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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.

Rights, wrongs and a rush to judgment

Posted on 10 January 2014 by

The controversy over a York University student’s request for special accommodation for religious reasons created a bit of a media sh*tstorm this week (I’ve included a list of related links at the end of this post, for those who wish to read further). University Affairs was the first media outlet contacted with a request to write about the story and was also the first to publish an account of it. I wanted to explore our reasons for doing so, how we handled it, and what followed.

First, a brief recap of the main details: a York sociology professor, Paul Grayson, was approached last fall by a student who requested, for religious reasons, that he be excused from a required group assignment so that he wouldn’t have to publicly interact with female students. Dr. Grayson did not wish to grant the accommodation, as he felt doing so would give tacit support to a negative view of women. But because he felt it was an issue of principle that needed an institutional response, he forwarded the request to both the dean of arts and the university’s human rights office. Both replied, essentially, that Dr. Grayson should comply with the student’s request. It is unclear whether the student was aware of this. In any event, before the administration weighed in, the student said that he would respect the professor’s decision and did participate in the assignment.

Problem solved, no? Obviously not to Dr. Grayson’s satisfaction, who felt that the main issue – whether the student’s request was reasonable – had been left unresolved. It was at this point, in early December, that Dr. Grayson contacted the editor of University Affairs, Peggy Berkowitz, in the hope that we could cover the issue in some way. She agreed with Dr. Grayson that it was a very interesting dilemma that deserved to be debated. However, it is not our custom to publish exposés that are potentially embarrassing to a university or damaging to its reputation (for reasons that we can discuss at some other time).

After a discussion amongst the University Affairs’ editorial team, we proposed to Dr. Grayson that we would publish an account of his story, but without naming him or the university. We felt that the institution involved was not crucial to a discussion of the key issues of religious accommodation and competing rights. He acceded. Since by this point it was the week before Christmas, we decided to wait until after the holiday break to publish an account of the story, written by Ms. Berkowitz, based on the material Dr. Grayson provided us.

I wondered how long the identity of Dr. Grayson and the university would remain concealed. In the meantime, Dr. Grayson approached a Globe and Mail reporter about the story. Not surprisingly, the newspaper was keen to report on it and had a story online only hours after ours was published, naming the professor and the university. The story was quickly picked up by the Toronto Star, the National Post, CBC News, Le Devoir and other outlets. The story even made it as far as Le Figaro in France.

That first wave of reporting was followed by a larger wave of mainly negative commentary and opinion, radio talk show discussions, online chats, and so on. In much of this rush to judgment, the university has been condemned and pilloried. On the whole, I have found the reactions somewhat disappointing and predictable. There have been incantations against Islam (the religion of the student was never disclosed), multiculturalism, “un-Canadian” values, gutless administrators and more. Regrettably, various politicians felt the need to chime in. The online comments by readers, furthermore, were often wildly uninformed, bigoted, ignorant and embarrassing.

I do wish to point out with some pride, however, that the comments from University Affairs readers have been almost entirely respectful and thoughtful, usually signed with their actual names, and have enriched rather than muddied the discussion. I think you’ll find, as well, that they are not nearly as eager to automatically condemn the university. In fact, several suggest the university appeared to act correctly based on the Ontario Human Rights Code and the work of the Ontario Human Rights Commission – an opinion shared by some legal experts contacted by reporters (an unnamed spokesperson for Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities also supported York’s handling of the issue). I strongly encourage you to check out our comments section and decide for yourself.

A selection of related links:

The initial reporting:
Religious accommodation or ‘accessory to sexism’? York student’s case stirs debate (Globe and Mail)
York U student’s refusal to work with women sparks rights debate (Toronto Star)
York University professor who refused student’s request to be separated from female classmates broke ‘obligation to accommodate’: officials (National Post)
York University student’s request not to work with women stirs controversy (CBC News)

Commentary and follow up:
York professor right to deny religious request (Maclean’s On Campus)
The fear of offending is sapping universities of common sense (Globe and Mail)
Rights crusaders run amok at York (National Post)
Unreasonable accommodation (Ottawa Citizen)
York professor was right to deny student’s request to work apart from women (Toronto Star)
Choose the Canadian way (Calgary Herald)
York University student’s request not to work with women poses dilemma (Toronto Star)
What York University forgot: Gender equality is not negotiable (Globe and Mail)
MacKay joins critics of York’s religious-accommodation decision  (Globe and Mail)

From York University:
Statement from Rhonda Lenton, provost and vice-president academic

Your Top Ten stories from 2013

Posted on 7 January 2014 by

It’s another New Year. But, before we move on, I wanted to take one last look back at 2013. In my previous blog post just before the holidays, I pointed out a few things that caught my attention in the past 12 months. What follows, however, is what interested our readers in 2013 with a list of the most clicked-on articles published last year.

As any editor will attest, it’s not always easy to predict which stories will strike a chord. We, the editorial team here at University Affairs, will sometimes get quite excited about an upcoming article, only to find it creates barely a ripple once published. Other times, an article will draw huge interest and comment much to our surprise (see no. 3, below, for an example of that).

Looking at the Top Ten most clicked-on stories for 2013 does certainly give a sense of what issues occupied our readers – PhD studies, international students, sessional teachers, academic publishing, etc. Here they are, in ascending order, and the date they were published:

10. It’s time to change the way research grants are awarded in Canada (July 3)
9. B.C. makes free online textbooks available (May 22)
8. New study uncovers several reasons for gender disparities in science (Jan. 2)
7. Publishers with questionable practices prey on academics (May 31)
6. Course evaluations: the good, the bad and the ugly (Aug. 21)
5. Access Copyright lawsuit against York is first test of fair-dealing guidelines (Oct. 30)
4. Sessionals, up close (Jan. 9)
3. Why students need to fail (Dec. 4)
2. Changes to immigration rules are a boon to international student recruitment (Mar. 13)

And (drum roll), the top story from last year:
1. The PhD is in need of revision (Feb. 6)

Interesting, no?

As a bonus, I’ve added the blog posts from each of our longer-running blogs that attracted the most views last year. They were:

Speculative Diction: War of attrition – Asking why PhD students leave
The Black Hole: The importance of leaving academic science on good terms
Margin Notes: PhD completion rates and times to completion in Canada

For the first blog, the most viewed post also garnered the most comments. However, for The Black Hole and Margin Notes, different posts prompted the most feedback. For The Black Hole, it was Fewer postdocs with higher salaries? Hold your horses! and for Margin Notes, the most commented was The so-so state of science communication in Canada.


2013 in review: the MOOC backlash, skills ‘mismatch’ and more

Posted on 17 December 2013 by

This is the first time that I’ve tried my hand at an end-of-year look back at the events that affected universities in Canada and elsewhere in the past 12 months. It was an interesting exercise. Here’s my take:

As 2013 dawned, there remained a faint pro-MOOC glow following the “Year of the MOOC” in 2012 (as the New York Times described it). Times columnist Thomas Friedman, writing on Jan. 26, was still declaring, in the face of a rising chorus of naysayers, that universities were in the midst of a “revolution” brought on by massive open online courses. A day later, Don Tapscott, writing for the Globe and Mail from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, gushed that this was “the week university (as we know it) ended.” Yes, because of MOOCs. Good grief. The two pieces are almost comical in their techno-fetishist devotions, to borrow a phrase from higher-ed consultant Alex Usher. I hope they’re blushing.

Taking these two as marking one bookend to the year, the other bookend would most certainly be Sebastian Thrun’s declaration in late November in Fast Company that the MOOC provider he founded, Udacity, doesn’t “educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We offer a lousy product.” Speaking about the quality of Udacity courses, he said, “We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you.”

That, readers, was the sound of the MOOC bubble – as envisioned by Thrun and a coterie of venture capitalists – bursting. Others timed the bursting bubble earlier in the year, when one of the other major MOOC providers, Coursera, said it was changing direction (“The MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC,” I wrote at the time.) Either way, as 2012 was the year of the MOOC, 2013 was predictably the year of the MOOC backlash – or, at the very least, the end of the MOOC hype.

Having not just one year, but two years in a row, linked with MOOCs may seem a bit much to those of you in higher-ed whose daily working lives do not revolve around MOOCs – i.e., most of you. However, there is no denying how much oxygen the MOOC conversation has sucked up, not just in North America but globally, far beyond any other higher-ed topic. And while the MOOC hype was overblown, there remain dozens – likely hundreds – of examples of experimentation going on with open, online learning. Some of these projects, such as those funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through its MOOC Research Initiative, aim to fill the research gap about the impact of MOOCs on teaching and learning and are leading to some very interesting conversations.

Skills “mismatch”

Focusing more specifically on Canada, I think of CBC’s “Generation jobless” documentary, which originally aired in January, as a presage of the “skills mismatch” conversation that dominated our higher-ed reporting this year. Maclean’s magazine offered something similar early in the new year, entitled “The new underclass,” which claimed that “a [new] generation of well-educated Canadians has no future.” (I wrote about the two here).

This was later followed by the report from CIBC World Markets claiming that the “premium” of a degree, in terms of earnings and employment, is dropping as “too few students are graduating from programs that are in high demand” by the labour market. This led to my choice of the most hyperbolic headline of the year for Canadian postsecondary education, “Students, students everywhere – but few with a degree employers need,” from the trade publication Canadian HR Reporter.

In a similar vein, the Conference Board of Canada claimed that Ontario alone was losing out on as much as $24.3 billion in economic activity because employers cannot find people with the skills they need. The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters estimated that, by 2016, Canada will have 1.3 million jobs sitting vacant because there is no one with the skills to fill them.

Not everyone was buying the “Skills mismatch” argument, most notably Don Drummond, former chief economist at TD Bank. Likewise on the “unfilled jobs” front, a paper published this past May by the University of Calgary’s Kevin McQuillan concluded that Canada is not facing a wide-scale labour shortage and is unlikely to confront one in the foreseeable future. This was echoed in a report in November by Cliff Halliwell from the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Other events of note this year which I think bear mention include the increasing internationalization of Canadian campuses and efforts to help international students fit in; and the controversy over unpaid internships, which seems to have reached a tipping point. Perhaps less obviously, the accelerating move towards open-access publishing in Canada and the move away from Access Copyright were also two themes which marked the year. Internationally, I can’t help but think that competency-based learning is a thing we’ll be hearing more of.

That, or course, barely scratches the surface of all that happened in the past 12 months. What were some of the major trends in postsecondary education for you this past year?

Canada’s PISA results: what you need to know

Posted on 3 December 2013 by

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, released today the results of its fifth survey of the competencies of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science (with a particular focus on mathematics this time around) in 65 countries and economies. The 2012 survey tested over half a million students, including 21,000 Canadians from 900 schools. It’s a heck of a lot of data to wade through and no doubt policy analysts will be doing just that for weeks, combing through the results in detail and pondering their implications.

How did Canada do? It depends on who you ask. According to the Council of Ministers of Education Canada, this latest report “shows high levels of achievement by Canadian students.” (For more detail, the CMEC has prepared an entire 89-page report on the latest findings, Measuring up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study.)

The CMEC notes that Canadian 15-year-olds “placed well above the OECD average and remain among the top performers in mathematics.” Of the 65 countries and regional economies participating in the assessment, only nine outperformed Canada at a statistically significant level, with seven other countries performing at the same level as Canada. The PISA 2012 reading and science results also put Canada in the top tier of participating countries and economies, says the CMEC. Only four surpassed Canada in reading and only seven performed better than Canada in science.

Canada also continues to stand out in terms of its high equity in student performance, again according to the CMEC. This latter is a measure of the gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students and is an indicator of the relative equity of provincial education systems. That’s a good thing.

Nevertheless, the CMEC is putting a bit of a gloss on things. There is no hiding the fact that Canada is slipping, specifically in math: we placed 13th in the math scores this year, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006, prompting the Globe and Mail to claim that “Canada’s fall in math-education ranking sets off alarm bells.”

The Globe report also notes that this result comes on the heels of a recent OECD Survey of Adult Skills, called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which showed that adult Canadians ranked below average in numeracy skills compared to 23 other countries (although Canadians did well in digital skills and were average in literacy skills).

Last week, John Manley, former federal cabinet minister and now head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, decried Canada’s slipping skills performance. “It’s time to stop congratulating ourselves on the quality of our primary, secondary and postsecondary education systems, and face up to the fact that Canada’s performance in international rankings is getting worse, not better,” he said in a statement.

Now, with the release of the latest PISA results, Mr. Manley was again in high dudgeon, telling the Globe: “This is on the scale of a national emergency.”

That is overstating things. This is far from a national crisis, but the results should shake us from any complacency we may feel about our relative educational strengths. Our education system remains among the very best in the world, but there are evidently weaknesses that need to be addressed in terms of student achievement, the curriculum and teacher preparedness. And, we are falling behind other countries.

On a side note, for this latest PISA, Canada tested a much larger group of students than what is typically tested in most countries to allow for a more reliable breakdown of results by province, language group, etc. Here are some of the other key findings from PISA 2012:

  • Quebec students performed particularly well in mathematics – with a score of 536 compared to the Canadian average of 519 – and were on a par with many of the highest-performing countries and economies in the assessment.
  • On average across Canada, there was significant variation in mathematics performance according to gender, with boys outperforming girls. This pattern was similar in most other participating countries. In science, the performance of boys and girls was more equal.
  • In reading, girls were still well ahead of boys in Canada and internationally. The gap between boys and girls was smaller for students who did the assessment on computer.
  • In mathematics, Canadian results showed some differences by language of the school system: in most cases, students attending majority-language school systems outperformed students in minority-language school systems.

Is a PhD a waste of time?

Posted on 25 November 2013 by

This week we have a guest post by Rosanna Tamburri, a frequent contributor to University Affairs who attended a session at the Canadian Science Policy Conference last week.

Is a PhD really a waste of time? This was the question that a panel at the Canadian Science Policy Conference held in Toronto from Nov. 20 to 22 was asked to consider. Since all of the panelists had a PhD, with the exception of one who was a doctoral student, it was little surprise that they all agreed that no, it wasn’t a waste of time at all.

Yes, the panelists acknowledged, it’s true that the number of Canadians under the age of 35 holding tenure track positions had dropped to 12 percent in 2005 from 35 percent in 1980. And yes, only 15 percent of PhD graduates in some fields will land a tenure-track job, according to one survey.  And yes, PhD enrollments have ballooned over the past decade. David Gallo, a PhD student at the University of Toronto and organizer of the panel, summed the situation up nicely, although perhaps with a bit of understatement, when he said: “This leaves a problem for me and people like myself.”

Still, most of the panelists chose to look on the bright side. PhDs will continue to drive the knowledge economy and lead innovation, said Avrum Gotlieb, U of T’s interim vice-dean of graduate and life sciences education. He noted how lucky Canada has been to have had the benefit of the knowledge and skills of PhD-trained researchers to see us through the HIV-AIDs crisis, the SARS epidemic and, more recently, the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus. And where else but within academia do young researchers have the freedom to pursue whatever idea or problem they wish?

A PhD is a partnership, he said. Institutions have a responsibility to provide the best education possible. Students have a responsibility to maximize the benefits of that education whether that be within academia or not. It’s simply not realistic to expect universities to turn out job-ready graduates, he added. It should be up to employers to do that through on-the-job training.

Doctoral training provides students with the knowhow to generate and analyze data, and the ability to think critically – skills that can be transferred to jobs outside academia such as research scientists at pharmaceutical companies, research institutes and biotech firms, said Trevor Moraes, assistant professor of biochemistry at U of T. These skills are also transferable to positions within business and policy making roles, he said.

“I get a request a least once a week from either health agencies or companies looking for PhD-trained individuals with business or real-world acumen,” said Zayna Khayat, director of development at the International Centre for Health Innovation at Western University’s Ivey School of Business. “There are people who need you but don’t know how to find you,” she said.

Or go out and create your own job, suggested Ivan Waissbluth, chief development officer at ScarX Therapeutics, a Toronto biotech start-up. “For that level of pressure, you can do better in the private sector,” he advised.

But to do any of these things, the audience repeatedly heard, a PhD is necessary but not sufficient. To be really marketable, students also need to know how to communicate effectively and how to network. They need to show creativity and leadership and possess other so-called soft skills, which universities are trying to foster through professional development programs.  Universities are increasingly incorporating this type of training within PhD programs, said Dr. Gotlieb. They are also encouraging students and faculty members to work in teams and trying to find ways to curb long PhD completion times.

Which is all well and good. But missing entirely from the discussion was any talk about the high attrition rates in PhD programs, even within science disciplines. No one raised the possibility of universities lowering PhD enrolments. Only Dr. Waissbluth suggested that schools have an obligation to tell prospective students that their chances of getting a tenure-track job are low.

And if only a small minority of graduates end up working within academia, why does the culture, the curriculum and the entire orientation of doctoral programs still train people for that job, asked Peter Milley, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University, who was among the audience. “There’s a complete disconnect,” he said. Mr. Milley, who started his PhD after a 30-year career as a management consultant, asked why universities even bother having students like him, who have no intention of pursuing an academic career, work as a TA. “There are other things that people with expertise coming in later in their careers can contribute and schools are missing an opportunity in not taking advantage of that,” he said.

Change is coming though, Dr. Gotlieb assured everyone. “The die is cast,” he said. “We’re going to move forward.”

Maybe so. But like the PhD degree itself, professional development workshops and good intentions are necessary but hardly sufficient to fix this problem.

The Killam symposium – wish you were there

Posted on 20 November 2013 by

This week, we have a guest post written by my colleague and University Affairs editor, Peggy Berkowitz.

I was one of the fortunate individuals invited to attend the 2nd Annual Killam Prize Symposium held Monday night at Rideau Hall, which is referred to by its current occupant, Governor General David Johnston, as “the home of the people of Canada.” The symposium featured a panel of the five Canada Council Killam Prize winners for 2013, moderated by Paul Kennedy, host of the CBC Radio program Ideas, and introduced and concluded by the Governor General. Among the guests were senior members of the federal research granting councils and the Canada Council for the Arts, members of parliament, representatives of university-related associations (like myself), Killam trustees and members of the university community.

To the accompaniment of classical musicians, we were ushered into our seats in a sumptuous high-ceilinged hall with turquoise walls, gold drapes, columns and carpets, and, at its centre, an enormous glass chandelier. It was quite the setting for an intellectual soirée and, as Mr. Kennedy confided, the only time he wishes he were a host on television rather than radio.

The currently bearded and white-haired Mr. Kennedy – whom most of us know by his sonorous voice but may have never seen –interviewed the five Killam laureates one by one, questioning them about their research and how it relates to the world’s problems, in a very accessible way. The entire discussion will air on CBC Radio’s Ideas on Friday, Nov. 29, at 9:05 p.m. EST (and after that will remain on the program’s website).

The Killam Prizes, worth $100,000 each, are among the most prestigious in Canada for academic career achievement. The winning scholars (announced last April) were John McGarry of Queen’s University in the field of conflict resolution; Lorne Babiuk of the University of Alberta, a leader in vaccine research; Richard Peltier, a physicist at the University of Toronto, in the field of climate change; Paul Thagard of the University of Waterloo, a philosopher and cognitive scientist; and Witold Pedrycz of the University of Alberta, a researcher in computer intelligence.

The Killam Symposium is now replacing the Killam Lecture which until last year was delivered annually by a leading scholar –not one of the prize winners — during the annual meetings of the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies. In addition, the laureates each deliver a public lecture at one of the five Killam-designated universities (Dalhousie, Calgary, Alberta, UBC and McGill) during the year.

George Cooper, Killam trustee (and acting president of the University of King’s College, Halifax), said the idea behind the change was to put the spotlight on the laureates themselves.

I don’t want to report on the entire symposium – for one thing, I was there as a guest, not a journalist– but I wanted to share some of the comments Dr. Peltier made about how the media’s coverage of climate change is part of the challenge facing scientists.

Dr. Peltier is a pioneer in using models to project what may happen to our climate on earth. He is scientific director of SciNet, director of the Centre for Global Change Science, principal investigator of the Polar Climate Stability Network, winner of the Herzberg Gold Medal and one of the most highly cited earth scientists in the world. Yet, he now spends some of his time speaking directly to Canadians “in church basements” so he can speak to them without “the filter” of journalism.

“I discovered an enormous interest among non-scientists to understand the scientific basis of climate change,” he said in answer to Mr. Kennedy’s question about why he does this. “The range of views people hear in the media is so large as to confuse people on what to expect” in terms of changing climate.

As a journalist, I can say that we are trained, and feel a responsibility, to tell more than one side of a story. But as Dr. Peltier pointed out, when the consensus is overwhelmingly in one court, then telling different sides can mean that journalism “is not transmitting the facts properly at all.” And currently, “the consensus of those of us who work in the field is 95 percent.”

As a result, he is “very happy to speak in church basements.” He presents the scientific argument and why he believes it to be true. He now feels that unless scientists speak directly to people, the country as a whole “will not grasp the seriousness of the problem.”

So what is the scientific consensus? In a nutshell, he reminded us that the scientific consensus at the 2009 United Nations “Copenhagen Summit” was that the planet’s temperature couldn’t afford to increase by more than two degrees Celsius. He said industry groups like the International Energy Association have confirmed that if we’re to stay below this level, we need to leave two-thirds of carbon resources in the ground. The only way to do that is to “put a price on carbon.” At this point, the carbon tax would have to be at least $200 a tonne.

“It’s a huge challenge to scientists and engineers in this country and worldwide. We won’t do it until all the people in church basements in this country believe the science. This is why I have as many conversations like this one as I can.”

The entire symposium is well worth listening to – Friday evening, Nov. 29 on Ideas.

Two new university presidents share their thoughts

Posted on 13 November 2013 by

The installation ceremonies of two new university leaders attracted considerable attention last week because of the institutions they now represent: Suzanne Fortier, installed as principal of McGill University on November 5, and Meric Gertler, installed as president of the University of Toronto two days later.

As the new administrative heads of two of Canada’s most formidable institutions of higher learning, they are people whose words are worth reflecting on. They were, in some ways, a study in contrasts. Dr. Gertler, who joined U of T in 1983 and most recently served as dean of arts and science there, is very much an insider. He focused his remarks on the institution, with an added plea for more money.

Dr. Fortier, who is a McGill alumna (a BSc in 1972 and a PhD in crystallography in 1976), nevertheless has not frequented its hallowed halls for many years; in her remarks she focused on her personal journey that led her to become principal of McGill – although she of course had much praise for her alma mater, too.

Dr. Gertler, after the requisite thank you to the assembled guests, started his address quite surprisingly:

20th … 8th … 2nd … 1st … and last. That is the paradox that is the University of Toronto. 20th in the world (according to the latest Times Higher Education World University rankings)… 8th in the world in scientific performance (according to the 2013 National Taiwan University rankings)… 2nd in the world in total output of scholarly publications (after Harvard)… 1st in Canada in all of these rankings… and yet last in Canada, and amongst the very lowest in North America, when it comes to public funding per student.

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that – simply put – this institution defies gravity. Our ability to achieve these incredible results in the face of such a significant resource handicap is nothing short of remarkable.

He went on to acknowledge the many accomplishments of his institution – in research, in student accessibility, in its links to the community – and also spoke warmly of the city in which it is located:

It is our great good fortune to be situated in the world’s most open, cosmopolitan, and globalized city-region. Indeed, U of T would not be the success it is today were it not situated in one of the world’s great cities. … The social and cultural diversity of this region is, of course, striking.

Reflecting on the challenges ahead, Dr. Gertler named three key elements to address them: leveraging the university’s location in Toronto more fully through community outreach and partnerships; strengthening its international partnerships, including “with other great universities in other great world cities”; and rededicating the university to the enrichment of teaching and learning, including “re-examining and perhaps even reinventing undergraduate education.”

But that’s not all: “… in the end, there is one further and very important element that will be required. There is no escaping the hard truth that we’ll need more support from our government partners, at all levels, if we are to succeed.”

Dr. Fortier, meanwhile, started her adress by noting that the world she grew up in “was far removed from the world of academia.” Her parents ran the hotel in their little village of Saint-Timothée (about 60 km southwest of Montreal), and in her home there were three books: the Larousse dictionary, the Bible and the Eaton’s catalogue.

Speaking partly in French and partly in English, she said she decided to study at McGill, even though she understood little English “and spoke even less” (Dr. Fortier is the first francophone to head McGill in its 194-year history). She remembers “vividly” how much she liked her classes and the opportunity to do research by her second year; she discovered “to my surprise, that the professors teaching me were giants in their fields.” And, like Dr. Gertler, she praised her city: “Et, bien sûr, j’étais à Montréal. I tasted all that the city had to offer.”

She finished her speech with a very touching story:

Not long ago, an 11-year-old boy was walking through the McGill campus with his grandmother. He turned to his grandmother, my sister Muriel, who is with us today, and declared “C’est ici que je vais étudier.” “That is where I will study.” His grand-maman challenged him: “Oui, mais il va falloir que tu aies de bonnes notes.” “You will have to have very good marks to get in, you know.” He answered, “Ça ne sera pas un problème.” “This will not be a problem.” And when she added, “Il va falloir que tu apprennes l’anglais,” he did not hesitate a second: “Tu vas voir, ça ne me prendra pas de temps!” “You will see, it won’t take me long.”

Born to a Brazilian mother and a French-Canadian father, “that boy exemplifies the new multicultural, multilingual generation,” said Dr. Fortier. “He is ready to be challenged. He is ready to embrace other cultures, other languages and other ways of knowing. All he needs is for us to be ready for him.”