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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.”

Canada adrift in ocean science

Posted on 6 November 2013 by
The research icebreaker Amundsen, which conducts annual research trips through the Arctic as part of ArcticNet, is featured on Canada’s $100 bill.

The research icebreaker Amundsen, which conducts annual research trips through the Arctic as part of ArcticNet, is featured on Canada’s $50 bill.

A Mari Usque Ad Mare. That, of course, is the motto for Canada, “From sea to sea.” But it should really be “From sea to sea to sea,” in recognition that we are bordered by three ocean basins, not two. We also, incidentally, have the world’s longest coastline.

That’s all to say that you’d think Canada would be good at ocean science, out of necessity and self-interest. And you’d be mostly right: Canada ranks among the top countries in output and impact of ocean science papers.

However, a new report released today from the Council of Canadian Academies warns that our relative position in this area is at risk due to a lack of collaboration and coordination among all the players. What’s more, this slippage is happening at the moment that the world’s oceans are facing unprecedented pressures from climate change, ocean acidification and demands on ocean resources.

The expert panel report, Ocean Science in Canada: Meeting the Challenge, Seizing the Opportunity, was chaired by David Strangway, who, among other things, is the former president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and former president of the University of British Columbia. Also on the panel was Louis Fortier, a highly regarded marine scientist and professor at Université Laval, and head of ArcticNet, a Network of Centres of Excellence of Canada. The assessment was requested by the Canadian Consortium of Ocean Research Universities, a group of nine Canadian universities involved in ocean science research.

The report starts with an accounting of the current “state and capacity” of ocean science in Canada. This section has a decidedly “one the one hand … on the other hand” quality to it. For every positive element noted by the panel, it seemed to find a corresponding negative one.

Looking first at human capacity, the report noted that, despite a steady increase in undergraduate and graduate students in many fields related to ocean science from 2001 to 2009, it is “unclear whether overall trends in human capacity are positive on balance.” This is because of a serious lack of data – “a particular concern, since human capacity determines the use and productivity of all other elements of ocean science capacity.”

Canada also has a substantial – but aging – research fleet. Half of these vessels were built over 25 years ago, and “older vessels lead to more breakdowns, higher costs and operational days lost to maintenance.”

One of NEPTUNE’s remotely operated vehicles, dubbed Wally, gets a cleaning. Credit: Ocean Networks Canada

One of NEPTUNE’s remotely operated vehicles, dubbed Wally, gets a cleaning. Credit: Ocean Networks Canada

In a similar vein, the report said Canada has several world-class systems for ocean observation and monitoring. These include the 800-kilometre-long NEPTUNE cabled ocean observatory off the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Ocean Tracking Network headquartered at Dalhousie University at the other end of the country. However, the report said, “While these systems are ground-breaking and will attract leading ocean scientists from around the world, challenges exist with regard to the geographical coverage of observation and monitoring, in particular in the Arctic.”

In terms of funding ocean science, the panel again asserted that the situation is unclear due to insufficient data. It noted that total spending by funding agencies in Canada increased from 2002 to 2011, but direct funding for individual research projects has declined since 2008. Meanwhile, expenditures by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on science activities peaked between 2006 and 2008, followed by a decline to the same level as 2002.

Finally, while Canada ranks among the top countries in output and impact of ocean science papers, the report noted frankly that this position “is at risk.” The panel used a bibliometric analysis to make an international comparison of Canada’s performance in ocean science. According to this analysis, Canada ranks 7th in the number of peer-reviewed papers and 11th in scientific impact. But (again!), it also found that ocean science “is losing ground relative to other fields … which could lead to a decline in Canada’s position in research output and impact.”

The panel also identified gaps in the “coordination and alignment” of the ocean science community in Canada. They are:

  • The vision gap: In contrast to other countries, or other disciplines in Canada, no comprehensive national strategy or vision currently exists for ocean science in Canada.
  • The coordination gap: Addressing the increasingly complex issues of ocean science requires enhanced collaboration at the local, regional, national and international levels, and across disciplines and sectors. Despite the many instances of successful collaboration in Canada, “coordination in key areas … is lacking.”
  • The information gap: Limitations in access to, and availability and comparability of, information “made it difficult to assess several categories of ocean science capacity.” This gap also makes it difficult to prioritize where investments should be made in research infrastructure.

The panel concluded that addressing these gaps is essential if Canada “is to meet the growing needs of ocean science with limited resources, and make best possible use of existing capacities to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of ocean science.” This will require “a national effort involving the entire community of ocean scientists in Canada, as well as users of ocean science in government, the private sector and civil society.”

Altogether, it is a pretty downbeat report.

Sifting through the scant data on contingent faculty

Posted on 29 October 2013 by

According to the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association, contract academic staff on temporary, per-course contracts taught 52 percent of all students registered in classes, tutorials, labs and seminars at the university in 2012. That 52-percent figure is interesting by its mere existence, since data on contract faculty (also known as contingent faculty or sessional instructors, among other terms) is difficult to come by in this country.

From the tumblr blog, We Teach Laurier.

From the tumblr blog, We Teach Laurier.

We also discover, via a quote from university spokesman Kevin Crowley in a story in the Waterloo Region Record, that there are 376 part-time faculty teaching at Laurier this fall. The number of contract academic staff cannot exceed 35 percent of full-time faculty, which number 600, Mr. Crowley said, adding that this rule was negotiated by the union and the university during the last full-time faculty contract. We also learn that a part-time instructor is paid about $7,200 per course (for one term, typically three months).

Again, these are very interesting facts that I point out not because of what they may or may not say about the university, but simply due to their rarity. Are these figures representative of the situation at other Canadian universities? We don’t really know, since there are no national data of any kind.

(The Laurier info, by the way, comes to light because the faculty association is in conciliation with the university to arrive at a new collective agreement for contract academic staff. As part of that, the faculty association is posting information on the working conditions of these instructors, and conciliation updates, on Tumblr.)

It would require some effort to compile national figures on the use of contingent faculty. There would be a lot of definitional issues that would need to be sorted out, because the rules and practices differ from institution to institution. But I’m sure it could be done.

There is some information out there on contract faculty, if you look hard enough. For instance, a blog by the University of British Columbia faculty association, written during contract negotiations in 2012 and 2013, had an entire post on contract academic staff. Of the 3,330 instructional staff, we learn that 815, or roughly one quarter, are on limited-term contracts. Most union members on contracts are either sessional lecturers (about 600 members) who hold appointments of less than one year, or 12-month lecturers (about 160 members) who hold appointments of at least one year.

But these numbers are somewhat deceiving, according to the blog. While representing one-quarter of all academic staff, these contract instructors “do a very significant amount of undergraduate teaching, accounting for as much as 70 percent (or more) of all undergraduate instruction in some departments.”

One of our own stories in University Affairs also had some information, though scant:

No one we talked to for this article knew of any consistent tracking of sessional use across the country. Some faculty associations are keeping track of the proportion of sessionals to regular faculty: at the University of Calgary, for example, the 529 sessional instructors represent 23 percent of the faculty workforce. But the union doesn’t know what proportion of courses are taught by sessional instructors. In Ontario, the recent Auditor General’s Report (which reviewed how three universities support and assess the quality of undergraduate teaching) noted that at one institution, sessional staff “accounted for 24 percent of full-time equivalent staff and were responsible for teaching approximately 40 percent of its courses.”

That article, “Sessionals, up close,” in our February 2013 print edition, was our attempt to fill the information void by putting together a sort of cross-country roundup on sessional working conditions by sampling the pay, benefits, job security and other key work-related conditions for sessionals at a range of small, medium and large Canadian postsecondary institutions.

In the U.S., there are much greater efforts to highlight the working conditions of adjunct and contingent faculty, most notably the New Faculty Majority, which lobbies on behalf of these instructors. It also has a foundation that “aims to be a clearinghouse for existing information about contingent faculty; to identify gaps in existing research on the role of contingent faculty in higher education; and to conduct original research on needed topics.” The Chronicle of Higher Education also has begun what it calls the Adjunct Project to gather pay and working conditions data about the nation’s adjuncts. Faculty and lecturers are requested to submit their data “to see how it compares to your colleagues around the country.”

One thing nearly everyone involved in the situation agrees on is that the status of contract academic faculty is, for the most part, abysmal. At Laurier, sessional instructors are allowed to teach up to three courses per semester, for a total theoretically of nine per year. However, according to the faculty association, on average, contract academic staff teach just 2.4 courses per year, for which they earn under $18,000.

What’s the solution? I don’t know. But, if we’re to address the situation in a serious way in terms of new policies, we need better data on which to base decisions. And, it would be far better for institutions to take the lead on this then to leave it to the provincial governments to sort it out. To quote a tweet from our blogger Melonie Fullick on a similar topic about addressing change in higher education: “Yes we can have ‘solutions’ but not when you’re sticking your fingers in your ears and singing ‘lalala’.”

Editor’s note: this post has been changed somewhat from the original to clarify a few points. See also the first comment below.

New TD report discounts the skills mismatch in Canada

Posted on 23 October 2013 by

I recently came across the phrase “skills shortage deniers.” I can’t find the exact reference now, but it was in an online comment to an article about the supposed skills shortage, or skills mismatch, in Canada.

You’ve likely heard some of the numbers. 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. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, for its part, referred to a growing skills “crisis” and even the Prime Minister called the skills shortage one of Canada’s most pressing economic problems.

I have been skeptical about these reports of a widespread skills shortage, so I guess you can count me among the deniers. I think there are multiple agendas at play from Canadian companies who would stand to benefit from government programs aimed at “correcting” this problem, absolving the companies of the responsibility of training their own employees.

I’m evidently not the only one who’s skeptical: a new report by TD Economics suggests that concerns over a skills shortage in Canada are overstated. (Interestingly, another Toronto-Dominion alumnus – TD’s former chief economist Don Drummond – also recently questioned the skills shortage.) The new report throws “cold water” (the authors’ words) on predictions of large and persistent job shortages in Canada. It also questions the view that today’s youth will be a “lost generation,” adding that the career prospects of recent graduates – including those with liberal arts degrees – are “likely better” than many Canadians believe.

That last item is of particular relevance to universities, as it counters the narrative in the recent CIBC World Markets report which suggested that the university “premium” is falling because too few students are taking programs that are “in high demand.”

“Evidence of economy-wide shortages is hard to find,” said TD’s deputy chief economist Derek Burleton, one of the authors of the new report, as quoted by Canadian Press. “Yes, across regions and occupations, skills mismatches (exist) because you are never going to get a perfect match. So it’s not a complete myth, but it’s not as extreme as people believe.”

The TD economists are not the only ones to refute the perception of a labour shortage. A paper published this past May by the University of Calgary’s Kevin McQuillan, entitled “All the workers we need: Debunking Canada’s labour-shortage fallacy,” concluded that Canada is not facing a wide-scale labour shortage “and is unlikely to confront one in the foreseeable future.”

To test for labour shortages and skills mismatch in the current report, the TD economists compiled data on unemployment rates, wage rates and vacancy rates (a measure of unmet labour demand) for around 140 occupations. They found that occupations widely thought to be in shortage – such as trades, engineers and health care workers – have recorded considerably lower unemployment rates than average, but vacancy rates that are only moderately higher. They also found that wage gains – a good measure of tightness in the labour market – have not increased to the extent one might have thought if the skills gap were indeed at crisis proportions. The report also noted that Canada’s job creation performance over the past decade has been strong, especially compared to other G7 countries

The TD report does flag several areas of concern in the labour market. It notes, for instance, that there has been a degree of labour market “polarization” in Canada, which refers to rapidly‐growing demand for high‐ and low‐skilled employment at the expense of a relative decline in medium‐skilled jobs. It also notes that the challenges of youth in the job market have intensified since the onset of the recession and that there has been an upward trend of temporary jobs in the economy, fuelling concerns surrounding the quality of jobs being created.

On the education front, the report observes that educators “have recognized some of the shortcomings of the current higher education system, including a lack of flexibility in altering programs to quickly meet the changing demands of the marketplace.” But there are signs that change is beginning to happen, including an increase in credit transfers among universities and colleges, and a rise in apprenticeship demand (although completion rates remain a challenge).

The bottom line: “Despite Canada’s solid track record in creating jobs, there are inherent vulnerabilities in the labour market and skills development more specifically that are holding back the economy’s potential. Bold and complementary action across governments, employers, employees and educators is needed to ensure that living standards continue to grow.”

Progress is slow for women in senior roles at Canada’s universities

Posted on 16 October 2013 by

A former rector at a Swedish university recently tweeted the following:

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his information, but the tweet did prompt a follow-up query from a Canadian: “Curious what it is in Canada,” tweeted @rosemary_reilly.

That I can help with. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada counts 97 “public and private not-for-profit universities and university degree-level colleges,” so that’s our denominator. Of those 97 member institutions, 22 are headed by women, or 23 percent.

University presidents (n=97)
75 men (77%)
22 women (23%)

Relevant to this discussion is the fact that there has been a high turnover of university presidents in the past few years (an issue we recently covered in University Affairs). By my count, 56 new presidents have been appointed since 2009, a turnover at the top of well over 50 percent in four years. Did we use this opportunity to hire more women?

Yes, in fact. In a blog post I wrote in the spring of 2009, I counted 14 women university leaders, with two more female appointments scheduled to take effect within a couple of months. So, as of August 2009, there were 16 women heading what were then 94 member institutions (17 percent, or roughly one in six).

Depending on how you look at it, then, the current numbers aren’t so bad. A rise from 16 to 22 women in four years is nearly 38 percent. On the other hand, women still account for fewer than one in four university presidents.

I’m sure most people would like to see more women in senior roles at Canada’s universities. Women are making progress up the academic ladder, but it’s slow. According to last year’s report by the Council of Canadian Academies, Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension, as of 2008-09, women held one-third of all faculty positions in Canada; of those, approximately 43 percent were assistant professors, 36 percent were associate professors and 22 percent were full professors.

This led me to wonder what we’d find if we looked one level lower then executive head, at vice-presidents at Canada’s universities. Perhaps more women are filling these posts, some of whom will eventually make it to the top (the “pipeline” theory). I therefore looked at the current gender distribution for vice-presidents, academic, and vice-presidents, research (the exact titles may differ from institution to institution). At some of the smaller institutions, the same person fills both roles, so sometimes they’re being counted in each category. Also, in a few institutions it was hard to identify who held these roles, so the numbers don’t quite add up to 97.

The results:

Vice-presidents, academic (n=94)
69 men (73%)
25 women (27%)

Vice-presidents, research (n=91)
70 men (77%)
21 women (23%)

As you can see, the numbers barely differ from the ratio for presidents – so much for that theory. I admit I was a bit disappointed. Am I making too much of these numbers? Is this a simplistic proxy for how women are doing in academic administration? I’d like to hear what our readers think.

The needs of postdocs continue to be ignored

Posted on 2 October 2013 by

The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars released this morning the results of a new national survey of postdocs. The survey captured not only demographic information – who are postdocs in Canada? – but also their primary concerns. (The full report is here and we also have a news story on the survey on our website here).

This is the second such survey of postdocs by CAPS; the first one was done in 2009. That first report referred to “a postdoctoral crisis in Canada,” and while this latest report eschews talk of a crisis, it’s clear from the latest survey that things haven’t changed much for the better.

“I am constantly stressed that I won't be able to get a job as a university professor, but I really don't have a satisfactory ‘plan B’ if this doesn't work out.” – a CAPS survey respondent.

“I am constantly stressed that I won’t be able to get a job as a university professor, but I really don’t have a satisfactory ‘plan B’ if this doesn’t work out.” – a CAPS survey respondent.

One of the recurring issues is the uncertain or ambiguous status of postdocs. Officially, CAPS defines a postdoc as “an individual holding a recently completed research doctoral degree (or medical professional equivalent) in a temporary period of mentored research or scholarly training.” That sounds straightforward enough. However, in reality, postdocs’ employment or administrative status is far from clear – they may be classified as employees, students, independent contractors or trainees. Moreover, their classification within an institution doesn’t necessarily correspond with their federal or provincial employment or labour classification. (Among survey respondents who stated a preference, 75 percent indicated that they would prefer to be classified as employees.)

This ambiguity is reflected in postdoc workplace benefits – some have access to their institutions’ health or dental insurance plans, while others don’t. Some are eligible for employment insurance and pension contributions, others aren’t so lucky. What’s truly surprising – to me, at least – is how this confusion reigns among the postdocs themselves. Asked in the latest survey if they had something as simple as vacation leave, 21 percent answered they didn’t know. Nearly a third of respondents were unsure if they had sick leave benefits and almost 40 percent didn’t know if they were eligible for parental leave (35 percent of respondents have dependent children).

One thing postdocs are pretty sure of is that they’d like to be paid more. The average Canadian postdoc is 34-years-old and presumably has spent a minimum of 10 years pursuing postsecondary education (from undergraduate studies to the completion of a PhD), and yet approximately two-thirds of them earn less than $45,000 annually. Moreover, postdocs expect to be in this “academic parking lot” (a term CAPS uses) for some time: nearly half expect to do at least two postdoctoral appointments.

Another message from the survey is that postdocs – like PhD graduates in general – are becoming increasingly aware that a career path leading to a faculty appointment isn’t likely to happen (even though 80 percent said their original goal was to become a university research faculty member). The report states baldly: “Barring significant changes in the supply of postdocs or the demand for new faculty, only a minority of postdocs will obtain a faculty position.” And yet, half of the survey’s respondents reported having no exposure to non-academic careers, and 87 percent either had no access to career counselling or were unsure if they had. Further, over half of postdocs received no training in areas such as project management, conflict resolution, group or lab management, writing, or intellectual property. That’s shocking. Postdocs obviously would benefit from broader training and more exposure to non-academic training opportunities.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. This is exactly the same conversation we have been having for at least a decade now about PhD training. University after university in Canada now offers professional development workshops and other resources to help grad students transition to careers either within or outside of academia. Meanwhile, as this new report notes, “the needs and concerns of postdocs have been largely ignored.”