculties and program levels to launch and grow successful businesses.” A month earlier Carleton launched 1125@Carleton, billed as “a collaborative and innovative workspace … bringing Carleton researchers, faculty and students together with business, industry, community and governments at all levels.”
  • University of Ottawa launched its own Entrepreneurship Hub in November 2013 for students “who wish to make their entrepreneurial dreams come true.” Through a $1-million investment from the university, the hub “will facilitate entrepreneurship promotion through various existing initiatives as well as serve as a catalyst for new actions across all faculties and schools.”
  • In September 2013, the University of Victoria announced it was expanding its Innovation Centre for Entrepreneurs, which “provides tools, expertise and space on campus to help entrepreneurs take an idea to the stage where it is ready for investment.” Initiated a year earlier by the Gustavson School of Business, the program is now available across all disciplines.
  • Also last September, Brock University opened its BioLinc business incubator. Operating under Brock’s Goodman School of Business, BioLinc “provides space and an environment where students, researchers and companies collaborate to turn knowledge into marketable products and services.”
  • In early 2012, OCAD University inaugurated its Imagination Catalyst “to help OCAD U entrepreneurs launch new enterprises or commercialize their designs, products and services.”

How it all started

The original incubator project (I don’t dare call it the “first,” as somebody is sure to find an earlier example) that I’d heard about was the Velocity residence incubator at University of Waterloo. We did a small story on it when it first opened in 2008 and it features prominently in the later cover story.

The idea for Velocity is credited to Sean Van Koughnett, who was then a Waterloo staff member but is now associate vice-president, students and learning, at McMaster University. He said he had an epiphany back in 2007 when he heard a telecom CEO say at a conference that the next big tech innovation “will probably come from a 20-year-old working in a dorm room.” At the time, Mr. Van Koughnett was upgrading the technology infrastructure for the school’s residence buildings. The 72-bed Minota Hagey Residence was slated for renovations, so he suggested the university fill it with students interested in starting their own businesses.

The Velocity residence still exists, but the Velocity program has expanded well beyond that to now include Velocity Garage, a physical space for aspiring entrepreneurs to collaborate; Velocity Alpha, a program open to all Waterloo students with any kind of business idea, tech-related or not; and Velocity Science, an entrepreneurship program focused on the sciences.

There is also the Velocity Fund, which awards Waterloo students more than $300,000 in grants each year to create their own start-ups. The 10 finalists for the latest competition were announced on March 12. The fund was created in early 2011 following a donation of $1 million from Ted Livingston, who founded the company Kik Messenger while a Velocity resident. According to the university, companies that got their start through the Velocity program have raised more than $100 million in funding in the five years since the incubator was launched.

One of the other two campus incubators we wrote about was Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone, which has also seen an impressive expansion similar to Velocity’s. According to a recent press release, 48 start-ups joined DMZ in 2013, bringing to 123 the total number of start-ups that have joined since its launch in 2010. These start-ups have created 900-plus jobs, says the university, and 70 percent of the companies are still flourishing or have been acquired.

Ryerson has indicated it will open other “zones” and indeed recently announced it is looking for industry partners to participate in its new Transmedia Zone, which aims to foster new ways to “advance the art of storytelling.”

Simon Fraser University’s Venture Connection, the third incubator program we featured, is also still going strong, offering an early-stage incubator program, a “venture co-op,” internships and more. The program’s website lists a number of company success stories.

These programs are noteworthy because they are great examples of the kind of high-impact experiential learning opportunities that universities are increasingly promoting. These programs also give students direct business experience, connections and entrepreneurial skills that should help them with their future careers.

This is just a sampling of what’s out there, and I’d be pleased to hear about others. There are many other hybrid programs that are more academic in nature. Either way, it seems entrepreneurship is thriving on Canadian campuses.

Long-term and short-term, a degree is still a good bet

Posted on 5 March 2014 by

An interesting Statistics Canada study, released on Feb. 27, contained some very good news for Canada’s universities. The study, entitled Investment of a Lifetime? The Long-term Labour Market Premiums Associated with a Postsecondary Education, examined the earnings premiums associated with completing a college certificate or a bachelor’s degree, compared to completing a high school diploma. It found that a university degree pays off big time, with most university graduates earning hundreds of thousands of dollars more over their careers than those with college or high-school credentials. Those with university degrees also experienced fewer temporary or permanent layoffs (see the key data table here).

The study, by Marc Frenette, was also of interest in the clever way the author went about his analysis. (Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates gives a much better explanation of it here than I could.) Using longitudinal tax data linked to 1991 Census data, the study tracked individuals from 1991, when they were 35 years old, to 2010, when they were 54. Individuals were grouped according to their highest level of completed education by 1991.

On average, men with a high school diploma earned $975,000 over the 20-year period, while those with a bachelor’s degree earned $1,707,000. This puts the earnings premium for a degree at $732,000. That’s not as high as the $1.3 million the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada estimates, but the AUCC figure is for lifetime earnings, not just a 20-year period, so the numbers are roughly concordant. Men with a college certificate, meanwhile, earned $247,000 more than those with a high school diploma. (All dollar figures are expressed in 2010 constant dollars to account for inflation.)

The earnings premium for women showed a similar pattern, but was markedly lower. On average, women with a high school diploma earned $525,000 over the two decades, while those with a bachelor’s degree earned $973,000, for a $448,000 premium. Women with a college certificate earned $179,000 more than those with a high school diploma.

The gender difference in earnings “warrants further investigation,” says Mr. Frenette, but he does give some explanation. At the median (the midpoint of the distribution, where half fall below and half above), men and women benefit more or less equally from a bachelor’s degree, with a premium of $504,000 for men and $487,000 for women. Where the premiums differ is at the top: at the 95th percentile, a bachelor’s degree is associated with $576,000 in additional earnings over the 20-year period for women, which is about the same as at the median; for men, the premium is almost five times larger at the top, or nearly $2.5 million. In other words, top-earning men earn way more than top-earning women.

There is also some interesting stuff in the study about how men and women fare comparatively in the public and private sectors, but again I’ll point you to Alex Usher’s analysis for more details.

The biggest caveat to this study, like the warning in mutual fund advertisements, is that past earnings do not guarantee future returns. Or, as the author puts it, “The results of this study apply to one particular cohort. Long-term outcomes for more recent cohorts are not yet available, and may or may not be similar to those in this study.”

However, a recent analysis from Ontario does suggest that the value of a degree remains high. The new University Works report from the Council of Ontario Universities, released two days before the StatsCan study, found that Ontario university graduates experienced the highest employment growth of any group of students over the last 10 years and are earning significantly more than those with other types of education.

“This report uses empirical data to debunk anecdotal reports about unemployed and under-employed university students,” says Max Blouw, COU chair and president of Wilfrid Laurier University, in a COU press release. A Toronto Star article, countering the “barristas with bachelor’s” meme, put it more colourfully: “Barrista, shmarrista. Ontario university grads have the best odds of landing jobs in their fields at good wages, according to a feisty new report from the Council of Ontario Universities that disputes any notion its members are glorified prep schools for a life making lattes.”

A second look at Canada’s adult literacy and numeracy skills

Posted on 25 February 2014 by

There were concerns in the media last October about Canada’s literacy and numeracy results in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC. An OECD initiative, PIAAC was created to assess adult skills and competencies in three main areas: literacy, numeracy and what the OECD terms “problem solving in a rich technology environment” or what we might call digital skills. The October 2013 Survey of Adult Skills, from 24 participating countries and sub-national regions, was the first release of PIAAC data.

Media reports noted that Canada did well in the problem-solving category, but lagged in literacy and numeracy. In literacy, Canada scored at about the OECD average, roughly on par with the U.K. (England and Northern Ireland) and Germany. In numeracy, we scored slightly below the OECD average, roughly on par with the U.K and the U.S.

Concerns in Canada were further heightened when the latest release of data from the Programme for International Student Assessment in December showed that the performance of Canadian 15-year-olds in math was dropping.

The PISA results are more an issue for the K-12 education sector, so I’ll leave them aside for now. The PIAAC results, on the other hand, are relevant from a higher education perspective and reveal some interesting results when examined a bit more closely.

According to an analysis by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the Council of Ministers of Education Canada, when you look specifically at bachelor’s graduates from Canadian universities, you’ll find that Canada in fact significantly outperforms the OECD average in literacy – moving from 14th to fourth place – and jumps above the OECD average on numeracy skills (see chart, story continues below).

Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.


Why is this? The reason lies with the higher proportion of foreign-trained graduates in Canada compared to other OECD countries, reflecting the higher percentage of immigrants in this country. Thirty-nine percent of graduates in Canada who responded to the survey were immigrants, compared to just 14 percent in other OECD countries – and of the 39 percent, more than half were educated abroad. The lower scores of immigrants, especially those educated abroad, affected the Canada-wide averages.

Of the 24 participating countries, the CMEC noted, “Canada has the second-largest proportion of immigrants, and the largest percentage of population whose mother tongue is different from the official languages of the assessment.”

Fine, but this doesn’t materially change the result or the make-up of Canada’s adult workforce, some may argue. That’s true, but it might change the solution to Canada’s lagging scores. The AUCC wants to ensure that the media are not sending misleading signals to students and employers about the quality of education in Canada’s universities. What the result does suggest is that Canada perhaps needs to invest more in adult literacy and numeracy education for immigrants.

This is already happening to some degree. Looking at the PIAAC data, Canada has been more successful than most countries in minimizing the skills gaps relating to country of origin or language. AUCC credits the numerous programs that universities across Canada have in place to assist recent immigrants adjust to the social, cultural and linguistic challenges they confront as they adapt to life in Canada. But more, of course, could be done to help immigrants educated abroad raise their skills.

Update: I see the Conference Board of Canada has a similar analysis, posted on Feb. 24.

Canada’s missed opportunity at AAAS

Posted on 19 February 2014 by

The following is a guest post by Helen Murphy, assistant director, communications, for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Canada was both present and missing at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Feb. 13-17. AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and its annual meeting attracts thousands of leading scientists, engineers, educators, policymakers and journalists from around the world to discuss recent developments in science and technology.

Canada was well represented at the scientific symposia, with researchers talking about impacts of the Arctic thaw, fisheries management, brain simulation and seeing elections through the lens of mathematics, among other topics. But Canada was notably lacking in any official promotion as a destination of choice for top researchers – at a time when we do a lot of talking, at the federal level at least, about the need to do more to attract top researchers from around the world.

Just two years ago Canada rolled out a very red carpet as host of AAAS 2012 in Vancouver. And to set the stage for that rare hosting of the annual meeting outside of the U.S., we made the maple leaf a prominent feature of AAAS 2011 in Washington D.C., handing out our famous red Olympic mittens and giant Think Canada / Pensez Canada pins. Much time, energy and money went into preparing Think Canada pavilions for the exhibit halls at those events.

This year there was not so much as a Canadian booth at the exhibit hall, the presence of stakeholder groups was noticeably down, and the only red mittens in sight were my worn out ones from that 2011 venture.

Why the change? Our absence seems to boil down to financial constraints. In recent years the education branch of what is now the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development led the Canadian consortium for AAAS, which included a variety of government agencies and associations. DFATD stepped away from AAAS this year and other former partners did the same. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada kept up its participation, as did the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics), the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, a number of universities and a handful of other groups.

The problem around this diminished role for Canada is the increased competition for international research talent and partnerships we keep hearing about. The EU is consistently prominent at AAAS, now touting its $105 billion Horizon 2020 research funding program. Germany and Japan are also active at AAAS, promoting their research funding opportunities through breakfast events, displays and presentations.

Canada has good stuff to talk about, too. Thankfully Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice chancellor at McGill University, highlighted the Canadian advantage in a presentation called “Building stronger centres of excellence.” Dr. Fortier was part of a panel discussion on “Global excellence: New drivers and innovative solutions,” along with presenters from the EU, Singapore and Denmark. She discussed how Canada has strengthened its ability to attract and retain the best students and professors, promote business-academic relationships and foster innovation through new research funding programs, starting with the launch of the Canada Research Chairs program in 2000 and including the new Canada First Research Excellence Fund announced in Budget 2014. Dr. Fortier shared compelling figures showing how these investments are equipping universities such as McGill to attract higher percentages of faculty and students from around the world.

What is most troubling about the lack of Canada’s branding message at AAAS, with its 8,000-plus attendees, is the spectacular fashion in which we went from all to nothing. In recent years our proud and well-staffed Canadian pavilion had not only high-end brochures about funding opportunities and centres of excellence, but also carefully planned photo and text displays bragging about our achievements, and videos bringing Canadian research to life. There were also workshops on research programs and international collaboration initiatives.

The AAAS annual meeting is a place where top researchers can get a sense of what’s out there and what’s new in research funding and partnership opportunities around the world. Unfortunately Canada decided to sit this one out.

Emotion should not rule over reason in politics

Posted on 12 February 2014 by

Do you follow emotion over reason – your heart over your head? Behavioural scientists recognize these as dual cognitive processes and the reality is that we use both in our everyday lives to cope with the world around us.

However, in politics specifically, in the past 30 years or so, there is no question that emotion has been favoured over reason, and that’s not a good thing, according to Joseph Heath, director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto and a professor in both the school of public policy and governance, and the department of philosophy. His argument takes a bit of explaining – bear with me.

Dr. Heath was speaking to parliamentarians and others on Feb. 11 as part of the Big Thinking lecture series on Parliament Hill organized by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr. Health, who was named a 2012 Trudeau Fellow, began his presentation with an anecdote about former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the morning talk was co-sponsored by the Trudeau Foundation).

When Mr. Trudeau entered politics in the 1960s, said Dr. Heath, he adopted as his personal slogan “Reason over Passion.” His motivation for doing so was his desire to defend the concept of federalism. Dr. Heath explained that, when it comes to the struggle between Canadian federalism and “sub-federal” nationalism (in Quebec), Mr. Trudeau felt that nationalism has the advantage, particularly when it is oriented around ethnic or group solidarity. This gives it a strong emotional appeal, while federalism – which, in essence, is about pragmatic compromise – simply doesn’t have the same emotional resonance.

What Mr. Trudeau was implying was that “in a very emotionally charged debate, certain kinds of policy positions are going to be at an intrinsic disadvantage because those policy positions are fundamentally not motivated by emotion, they’re motivated by rational insight. The debate is not neutral,” said Dr. Heath. In these instances, emotion trumps reason, while Mr. Trudeau “wanted reason to be privileged over emotion.”

Fast forward 50 years and the debate is more relevant now than ever. “I think there is absolutely no question that there is currently a dynamic at work in our democracy which is increasingly crowding out these kinds of appeals to reason … and it is important to recognize that that situation is fundamentally not sustainable,” said Dr. Heath.

Insights from cognitive science

Recent developments in cognitive science offer insights into this dilemma, he said. The vocabulary also is slightly altered – researchers now draw the contrast between reason and intuition, rather than emotion. The core idea, known as dual-process theory, “is that we have within our minds two very different styles of cognition, two different ways of approaching and solving problems.” Intuition is referred to by academics as system one, while reason is system two.

Reason is often what academics, not surprisingly, engage in. It has four essential characteristics: it is linguistically based; it is linear, where one thought follows another; it is conscious, meaning every step of the argument is explicit and available; and it is “effortful,” i.e., it requires our full attention and concentration. All of this is a rather slow process, said Dr. Heath.

Intuition, on the other hand, is a set of cognitive systems that are characterized primarily by not having the above characteristics, Dr. Heath explained. First, it’s extremely rapid. A classic example of this is facial recognition. “You pass somebody in the hall and you only have seconds to decide, do I know this person? Do I greet him? And your brain magically just kind of tells you. This is a very complicated process, but your brain does it quickly.” As well, the process is unconscious, in the sense that we have little idea how our brains solved the problem. Intuition also requires low effort.

All of this combines to generate a psychological disposition towards cognitive laziness. “Whenever we encounter a problem, we try to solve the problem in the least effortful way possible. We deploy system-one resources first … these heuristic rapid problem-solving techniques,” said Dr. Health. Then, only if we suspect the answer is wrong, do we “sit down and think about the problem.”

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about the amazing powers of tuition, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Many other authors have since jumped on the bandwagon. “What we’ve found about intuition is that it’s underestimated; it is actually more powerful than we think it is,” said Dr. Heath.

That realization came partly from artificial intelligence research. To us, learning a mother tongue, or recognizing a face, appears easy because our brains are evolutionary adapted to do these things. However, for computers, it has proven to be anything but. “We experience it as being low effort, because it is unconscious, but it is unbelievably difficult.”

Reason ‘a formula for losing elections’

This is all fine, but it can be pernicious when applied unthinkingly to the political realm. “A lot of the received wisdom in politics is that fundamentally it is about intuition, the classic commitment of heart over head,” said Dr. Heath. This has been translated into the idea that pitching policies to people at the rational level “is basically a formula for losing elections.” To paraphrase political consultant and Republican Party strategist Frank Lutz, it’s not what you say, but how you make people feel. This has contributed to a political environment of “truthiness,” as characterized by satirist Stephen Colbert. It doesn’t matter if it’s false, because it might have a deeper emotional truth.

Not so fast, countered Dr. Heath: “I want to register an objection.” Intuition, it seems, has a bit of a problem: it is, to use a computer term, “full of bugs … it just makes mistakes.” In terms of evolutionary adaption, speed is important, but the trade-off can be accuracy. And, because intuition is unconscious, it’s hard to reprogram.

Humans have developed a number of psychological adaptations for social interactions, Dr. Heath continued. But, these adaptations were developed at a time when we lived in very small-scale societies, where we rarely interacted with strangers. These adaptations, therefore, have a few bugs that have become apparent as our societies became more complex and the scale of our social interactions increased.

Here are three concrete examples: 1) we treat harm to identifiable individuals as more important than harm to unidentified individuals; 2) we treat harm which is diffused over many people as being less important than harm imposed on a single person; and 3) we have systems of punishment that reinforce cooperation, but when we see someone breaking the rules and getting away with it – “free riding,” said Dr. Heath – people respond by withdrawing that cooperation.

“In a small group, it’s often the case that nobody will ‘free ride.’ But, in larger groups, as you add more people, the chances that somebody will be free riding increases, and the greater the chances people will withdraw their cooperation.” The result is that “systems of cooperation tend to unravel in a very characteristic way.”

Trudeau was right

We now, obviously, live in large-scale, complex societies. How do we do that? The answer is, “we override these bugs, in ways small and large. We identify the situations in which our intuition gets it wrong, and we either personally override it, or better yet we create institutions that have as their function to override these maladaptive dispositions that we have from our evolutionary prehistory.” Dr. Heath concluded that Pierre Trudeau was fundamentally right in the insight he was presenting: that certain institutional arrangements like federalism, which have as their function to promote cooperation in a large-scale society, do depend upon reason.

“I think it is a terrible mistake to treat this heart or head stuff as though it were just a fact of nature, like that’s just how it is. … It is a situation that we have allowed to develop and that we are allowing to continue.” What’s more, he said, “it is important to recognize that that situation is fundamentally not sustainable. A democracy in which it is just all demagoguery all that time is not a stable political system. And a situation in which heart wins over head consistently is not compatible with maintaining a large-scale civilization, or it’s not compatible with maintaining a democracy.”

How do we fix the situation? Here, I’ll have to disappoint. Remember how Dr. Heath said that this reason stuff is slow? Well, he was out of time. But, he addresses all that and more in a forthcoming book, due for release on April 15, Enlightenment 2.0, by HarperCollins. A hint: he argues for a new “slow politics” which he calls a program for a “second Enlightenment.”

A bit more nuance needed in our international education strategy

Posted on 29 January 2014 by

There’s a strong case to be made about the benefits to Canada of attracting more international students to our universities and colleges. And setting an aspirational goal of doubling the number of those students, from around 240,000 in 2011 (according to the federal government), to more than 450,000 by 2022, is a fine idea – provided universities have the additional resources necessary to welcome these students and to help them succeed.

So, from that perspective, I take no issue with the federal government’s recently announced International Education Strategy. Others have panned it but I leave it to them to make their case.

Throughout, the strategy makes numerous mentions of what an increase in international students would mean for Canada economically – how it will “create new jobs,” “address skills and labour shortages” and lead to “economic growth and long-term prosperity.” The document further points out that attracting more international students will “provide an annual boost to the Canadian economy of almost $10 billion; and generate approximately $910 million in new tax revenues.”

Again, all fine things, in general. Who isn’t for increased economic activity? And, let’s be honest, education is a service – an economic good, a commodity – that is bought and sold on the international market. Canada has a good product to sell, and why shouldn’t it market this internationally?

However, I think those in the higher-education community would feel more comfortable if the messaging were a bit more nuanced. What of the non-economic benefits to Canadians – the cultural benefits, the increase in openness and tolerance, the personal connections?  And, more importantly, what of the benefits to the international students themselves? For this to succeed, it must be a mutually beneficial exchange.

Perhaps, some would say, that message is implicit in the document. The strategy does point out the numerous advantages to studying in Canada: a welcoming, safe and multicultural country offering a “high-quality education at an attractive price,” high-quality research facilities, and so on. I just wish the pitch didn’t sound so mercantile.

As an aside, I did read grumblings in social media and elsewhere that there was no better indication of this slant than the fact that the document opened with a note from the minister of international trade. To that, I would point out two things: there is no federal minister of education, so who else should it be? As well, let’s keep in mind that education is a provincial responsibility, and the federal government is no doubt keenly aware that it must tread carefully on this turf. Pitching international education as a trade issue thus makes sense, as that is indisputably an area of federal concern.

The document ended with a quote from Karen McBride, president and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education. It reads in part: “importantly,” the new international strategy “points to a broader vision of the value of international education for Canada and for our partners around the world, as international education builds the diplomacy of knowledge and gives the next generation of Canadian and international students the tools they need to contribute to global society in meaningful ways.”

That is an admirable sentiment which I heartily endorse. Let’s hope.

Quebec’s fractious charter debate

Posted on 22 January 2014 by
charter symbols

Public servants in Quebec would be banned from wearing these “ostentatious” symbols.

It’s a safe bet that there were some awkward conversations in Quebec during the holidays over the province’s proposed charter of values – shades of the many previous, divisive sovereignty debates. My father-in-law tried to engage me several times into a discussion on the subject; however, I knew we would likely not find common ground and I demurred.

Similar scenarios are playing out at Quebec’s universities. Those presidents (or rectors) of Quebec’s universities who have voiced a position on the subject have all uniformly come out against it, including Alan Shepard at Concordia University, Suzanne Fortier at McGill University, Guy Breton at Université de Montreal, Luce Samoisette at Université de Sherbrooke and Robert Proulx at Université du Québec à Montréal. Some of these leaders, such as Dr. Proulx at UQAM, have stressed that his opposition is not targeted at the principles of a secular state contained in the charter but because the charter’s restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols are in conflict with the university’s principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

At the faculty level, things get messier. No better example of that is at UQAM, where one group called “L’UQAM Ouverte” (an “open” UQAM) is encouraging professors, staff and their unions to oppose the charter; while another group called “Pour une UQAM laïque” (“For a secular UQAM”) supports the charter and criticizes the university administration’s position. Departmental meetings, always potentially fraught, must be getting even more uncomfortable. Most of the unions representing Quebec professors, meanwhile, have declined to take a position on the matter because they are simply unable to reach a consensus. Quebec’s major student associations also declined to comment.

What I find interesting about this debate over the charter is that it doesn’t fit easily into the usual right-left political dynamic. Academics, to generalize, are thought of as being more liberal in their views, and this is often portrayed in the media as a sort of elitist, elastic moral relativism – compared to the desire of conservatives, again to generalize, for a simplistic, black-and-white moral certainty. But this generalization just doesn’t map well with the charter debate. There are right-wingers appalled by the charter and left-wingers who applaud it, and vice-versa. Professors, too, are all over the map.

The charter, tabled as Bill 60 last November, goes officially by the rather unwieldy title, “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests.” As the title implies, there is much in it dealing with human rights, although I have also read that most legal scholars believe much of that is already covered in existing Quebec laws, including the province’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The real point of debate is the restriction on the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols, most notably the hijab, in the public sector.

(This may be trivial, but allow me a slight anecdotal digression. Before the holidays I attended a Christmas choral concert at a local high school. OK, it probably wasn’t called a “Christmas” concert, but there was a mixture of traditional Christmas tunes with other non-traditional songs. At one point, a class stepped on stage all wearing Santa hats. Two teenage girls in the group, wearing hijabs, simply placed their Santa hats over their headscarves, unfazed. I found myself surprisingly moved by that. This, I thought, was a wonderful symbol of what Canada represents.)

Symbols are interesting things because, to use a glaring tautology, they’re so darn symbolic. Some symbols – the peace sign, for example – may today be seen as rather benign. Others – like the rainbow flag, for instance – may have more layers of meaning. Still others – say, the swastika – are very potent, even malignant. As for the charter debate, I would be very interested to hear a discourse on it from a semiotician.

Indeed, the whole charter is itself rather one grand symbol, isn’t it? It is like a sly, delicate dance, with its own coded language and imagery. Like any symbol, its message is open to interpretation. However, in this instance, to me at least, I think the message to Quebec’s minorities is disturbingly clear: you’re not welcome here.