Suzanne Corbeil, executive director of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities, participated in a panel discussion earlier this month sponsored by Fulbright Canada on the “future challenges facing Canadian universities in the 21st century.” Since she is the senior executive of a group that represents Canada’s big research universities and many of the largest by enrolment, it’s not a bad idea to hear what’s on her mind.
Ms. Corbeil came up with a list of five broad challenges. Others in the higher education sector might have a somewhat different list if forced to choose; nevertheless, the challenges she outlines would be familiar to most.
Challenge 1: funding
During the first part of 2013, said Ms. Corbeil, few days would pass “without a news story crossing my desk with headlines announcing faculty layoffs, program or budget cuts … and the lack of support for science.” Most of these announcements came on the heels of provincial governments reducing operating funds to institutions or program cuts by the federal government.
She sees here a contradiction: “In an era often described as ‘the knowledge era or knowledge economy,’ governments are tightening budgets on education – on the production of knowledge.” Governments have stated that “research and knowledge drive our economy,” yet in a time where the economy needs to be fueled they announce cuts. The challenge, therefore, is how institutions can adapt “when basic funding is at issue.”
Challenge 2: the graduate
The story of university graduates not finding a job is not really new, she says. “The reality is that students have rarely graduated and immediately found a job let alone the job of their dreams.”
Today, this story line comes with a call for universities to produce graduates that are “job ready” and to change curriculum and enrolment numbers to address this issue head on. However, she says universities are not that nimble: “to make significant changes like altering curriculum or changing program structures take time, and by the time the university makes the change, the pendulum may have swung the other way.” Universities are challenged to adjust their programs for the market demand in a very uncertain and unpredictable environment.
Challenge 3: the skills gap
The federal government has identified a labour shortage and skills gap as priorities, while others such as economist Don Drummond question their existence. The data show lower unemployment rates for highly educated workers, Ms. Corbeil points out, with the lowest rate belonging to those that have above a bachelor’s degree.
And while some call on universities to graduate students who are more “career ready,” others would argue that is not the university’s role. She cites Max Blouw, chair of the Council of Ontario Universities and president of Wilfrid Laurier University, who wrote in the Globe and Mail: “Universities are not and should not be in the business of producing ‘plug and play’ graduates – workers who can fit immediately into a specific job.” Rather, universities must provide the broad intellectual and personal development that enables graduates to thrive in a world that is constantly changing and demands innovation and adaptability.
If the current rhetoric shapes the policies of the future, she says, “the university as we know it today will change – but not necessarily for the better.”
Challenge 4: economics of education
Another current narrative questions the value of a university degree and the return on investment of a degree. The recent CIBC World Markets report suggests students are picking the “wrong” fields, yet is quick to highlight that “completing a postsecondary education is still the best route to a well-paying job.”
Her response: “I am all for keeping our education system accountable and responsive to changing times, but I am also very concerned with a society that begins to equate education simply to a rate of monetary return. Is the value of an education not far beyond the dollars one can earn?”
Challenge 5: expectations and the role of the university
There is much discussion of the need for differentiation among higher education institutions, both in Canada and abroad, she says. In Canada, we have a strong reputation for being egalitarian, yet many “would argue that we need to embrace differentiation to ensure that the entire education eco-system is funded for the specific role they play.”
Universities, she continues, will be challenged to define the value proposition that their particular institution offers. Added to this are expectations from government on the role universities play in commercialization. “We all know and understand that universities are a key player in the innovation chain, but there seems to be some confusion as to what that role is. Recent funding programs are often designed to have universities trying to meet the expectations in an area they are ill equipped to handle.”
Governments have begun to recognize the economic impact of attracting students from abroad. “Canadian universities can position themselves to be an attractive destination for international students … but this requires a combination of funding and well-run institutions who can maintain the reputation required to attract these students.”
Bonus challenge: global competition
While all of these issue are playing out domestically, they are compounded by a “globally competitive environment,” says Ms. Corbeil, and that may be the greatest challenge.
For Canadian universities to meet the challenge, “we need to understand the changing global landscape,” she says, citing the rapid rise of institutions in places such as Brazil and China, and the “reawakening” of German universities. “In Canada we have made real progress over the past 15 years. Most of Canada’s research-intensive universities are reasonably strong and there is quite a concentration of firepower in a host of fields. And, funding programs have been added to reinforce the research enterprise. It’s all good, it’s just that good isn’t good enough at this point in global history and global competition.”
Statistics Canada released income data this morning from the 2011 National Household Survey. My initial reaction: is that all there is? I’ll have more on that in a moment.
From the perspective of university graduates, the news is good. According to the data, those with a bachelor’s degree or higher continue on average to enjoy “significant income advantages over their careers” compared to those with lower levels of education. The average salary for university graduates working full-time in 2010 was $80,500 a year. College and trades graduates earned an average salary of $54,000, while high school graduates earned almost half of university grads’ salaries, at $46,000.
The average income premium for university graduates working full-time compared to high school graduates was about 75%. The premium increases with age and work experience, rising from about 45% in the early stages of a career to double the income levels of high school graduates in the later stages.
The data release was somewhat disappointing, however, in that it seemed to be mostly at a very high aggregate level – at least, when compared to the labour force data released in June. For instance, what was released today isn’t enough to allow us to look at some of the issues that have been widely discussed in the past few weeks around income differentials by field of study or place of study (i.e., degrees earned in Canada versus those earned abroad) or differing backgrounds. There was also no breakdown for those with master’s degrees or PhDs.
As well, I found it somewhat curious that StatsCan decided to focus on high-income earners in their release. To be in the top 10% of earners in Canada, you needed to have a total income of around $80,400; for the top 5%, it was $102,300; and for the top 1%, it was $191,100. Perhaps not surprisingly, high-income Canadians tended to be highly educated – 67.1% of the top 1% had attained a university degree compared with 20.9% of all Canadians aged 15 and over.
The report released last week by CIBC World Markets on the returns of a postsecondary education in Canada continues to make headlines – and, I think, is an interesting object lesson on the perils of higher-education reporting.
The report’s release was well-timed for maximum publicity, falling on the eve of students returning to college and university. It also fits the narrative that seems to be increasingly current in the Canadian media that the value of a degree in fields such as the humanities and social sciences is declining, as epitomized by columnists such as the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente (a good example is a piece she wrote last year, entitled “Educated for unemployment”).
In a nutshell, the recent CIBC report said 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, and that Canada “is experiencing an excess supply of postsecondary graduates.” Both assertions are incorrect, or at least misleading.
Cue the credulous headlines: “The value of education is dropping fast for university graduates,” reported the Financial Post; “Students, students everywhere – but few with a degree employers need,” said trade publication Canadian HR Reporter; “Too many students fail to enrol in job-linked programs,” claimed the Halifax Herald on a Canadian Press story; and “Arts degree? You’ll earn less than a high school grad,” according to the Province newspaper.
There was also a truly bizarre response in the Globe and Mail that we should return to the Dark Ages where “a privileged few fret about the problems of philosophy” while the rest of us can live in blissful ignorance. I kid you not. I assumed it was clever satire, but others pointed out that it wasn’t.
Not surprisingly, defenders of the value of a postsecondary education pushed back. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada released a primer “clarifying the numbers” and “setting the context” for the CIBC report. Jean-Marc Mangin, executive director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, chimed in with a blog post, “Liberal arts education: good for your mind and your wallet.” That was followed by an op-ed in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, entitled “Universities should educate – employers should train,” by Max Blouw, president of Wilfrid Laurier University and chair of the Council of Ontario Universities. Dr. Blouw’s piece did not specifically reference the CIBC report, but made a related point that “universities must provide the kind of broad intellectual and personal development that enables graduates to thrive in a world that is constantly changing.” (I also responded last week, here.)
Then the pièce de résistance, a “One Thought to Start Your Day” blog post by Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, who skewered the CIBC report for its mistakes in fact and lack of critical thinking. At a brief 425 words, Usher’s post is the most direct response to the report and is well worth a read. His main points:
1) The returns to Bachelor’s degrees are not declining; they are, in fact, growing at a slightly slower rate than at other levels of education, which isn’t the same thing. 2) The gap between college and university graduates is closing, but it’s because college grads are doing better, not because university grads are doing worse. 3) Yes, the difference in unemployment rates between university and high school graduates is, as the report says, only about 1.5 percentage points (which is down considerably over the last decade or so). But why emphasize that fact when the gap in employment rates – which are presumably much more important, and yet were unmentioned by the report – remains over 12 percentage points? There’s too much cherry-picking of data here for my taste.
Now, some could argue that these responses to the CIBC report (and the media coverage of it) are nothing more than the work of self-interested individuals defending their turf. Yes, many of these individuals do have interests to defend, but my question is why weren’t journalists seeking out these other voices to offer a different perspective and much needed balance? While I don’t want to suggest the authors of the CIBC report had their own particular agenda – they did make other relevant and important observations in the report – I think they did approach it from a particular point of view that needed to be questioned (much the same way the Conference Board of Canada or the Canadian Chamber of Commerce approach the issue of the supposed skills gap in this country, which is also often parroted too credulously by the media).
The assumptions in the CIBC report seem to be that the main role of universities is to train individuals for jobs and employers somehow get a pass. Is this what we want? And, that we can predict with some precision what the labour market needs will be in the future. Is there any good evidence to support that?
Journalists love a story when it goes against conventional thinking, and “university no longer pays” or “kids aren’t studying the right things to get the right jobs” are great examples of this. They also play into a certain anti-intellectual bias which says far too many young people are needlessly pursuing a useless university education (the “B.A.rista generation”) and that these entitled kids are finally getting their comeuppance. But it is a lazy caricature and needs to be countered. As usual, the truth is far more nuanced and complicated.
When I was fresh out of university, a book that was making the rounds at the time was Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow. I can’t say I actually read the book, but I think that as a general principle, it’s not bad advice (unless what you love is to make really lots of money, which in that case you’ll probably do whatever it takes).
This brings me to the new report by CIBC World Markets, released on Monday. The report starts with a nice genuflection to the value of postsecondary education, saying it is “still the best route to a well-paying job in Canada.” But, it adds, this education premium “is dropping as too few students are graduating from programs that are in high demand.”
I have problems with both assertions in that last sentence. The first assertion is that the premium is dropping, and there are two components to this: employment and income. As for the income premium of university graduates, I don’t have too much to say here because we should get a better picture of the situation when Statistics Canada releases income and earnings data from the 2011 National Household Survey on Sept. 11. However, from the 2006 census, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada calculated that the lifetime income premium of university grads over those with no postsecondary education was, on average, $1.3 million.
As for employment, according to data released earlier this year from the 2011 National Household Survey, just 3.7 percent of 25-to-64-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees earned in Canada were unemployed. This compares to 6.9 percent unemployment for all others in this age group (the relevant data table from Statistics Canada is table 99-012-X2011037). How much lower can the unemployment rate get than 3.7 percent?
I also challenge the second assertion that too few students are graduating from programs that are in high demand. The CIBC report gives data from the past 10 years, concluding that “we haven’t seen a meaningful influx of students into degrees with more advantageous earnings outcomes.” But if you look at the last five years for which we have meaningful data from Statistics Canada (between 2005 and 2010), the picture doesn’t look so bad. Enrolment in health sciences, law, business and engineering – all high-earning fields – has increased, in some cases substantially (see chart, below).
Either way, I don’t think we’ll necessarily resolve this issue with a battle of one set of statistics over another. It’s more the overall message here that irks me. Sure, I would counsel any student to consider employment and earnings prospects when looking at program options. But, one’s working life is very long indeed and individuals will likely be happier, and hence more prosperous and personally fulfilled, doing something they enjoy. As the CIBC report acknowledges indirectly, fine arts graduates likely are quite aware they’re almost certainly not going to make anywhere near as much as, say, an engineer, but they pursue their passion anyway.
Finally, in the press release accompanying the CIBC report, one of the report’s authors, Benjamin Tal, asserts that it is crucial to Canada’s economy that we start producing more graduates in growth areas of the economy. Who, exactly, can say for certain what sectors of the economy will be the big growth areas and what the labour needs will be five or six years down the line (roughly the time it takes for universities to expand a program and for students to pass through it)? Remember the cautionary tale of all those students who entered teaching programs, only to find out after graduating that we had way too many teachers.
All of this has echoes with the issue of the purported skills gap in Canada, where some people suggest that Canadian labour markets suffer from a shortage of workers in certain industries, coupled with mismatched skills among the available labour supply. But there are those experts who disagree that a skills gap exists or who feel there is simply not enough data to make a conclusion.
An opinion piece we recently published online and in the August-September print edition has garnered much feedback (12 comments online to date, which is a fair amount for us, a specialty higher-education publication in Canada). The article had the innocuous headline, “Internationalizing the Canadian campus,” but the subhead gave more of a flavour of what it was about: “ESL students and the erosion of higher education.”
The article, by professors Norm Friesen and Patrick Keeney respectively of Thompson Rivers University and Simon Fraser University, recounts their frustration teaching students with poor English-language skills – typically English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, students – or students whose “academic or cultural preparedness is not up to speed.” The presence of these students in the classroom “fundamentally changes teaching and learning, to the detriment,” they write. “Instead of engaging students in disentangling the nuances and subtleties of a particularly important passage from the assigned readings, one begins speaking to the class as one might speak to academically challenged teenagers.” Ouch.
Editor Peggy Berkowitz and I knew the opinion piece would be controversial. I must admit I was a bit squeamish about publishing it. But we felt the authors were sincere in what they were saying and had grievances that deserved to be aired and discussed. Universities in Canada are increasingly seeking to attract foreign students to come study in Canada and it is important that these students have the resources and support they need to succeed.
Several readers, not surprisingly, didn’t see it that way, calling the piece variously “xenophobic,” “utterly ignorant” and a “thinly veiled racist rant.” They’re entitled to their views. But what disappointed me was the suggestion by some that we should never have considered publishing it. This inclination to want to prevent uncomfortable views from being aired is unbecoming of the academic community. There was nothing in the piece, to our minds, that should have prevented it from being published. It was a judgment call, sure, but that’s what editors do.
Some who did find it objectionable nevertheless said they would use it as a “teachable moment” in their classroom, which strikes me as appropriate in the academic context. As well, some who did not quite agree with the views expressed by the authors did give them the benefit of the doubt. “I think certainly that we can listen to their frustrations without disparaging their institutions, their credentials, or their achievements,” wrote one commenter. And, in general, the conversation within the comments section has been quite edifying and deepened the conversation – which is ideally what one would hope for.
Some even congratulated us:
— Alex Usher (@AlexUsherHESA) August 8, 2013
As a final note, readers may be interested to know that we did in fact censor ourselves by refusing to publish one comment about the article. Our main reason was that the comment seemed rather extraneous to the main issues raised by the opinion piece. There was also one particular phrase about “lower level cultures” which we felt was indeed borderline racist. I think we made the right call.
Editor’s note: The headline of the opinion piece referred to above, “Internationalizing the Canadian campus,” was incorrect in the original version of this blog post. It has been corrected.
Statistics Canada’s recent release of education data from the 2011 National Household Survey had many journalists, public policy analysts and others scrambling to interpret how the country is doing in this important area. Among the key findings: women are earning degrees in ever greater numbers, including in the STEM disciplines, while most apprenticeships are still held by men.
There was also much analysis of unemployment rates by level of education. The story is a positive one: generally, the higher your level of education, the lower your chances of being unemployed. The lock-step nature of this relationship is quite remarkable. Here is the unemployment rate for those aged 25-64 (the prime working age) by level of education:
- no certificate, diploma or degree, 11.3%
- registered apprenticeship certificate, 6.7%
- college certificate or diploma, 5.2%
- bachelor’s degree, 4.5%
- earned doctorate, 4.1%.
The only minor anomaly was for those with a master’s degree, where the unemployment rate was 5.0%, above the rate for those with a bachelor’s degree.
But, a closer analysis of the data by location of study – inside Canada vs. outside Canada – reveals something quite interesting that could play a role in the public’s perception of the value of a degree. And that is: those who earned their degrees abroad have significantly higher unemployment levels than those who earned their degrees at a Canadian institution (see graph).
To wit: just 3.7% of those with a bachelor’s degree and 3.8% of those with a master’s degree earned in Canada were unemployed in 2011, whereas unemployment levels were twice as high for graduates who earned their degrees abroad: 7.7% for bachelor’s graduates and 7.5% for master’s graduates. For PhDs, it was 3.4% for Canadian-educated vs. 5.0% for foreign-educated.
The same pattern holds true for young adults aged 24 to 34. So, for example, the total unemployment rate for undergraduate degree holders in this age range is 5.3%, but only 4.7% for those with a degree earned in Canada vs. 9.4% for those with a degree earned outside Canada.
Why is this particularly relevant for universities? Because, there are proportionally far more university graduates who have earned their certification abroad than for other levels of education. For the population aged 25 to 64:
- about 6% to 7% of those with trades or apprenticeship certificates earned them abroad
- for college diplomas, it was around 8.5%
- for bachelor’s degrees, 21%
- for master’s degrees, 34%
- and for PhDs, a whopping 42%
Going back to these unemployment rates for holders of Canadian degrees, it’s important to note that these rates are very low. Many economists would consider these rates to be close to the “natural” rate of unemployment (which includes seasonal and voluntary unemployment as people move between jobs in the short term).
The data doesn’t suggest what accounts for this discrepancy in employment rates between those individuals with Canadian-earned degrees and those who earned them abroad. The discrepancy might speak to the uneven quality of degrees earned abroad, or it could be that people with foreign degrees also have less Canadian work experience, and that Canadian employers are therefore less willing to hire them. But that’s just speculation. Either way, it’s important to remember that a degree earned within Canada confers a real advantage in the job market.
The media are biased in their coverage of higher education in Canada, favouring universities over colleges. That was the contention of Anne Sado, president of George Brown College in Toronto, speaking at the Worldviews 2013 conference on media and higher education held at the University of Toronto near the end of June. “I’m not here to challenge whether university or college education is better,” said Ms. Sado. However, “I do feel there is bias around coverage between universities and colleges.”
Ms. Sado was speaking as part of a panel discussion, alongside University of Toronto President David Naylor and journalists Simona Chiose, education editor at the Globe and Mail, and Louise Brown, education reporter at the Toronto Star.
“I think there is an opportunity for the media to make sure there is a recognition of a much broader range of postsecondary options than perhaps there was at one point in time,” Ms. Sado said. “We have “two robust streams of education. Students choose their pathways based on many needs and interests. Some choose colleges, some choose universities.” At George Brown, she noted, 20 percent of students have completed a university credential and another 11 percent have some pervious university experience. “We’re told they come to use for our practical and applied programs that lead to jobs.”
And yet, “I feel the media do continue to emphasize universities in their reporting. There are far more experts from universities that are quoted when discussing many, many subject areas. I feel the perspective of colleges is often overlooked.”
Ms. Sado gave the example, among others, of Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone, an “incubator” program for student-led digital media start-ups. That program has had “well over 100 media mentions” over the last year, she said. “We have a digital media and gaming incubator at our college – not mentioned once.”
She also cited the Globe and Mail’s “Our Time to Lead” education series last fall, which she said focused almost exclusively on universities. “It seems, in Canada, university has become the de facto term for postsecondary education.”
The bias “is systemic,” she continued, from media to guidance counsellors to parents. The media has a role to play “in informing the community about the viability of other options. … I know credibility has to be earned, but I think it is something that we have earned and yet it’s not being given its due.”
Louise Brown of the Toronto Star agreed the media are biased in favour of universities: “We are university trained. We’re more familiar with it.” But, she added, stories from the K-12 sector trump all other education stories.
Addressing Ms. Sado’s point about the media seeking experts, she noted: “Every day, the universities are very assertive about sending out, first thing in the morning, a list of experts to comment on whatever the issue is of the day.” She doesn’t see that from colleges.
U of T’s David Naylor, in his comments, did not address the bias question directly. He did say one the biggest challenges the media face is that their ranks are thinning out, making it difficult to cover many areas, including higher education. He also made the point that stories of university graduates who then go to college need some nuance. “I have met many U of T students who finished their degree and then went off to a one of our fine colleges for a diploma. They were adding, on top of a broad education, specific skills acquisition. And somehow, at least in Canada, it seems to be seen by some as a mistake. To me, it is actually a fantastic declaration for a lifetime of learning and accomplishment.”
Dr. Naylor also said that the current focus in the media and elsewhere on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and business disciplines needs some reflection. “This zeitgeist worries me. … So many of the issues we face are social. So much of what is bedevilling our world is the failure to appreciate our shared humanity. Cross-cultural and inter-faith tensions are a huge issue. And it just seems to me that we are turning away with respect to the social sciences and humanities at exactly the moment in our history when they have never been more relevant.”
Back to the main issue, during the Q&A session that followed, a teacher at George Brown College returned to the question of college teachers acting as media experts. She noted that university professors have academic freedom policies which allow them to speak their minds. But, “college teachers don’t have even a basic level of that enshrined in any kind of protective way like a collective agreement. … Even if I wanted to speak out as a public intellectual on issues in my area of expertise, I don’t have the privilege of intramural and extramural academic freedom to be able to do so.”
It’s a fascinating discussion. I’d be interested to hear readers’ views.
If you take a look at Canada’s J-Source journalism website, under the “business of journalism” category, you would quickly conclude that journalism as an industry continues to decline. On the site you’ll find article after article on media layoffs, buyouts, dropping advertising revenue, the shuttering of regional and ethnic newspapers, and on and on (and those examples are from just the last six weeks). However, journalism programs at colleges and universities are a growth industry, said Janice Neil, an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University and editor-in-chief of J-Source.
Ms. Neil, speaking on a panel discussion at the Worldviews 2013 conference on global trends in media and higher education June 20 in Toronto, said there are currently 50 journalism programs at postsecondary education institutions across Canada. That includes 25 universities that offer either a certificate, bachelor’s or master’s degree in journalism, according to a quick search on the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada website. And, the programs keep coming – two started within the last couple of years, the latest being a joint program offered by Trent University and Loyalist College, which started last fall. At any given time, there are 1,600 students in journalism programs in Ontario, said Ms. Neil.
This raises the obvious question of whether these journalism graduates are actually landing jobs in journalism. The data are hard to come by, but anecdotally many former journalism students say they haven’t found full-time jobs in their field and have resorted to unpaid internships and freelancing. A couple of journalism graduates, commenting during the Q&A portion of the panel discussion, complained that they’d essentially been sold a bill of goods. Reports on the plight of freelancers working for a pittance are legion. Adding to the funk, the U.S. CareerCast survey for 2013 declared newspaper reporter the worst job of the year.
This raises an even thornier question for universities and colleges: why are there so many journalism programs across Canada pumping out so many graduates? What’s their responsibility in this matter? Should they be more explicit in their program descriptions about the career prospects for their students?
Ms. Neil responded that the skills the journalism students learn – writing, researching, reporting, editing, multimedia production, etc. – are “highly transferable.” And these programs continue to be in high demand, she notes, with many applicants turned away. She also doesn’t believe the job situation for journalism grads is as desperate as some describe it. Those who find journalism is not for them can take the skills they’ve learned and apply them in areas like public relations, communications and elsewhere. Those who really apply themselves usually find success, she said. Another panelist amplified that message, saying those who are highly entrepreneurial and “go-getters” will do fine.
But fellow panelist Adrian Monck, managing director and head of communications and media at the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, and a former television journalist and journalism professor, wasn’t buying that argument. He said it was “absolutely unscrupulous” that journalism schools continue to fan the dreams of these students “who think they’re going to get jobs” in the industry. Mr. Monck said there are tens of thousands of journalism students in the U.K., but only about 500 jobs that open up in the industry in any given year.
Mr. Monck also seemed unmoved by the “go-getters will get jobs” argument, saying that would be the case no matter what the endeavour. He also wondered whether students entering journalism school were all that entrepreneurial. He posited that many journalism students are “liberal arts” types who might otherwise take a program in English or history, but opt for the “safer” choice of journalism because it sounds like a program that will lead to a career.
The debate brought comparisons from the audience to teacher education and law programs, two other professions where graduates are having difficulty finding jobs. Ontario recently announced it will halve the numbers of students allowed into teacher’s college, and there have been similar calls in the U.S. and Canada to restrict law school enrolment.
Toronto blogger Jennifer Polk, who attended the conference, says the situation reminds her of the plight of PhD graduates. “I was struck by similarities between the terrible job market for journalists qua journalists and the academic job market,” she wrote on her blog.
Go west, young graduate
But not all is doom and gloom, apparently. The University of Regina does describe on its website the career prospects for its journalism grads, and the situation looks pretty good:
In a July 2010 survey of recent U of R Journalism School graduates, 90.2 percent reported they were in salaried employment during the first year after graduating, while 24.4 percent did freelance journalism work either solely or on the side to add to their income. None reported being unemployed, with the remainder spending their time traveling or continuing their education. Asked to describe their first ‘real job,’ just 13.3 percent reported that it was outside the field of journalism. The majority of first jobs were full time.
That success, admittedly, is partly due to the strong economy in Western Canada. The website continues:
While a tight economy has affected the news media in central Canada, journalism employment has continued to grow in the west, particularly in Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan Job Futures notes the Saskatchewan has undergone an explosive growth in journalism employment in recent years, rising an “incredible” 63 percent between 2000 and 2005. This growth is expected to begin levelling off through to 2013, due to the relative youth of the incoming workforce, however the outlook remains fair. Our own July 2010 survey of Saskatchewan and Alberta employers revealed surprisingly optimistic employment prospects in a tight economy. In the past five years, the majority (58.3 percent) had added positions, and the same percentage anticipated they will add more positions in the next five years. None reported that they expected to lose positions.
Last November, the New York Times declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC. Now, halfway through 2013, the MOOC momentum appears to be slowing – or, at least, shifting in a new direction. Some higher education observers go further, claiming the MOOC “revolution” is over.
For the uninitiated, MOOCs are massive open online courses generally offered free of charge by professors at elite universities to tens of thousands of people at a time. They are also a source of much breathless hyperbole about being a “game changer” or “creative disruptor” or “tsunami” that will sweep away traditional university campuses.
The chief purveyors of MOOCs are Coursera, edX and Udacity. The University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia are offering several MOOCs through Coursera, while the University of Alberta is launching a MOOC this fall with Udacity.
MOOCs are a grand idea – the democratization of higher education! – but they have attracted as many skeptics as promoters. Among the criticisms levelled at MOOCs: completion rates are abysmally low, the online format is often not very innovative pedagogically, and they aren’t offered for credit. The biggest knock against them is that there is, as yet, no appreciable business plan for how they’re supposed to make money.
This has not stopped the starry-eyed MOOC promoters such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman or author (and recently installed University of Trent chancellor) Don Tapscott. However, the ground appears to be shifting below their feet. Several higher education analysts point to a recent announcement by Coursera as the beginning of the end for MOOCs as we know them.
Until now, most MOOCs have been specialized one-off courses offered by professors at top universities and have attracted people who were taking the course simply out of personal interest. But, at the end of May, Coursera announced that it is “exploring MOOC-based learning … on campus.” More specifically, according to the New York Times, Coursera is forming partnerships with 10 large state university systems and flagship public universities to create courses – including introductory and required classes – that students can take for credit, either fully online or with classroom sessions. Presumably, they will pay for these courses.
(Udacity also seems to be changing gears. A University of Alberta blog claims Udacity has “decided to shift its business model” to focus on developing “a full online undergraduate and graduate degree in computer science” instead of offering “a wide variety of courses in many disciplines.”)
The Coursera announcement prompted one U.K. blogger to claim, “You Can Stop Worrying About MOOCs Now,” adding, “we all knew the MOOC bubble would burst sometime, but I’m saying it’s happened this week – it just doesn’t know it yet.” Similarly, Canadian higher education analyst Alex Usher proclaimed in his blog that Coursera has “jumped the shark” (a popular trope meaning it’s headed downhill) and that this signals the end of the revolution.
What these two bloggers, and many others, point out is that the move by Coursera makes it more of a competitor to courseware providers than a revolutionary disruptor of higher education. Others say this puts Coursera on course to become more like an academic publisher.
An Inside Higher Ed article spells it out: “some universities will try Coursera to see how well they can use its software to offer traditional for-credit online classes to dozens of registered students at once. If universities like the platform, long-time industry players like Desire2Learn and Blackboard could find themselves with new competition. Others will turn Coursera into a new kind of textbook by pairing online material from elsewhere with their own university’s instructors.”
What’s more, the “on campus MOOCs” proposed by Coursera sound suspiciously like the blended learning models that many educators have been advocating for some time. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just far from the revolutionary – or apocalyptic, depending on your point of view – MOOC rhetoric of last year.
I highly doubt these recent developments mean the end of MOOCs, but they certainly seem to indicate that the MOOC concept is undergoing a transition. Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University who has given two MOOCs, calls this the “first generation of MOOC platforms” and says they represent “a significant phase shift, not only in terms of the aggregate functionality but also the social and cultural context in which today’s MOOCs are being offered.”
Dr. Devlin also says MOOCs should be more properly considered a learning resource rather than a course. Through MOOCs, universities could share course material among themselves or license other universities’ content.
Roseann O’Reilly Runte, president of Carleton University, seems to suggest something along these lines in a recent opinion piece: “Classes can combine Internet connections, Skyped conversation, video-teleconference and satellite hookups with videos and segments of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) produced around the world” (my emphasis).
However things eventually turn out, these sorts of conversations are certainly a welcome relief from the commentary of venture capitalists and others about how MOOCs will upend universities and obviate the need for most university professors, or how MOOC “efficiencies” could allow governments to slash postsecondary education funding.
A final point is that the MOOC mania has had the benefit of highlighting the potential of online and distance learning which, after all, have been important but fairly minor components of postsecondary education for decades. Many of the universities that have signed on to provide MOOCs have promised to include a research component to see what works and what doesn’t, which is a fine development.
The Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation recently announced it is funding a MOOC Research Hub. “The peer-reviewed research on MOOCs has been minimal,” notes the foundation. “The MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) will begin to address this research gap by evaluating MOOCs and how they impact teaching, learning, and education in general.” Let the fun begin.
The recent public outreach efforts of International Space Station Commander and Canadian Chris Hadfield – his explanatory videos, photos and remarkable cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” shot from outer space, not to mention his nearly one million Twitter followers – was a triumph for science communication, says science writer Kyle Hill, writing for Scientific American. Who could argue with that?
This was great to see since science communication in Canada – or, at least, the media coverage of science – has never been particularly strong. Yes, there are some obvious exceptions, such as CBC Radio’s long-running Quirks and Quarks with Bob McDonald and the even longer-running TV show the Nature of Things with David Suzuki, also on our public broadcaster (the two shows, respectively, are currently in their 35th and 53rd seasons – a triumph that should be celebrated).
But, in the daily media, things are not so rosy. The days when Canadian newspapers had full-time science writers on staff are mostly gone, and science stories seem to rarely make it into television newscasts. Canada doesn’t even have a national science magazine.
There are efforts made to improve the quality of science writing through the likes of the Science Media Centre of Canada and the Canadian Science Writers Association, but these are mainly shoestring operations.
As is often the case, the situation is somewhat different in Quebec. It has a general science magazine, Québec Science, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, as well as an excellent science magazine for kids, Les Débrouillards. The annual Acfas Congress, organized by the Association francophone pour le savoir, is also a big media event and attracted some 6,000 attendees in May. Acfas also publishes an online magazine, Découvrir.
I’m not sure what to attribute this paucity of science reporting to in English Canada. It certainly cannot be due to a weak culture of science in this country. Canada has always held its own in scientific research internationally, a fact underlined by the likes of the Council of Canadian Academies in its 2012 report and most recently by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (which noted, for example, that with a share of only 0.5 percent of global population, Canada accounted for 4.4 percent of the world’s natural sciences and engineering publications).
I do know, having covered science stories for much of my career, that I find it difficult to write about science in an engaging way. That’s because scientific discovery is rarely a single eureka event, a happening, but is rather a slow process of tiny advances that can appear arcane to the general public.
As well, when science is covered by the media, often the trivial triumphs over the important. Or, as one writer recently lamented in the Guardian, too much science journalism falls under the category of “infotainment.” The article garnered much reaction on Twitter, both pro and con.
As I’ve written before, I think what makes for a good science story – or any good story, for that matter – is human drama. Science, after all, is a human pursuit. I want to know about the personalities involved and what drives them in their quest (others may disagree, arguing that this limits the scope of science reporting).
A good example from our own pages of University Affairs was the story “A scientific whodunit” by Michael Smith, published in February 2005; it won the Sanofi Pasteur Medal for Excellence in Health Research Journalism that year. A more recent example is “The story of the origins of AIDS” by Mark Cardwell, which was recently nominated for best profile of a person for the Kenneth R. Wilson Awards in business publishing. (We’ll find out next week whether it won.)
On a related note, the Guardian recently assembled five top writers and asked them what makes for good science writing. It’s a bit difficult to sum up their views succinctly, but the article is nevertheless worth a read.
What do you think? Am I being too harsh concerning the state of science communication in Canada? And if not, what can be done to change that?