This post is about one of my favourite issues in education and various areas of knowledge policy: the attempt to use policy to reliably generate the unpredictable.
As an example, one of the themes that recurs in certain kinds of policy design is the idea of creating a geographic hub of innovation, a golden patch of tech turf that connects universities with businesses and governments, and generates technological change that pays off for all involved: in other words, a new “Silicon Valley”, which is the touchstone for these kinds of discussions. Re-creating Silicon Valley has become a policy goal, with the desired result that economic competitiveness will follow; hence the appearance of “science/research parks” and “innovation districts”.
There’s plenty of research about innovation, organizations, and technological discovery and development, that strives to provide explanations about why we see these much-lauded historical irruptions of creativity, innovation, and of course commercial success. The idea is to be able to make this happen in a deliberate way by adding the right ingredients into the socio-political-economic mix.
For example, I think there’s an implicit understanding that space and physical proximity have effects on eventual outcomes in “discovery” when creativity and innovation are the goals. At a time when we’re hearing so much praise about online spaces and their possibilities, I think this is another sign that certain configurations of place and space are scarce commodities in research and higher education. The value of these commodities is such that they’re assumed to be part and parcel in the construction of conditions where “innovation” will flourish, and in elite contexts they’re accommodated as such.
Serendipity in teaching and learning, too, depends partly on the unpredictable outcomes of social contact. Creative sparks can fly when we’re bumping up against other people and their diverse ideas and perspectives, the eclectic combinations of knowledge they’ve built up over time. Each person who takes in knowledge also changes it through the process of knowing. In this way, it could be said that all education is built on a series of chance encounters.
Of course we can’t really plan for chance, which is possibly why it’s the one ingredient left out of most of the formulae we see being applied. Chance is inefficient per se, problematic in terms of the actual goals of planning, which require the assumption of at least some form of certainty. Better to make sure that other things happen, the things we can guarantee, speaking in those terms instead of the nebulous shades produced by the idea of serendipity, accident, and so on. The power of the serendipitous lies in its very unpredictability, but try explaining that in a grant proposal.
Here in Canada, the federal government isn’t much into chance, unless you count the gamble we take by developing policy without sufficient evidence available to inform it. This government is unlikely to solve Canada’s perennial “innovation” problems by targeting large amounts of funding to those projects it deems most meritorious. Nor will students find answers for themselves – or for the much-lamented “skills gap” – by trying to engage in the kind of advanced futurology that is now expected of them as they prepare to enter the job market.
To return to Silicon Valley and its clone zones: where knowledge is tied to governance, where policy must make predictions, we place bets on future success by attempting to emulate success seen elsewhere in the past and present. The historical analysis is in some cases a selective one; rarely if ever do we see calls for military involvement in new innovation hubs, yet Silicon Valley’s prosperity was built more on US military funding than on venture capital, as is pointed out by Steve Blank.
For good education and research to happen, even for those eventual economic benefits to materialize, we need place/spaces where we can allow for possibilities and work through failure and permit experimentation, where we can learn how to take chances and follow our noses – while encountering others – rather than just building on an assumed formula for success. After all, it doesn’t matter how high the stakes are; we can’t know the future, and if we can’t imagine a new model of success, we won’t be able to deal with whatever changes the future brings our way.
A recent post by David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto, has been quite popular with academics and has generated a lot of commentary. Naylor makes the argument that Canadian higher education is dogged by “zombie ideas”, and he describes two of them: the first is that universities “ought to produce more job-ready, skills-focused graduates [and] focus on preparing people for careers”. The second is the idea that research driven by short-term application or commercialization, should be prioritized by universities because it provides a better return on governments’ funding investments.
I focus here on the first point, since in the past few weeks, in the run-up to the federal budget on March 21st, there has been a great deal of coverage of the alleged “skills gap” in in the Canadian workforce. Others have already done the work of summarising this issue, but as a quick recap, the argument goes something like this: business leaders and employers in Canada complain (to the government) that they cannot fill positions because candidates lack the skills. Yet Canada produces more post-secondary graduates than ever, and those grads are having trouble finding employment that matches their qualifications. So why is there an apparent “mismatch” between the education students receive, and the skills employers are demanding?
I don’t have anything to add to the debate about what is needed more–“narrow” skills such as those available from colleges or apprenticeships, or the “broader” education that universities argue they provide–because I don’t have the expertise to make an assessment within those parameters. However, I find the discussion interesting in terms of its context, including who is doing the arguing, and why.
For example, while the “skills gap” is assumed as a dramatic fact by Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who “recently called the labour and skills shortage “the most significant socio-economic challenge ahead of us in Canada”” (CBC)–other experts, including Naylor, disagree that a skills gap exists at all. University graduates, they argue, are still making better money than those without degrees; and most of them (eventually) find jobs that draw on their skills–so why reduce the number of enrolments? Alex Usher of HESA has been generating a lot of commentary for this side of the argument as well; in the comments of one of his posts, his points are disputed by James Knight of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.
Clearly the debate is more complex than “BAs vs. welders”, but this is the rhetoric being reproduced in numerous mainstream media articles. The average reader could be forgiven for finding this issue hard to untangle, based on the radically different accounts provided by media and policy pundits. Yet all this is discussed with much urgency, because post-secondary education is now being understood as a stopgap for everything the economy seems to lack–and economic competitiveness is imperative.
The politics of urgent “responsive” decision-making lie behind many of the arguments being brought forth. The skills gap, should it exist, has its political uses; agreeing that a thing exists means having to find ways of dealing with it somehow. In this case, a restructuring of university education is one solution on offer, including steering students away from the corruption of the arts and humanities and towards more suitable areas where demonstrable “skills” are in demand. Those doing the arguing have the means and “voice” to define the problem in a particular way; they can intervene in that debate and someone will listen. Each player has stakes in this game, too–the colleges plump for skills and job training over research investments, while the universities, and their advocates, claim a “broad” education is more appropriate; employers want graduates they don’t have to train, so the concern is with graduates being job-ready (for jobs that may not even exist yet).
Is this a kind of moral panic for Canadian higher education? That’s an important question, because such tactics are used to create a climate in which particular policy changes are favoured over others, both by politicians and policy-makers and by voters.
I think at the heart of the debate there are the problems of risk, certainty, and value (for money). Canadians have more of a “stake” in what universities do–often through directly paying ever increasing amounts of money for it–and so they care more about what universities are for. Governments have more of a claim now too, because of the idea that universities are magic factories where students enter undeveloped and emerge brimming with human capital (but it must be capital of the right kind).
The more we experience instability, the more we desire certainty–or at least some form of guarantee that if things go off the rails, we have other options. Yet there is no certainty about economic (or other) outcomes either from education or from non-commercial, “basic” research. Education and research give us no way to “go back”, either. For those trying to get a good start in life, there’s no tuition refund if we fail our classes or find the job market unfriendly at the end of the degree. We can’t wind back time and have another try. So the question becomes: what will guarantee our ability to cope with the future? A long-term focus on broad learning, which can (it is argued) help us to adapt to the changing structure of careers? Or a short-term focus, on skills designed to prepare students for specific, immediate positions?
This is why Naylor makes the argument that “the best antidote to unemployment–and the best insurance against recession-triggered unemployment–is still a university degree” (added emphasis). The word “insurance” speaks to the risk each person internalises in the current economy. Such risk has many effects, and one of them is heightened fear of the unknown: with so few resources to go around, will we get a “return” on what we invested, will our sacrifices “pay off”? What will happen if they don’t? As Paul Wells has pointed out, university advocacy organizations such as AUCC have pushed for universities to be recognised as providing economic benefits–since this is a logic that validates requests for further government funding. Yet it means universities are held captive by their own argument, since funding comes with the expectation of economic returns for the government. What if they cannot deliver on this promise?
The skills/employment “gap” is being blamed for a lack of national economic competitiveness; and it is a parallel to the ongoing “innovation problem” that Canada has in the research sector. But it’s the outcome, not the process, that’s really driving this debate. Never before have we been compelled to pay so much attention to the purpose and results of university education, and now that it seems to matter so much, we’re finding that “what universities should be doing”–or even what they already do–can’t be pinned down so easily; it can’t be mapped so cleanly onto a specific, measurable result. This is partly because what we now demand of universities is certainty, where serendipity used to be enough.
Over the past two years or so, I’ve been stewing quietly about a particular issue in Canadian education. Much of the recent media coverage about PSE in Canada is concerned with tuition costs and accessibility, faculty performance and salaries, government spending on education, and the various failings of the system. But alongside this, a campaign has been unfolding that promises to undermine efforts at understanding how Canadian education works and does not work, what happens to students throughout and after their studies, and where PSE funding should be directed for best effect. It’s a campaign, not of mis-information, but against information itself.
Some of you may have seen that one of my previous posts for this blog was a complaint about the lack of statistics on doctoral education in Canada. I’d been trying to write an essay on the path to the tenure track in Canada, and was having a hard time locating the numbers I needed (incidentally, the essay I wrote is here).
Most of the feedback I’ve received on that post has reinforced my sense that Canada lacks “the numbers” on post-secondary education. Then last week on his Margin Notes blog, Léo Charbonneau reported that Statistics Canada would be cutting yet another source of data about Canadian PSE — this time, the University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS) — in addition to ending the Education Matters publication.
When I say “yet another”, I’m referring to the fact that since 2009, research on post-secondary education in Canada has been undermined by a systematic elimination of resources. This list includes: the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation (CMSF), which was allowed to expire — with its mandate — in 2010; the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), which had its funding cut in 2010; the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS), cut in 2010; the Statistics Canada long form, from the Census, also cut in 2010; and of course the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), which apparently ended in 2009. These are only the cuts of which I’m aware. Who knows what else may have been “discontinued”, de-funded, and dismantled (other recent examples: Library and Archives Canada, and the First Nations Statistical Institute).
What kind of logic lies behind cuts like these? The expiry of the CMSF, for example, could have been considered predictable “benign neglect” since the organization’s mandate was only for 10 years, and it was a project created by the previous Liberal government. But there’s nothing predictable (or rational) behind eliminating something like the YITS, which was, as far as I know, the only longitudinal survey of secondary and post-secondary students in Canada. The YITS information would have been incredibly valuable for policy-makers, advocacy groups and researchers of higher education in Canada — particularly at a time when accessibility issues are key, when the public is pressing to know more about the “value” of PSE, and when universities still seem ill-equipped to explain the connection between higher ed “pathways” and careers.
The fact is that numbers can be spun, but life becomes so much easier if and when there are no numbers to have to spin — in other words, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”, or so seems to be the current modus operandi of the federal government. Perhaps this is just one more way in which the much-invoked “knowledge economy” does not include or value all knowledge.
I wouldn’t argue that the data we’d been producing were ideal. For example, as I discussed in my earlier post, the SED was fairly limited and provided too much focus on some information (such as numbers of international students, and mobility of PhD graduates) with no data available for other areas (faculty job offers; attrition rates). Still, I think these research sources were better than nothing–which is what we’ll soon have if things continue along the current lines.
When we have no knowledge — even strictly quantitative knowledge — about what is happening in education, then how do we make policy decisions that reflect anything other than a political preference? Removing the mechanisms that create new knowledge is a political act in and of itself. If “knowledge is power” then the systematic lack of attention to some kinds of knowledge is also a means of exercising power. As Jo VanEvery pointed out in her blog, the Conservative government isn’t stupid. But for me that’s the frightening part — if all this is deliberate, part of a strategy, then to what end?
So much interesting Canadian PSE news has been popping up in my RSS feeds lately that I had a hard time deciding what to write about this week.
I think, perhaps because of all the other education-related news, that very little attention has been paid to the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology report entitled “Opening the Door: Reducing Barriers to Post-Secondary Education in Canada.” The first Senate report on PSE since 1997, it “looks at both the financial and non-financial factors” involved in PSE accessibility.
There is a lot that’s interesting about this report, which addressed the federal government’s involvement in postsecondary education, and “how PSE can be made more accessible using the tools available to this level of government.” This included strategies for Aboriginal education and improving enrollment of other under-represented groups.
But there were only two news items that I could find relating to the report. One was from APTN on April 9, and addressed the proposals on Aboriginal education. The other came from PostMedia on April 4. The PostMedia article, “Tuition fees not major factor in post-secondary enrolment, report finds”, mainly emphasized only one of the report’s conclusions, that “while much of the public debate on access to PSE revolves around the cost of tuition, [...] the major barrier to accessing PSE is failure to complete Secondary education.”
Given the context of rising tuition, massive student protests and diminishing government funds, the political implications of these arguments about accessibility show why they were chosen as a focus for a news story: “the report runs counter to a common refrain among students that tuition fees are too exorbitant” (my emphasis). But there were 22 recommendations made in the report, and this focus on tuition was clearly geared to contribute to a particular side of a particular debate.
As presented in the Senate Committee report, the primary argument for accessibility is an economic one based on the idea of “human capital” development. Canada’s government must begin to take an interest in national coordination of education, because otherwise national competitiveness will suffer. It’s this argument that leads to the most comprehensive recommendation, #22 (a), the formation of a pan-Canadian education strategy including the “creation of an independent Canada Education and Training Transfer to ensure that there is dedicated funding for postsecondary education and training” (currently PSE funding comes from the Canada Social Transfer).
If a dedicated federal transfer were created for PSE, then the federal government would want to be able to monitor how such funding is used, especially given the accountability issues of the past. Sure enough, “encouragement” for tracking PSE dollars would be built in to the recommended system: “based on success in enhancing the accountability of a dedicated PSE Transfer account, the Federal government [should] consider increasing the Transfer funding using the 1994 levels as a target” (my emphasis).
While in Canada education is under provincial jurisdiction, this kind of arrangement could bring more clout to the federal government. If we consider what’s happening at the Tri-Councils right now, then the long-desired accountability seems to fit plausibly into a larger context of increasing government control over economic development through control over PSE.
Another implication from this report, relating to centralization of control, is that of standardization. The idea that the federal government and CMEC should work to provide more information for students, including about “the costs and benefits of obtaining a post-secondary diploma or degree”, seems to entail an increased expectation for universities’ self-monitoring and perhaps a movement towards some kind of national system of assessment. Indeed, one part of Recommendation 22 is “a standardized data collection and reporting mechanism for monitoring and evaluating progress toward the participation targets.” Also suggested is a national credit recognition program so that students could see their PSE credits recognized across provinces.
I do wonder why this report seems to have been “buried” in the media; I think it demands more attention given the scope and depth of the recommendations (the report runs to 114 pages with appendices) and their possible consequences for Canadian PSE. Perhaps nothing will come of it – after all, the Canadian Council on Learning made similar points in their final report, which were dismissed by some as the self-serving suggestions of an organization trying to justify its own existence. Are we seeing a re-hash of what the CCL had produced, now made more acceptable through the stamp of a Senate committee? Or are the policy points just too difficult to be dealt with at the national level? Time, perhaps – 180 days from the report, in fact – will tell.
Last week on February 7, a conference was held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE) on the subject of the new universities (or campuses) that have been proposed by the Ontario provincial government. The conference included speakers who discussed various issues relating to the creation of the new campuses, and there was also a particular focus on ideas put forth in the book written by Ian D. Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon, entitled Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario. Though unable to attend the conference in person, I was able to watch it live from home via OISE’s webcasting system; since I’ve been following this issue for a number of months, I thought I might share some comments.
As conference participants discussed, there are many possibilities for what new “teaching oriented universities” might look like. The question is, what’s the context of their creation and what actual forms and practices will emerge? What kinds of “campuses” will these be, and what logic will drive their governance? For example, will they be like the liberal arts colleges of the United States where prestigious faculty engage in teaching while also producing research? My guess is that the answer is “no”, because this would conflict with the need to save money by significantly increasing teaching assignments per professor, which — as it turns out — is the goal.
One thing I felt was a bit lacking at the conference was discussion of the fact that in the broader “academic economy” teaching is simply considered less prestigious than research, and that means a hierarchy of institutions is likely to emerge. In a differentiated system, universities will tend be different, but not “equal.” What will be the implications of this for the new universities, for the hiring of teaching staff (for example)? Will faculty hires see these institutions as less desirable stops on the road to a “real” university job at a research-oriented university? I believe one speaker, Tricia Seifert of OISE, did address this problem by suggesting (among other things) that we should do more during PhD education to privilege teaching and to build the prestige of pedagogical work in the academic profession.
A related point is that in Drs. Clark, Trick and Van Loon’s model, there seemed to be an assumption that teaching quality operates in a simplistically quantitative way (behaviourism never really goes away does it). A 4-4 teaching “load” (80% teaching, 10% research, 10% service) is not just about having the same number of students split up into smaller classes; juggling and planning for multiple classes is more work. As Rohan Maitzen pointed out on Twitter, teaching involves more than “just standing there” (many hours of preparation, for example).
To continue with the theme of prestige and the devaluing of teaching, what I noticed when I read the book excerpt is that the word “university” is going to be applied to the new institutions partly as a means of marketing them to squeamish students. The authors state explicitly that “every effort in Ontario to create a label that resides in between colleges and universities – such as “institute of technology,” “polytechnic university,” “university college” and the like – has failed to find acceptance and has led to requests for further changes.” Yet somehow “mission drift” — the tendency of universities to want to climb the ladder to a more research oriented status — must be prevented through government regulation and a strict mandate.
This is one reason why existing institutions may be disappointed if the think they will be sharing in the new expansion. What “new” means is not an extension of other campuses, nor a conversion of an institution of one kind into a different type (i.e. college into university); what’s desired is a “clean slate.” A likely goal is to save money by preventing the duplication of governance structures like unions and tenure, because these reduce “flexibility” and increase costs. This could lead to the 31% cost savings predicted by the authors, who nevertheless expect the new universities’ faculty salaries and benefits will remain competitive (my prediction is that salaries will be lower).
The purposes for building new teaching universities are not just pedagogical but also economic and political. Providing more access to postsecondary education is politically expedient and also matches the economic logic of the day, which is that building human capital for the knowledge economy can only occur through increased PSE acquisition. But as Harvey Weingarten pointed out at the OISE conference, campuses can’t be built unless there is government funding available for the purpose — and now we’re hearing that there isn’t any funding. I suspect that the release of the Drummond Report this week only confirms this, adding pressure to the process of imagining new teaching-intensive universities. It may now be even more difficult to ensure that pedagogical rather than just economic logic is what wins out.
Full disclosure: I’m currently helping with the campaign to re-elect Ted McMeekin (Liberal, Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale) and in the past I worked on a federal campaign (2008) for Gerard Kennedy, former Liberal MP for Parkdale-High Park.
Ontario’s provincial election is coming up on October 3rd and since postsecondary education (PSE) is provincial jurisdiction in Canada, I decided to take a look at the various PSE policies being proposed by the four major political parties.
For non-Canadian readers, a provincial election provides a glimpse at the politics of Canada’s two-tiered governance of education (which I discussed in this earlier blog post). Since education policy is the jurisdiction of the provinces, the provincial elections are most likely to generate debate about education issues.
In Ontario, the PSE system continues to suffer from certain chronic problems; cuts during the recession of the 1990s, at both federal and provincial levels, left a large funding gap. Tuition in Ontario is the highest in Canada, and this has brought criticism about rapid expansion of enrolments without corresponding increases to government funding. The political-economic situation has developed over a 20-year period in which three different parties have governed the province: the NDP led by Bob Rae, the Progressive Conservatives led by Mike Harris and then Ernie Eves, and the current Liberal government with Dalton McGuinty leading, elected in 2003. This is the context in which the following policy proposals are presented. I haven’t included all the details, but links to further information are provided.
Green Party of Ontario: The GPO platform, released last spring, promises a tuition freeze for 2012-2013 school year, indexation of further tuition increases to the rate of inflation from 2013-2015. Differentiated fee increases — those that differ by degree level and program — would be eliminated. They also plan to improve high-speed Internet access across Ontario, which could facilitate online learning.
New Democratic Party of Ontario: The NDP released the PSE element of their platform on September 15. The primary proposals are the elimination of interest from the Ontario portion of all OSAP loans, and a tuition freeze across the province for the next four years; this would cost $110 million in the first year. The operating funding lost by universities through the tuition freeze would be replaced by provincial government funding, though current tuition levels would not be rolled back. OSAP (Ontario student loans) would also be extended to part-time students based on need, and differentiated fee increases would end. The broad-based approach that targets fee increases has won praise from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).
Ontario Liberal Party: Released on September 5, the Liberal platform contains more than the usual amount of PSE-related content, probably because as the incumbents the OLP have had time to work out specific plans and programs. They’re building on an established trajectory that has included expansion of enrollments at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, gradual changes to the limits on student assistance, and capped tuition increases. If re-elected the Liberals would continue expansion with 60,000 new PSE spaces, for which colleges and universities will have to compete, and the construction of three new “satellite campuses” (in Brampton, Milton and Barrie) dedicated to undergraduate teaching only. But their main proposal is a 30% means-tested tuition “grant” for full-time undergraduate students from low- and middle-income families (those with combined parental income of under $160,000 per year) who also have dependent status. The OLP would also double the length of the bachelor of education program to two years, increase the student loan repayment “grace period” for students who take on jobs at non-profit organizations, and maintain the Ontario Student Opportunities Grant and yearly cap on OSAP debt amounts.
Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario: The PCPO released their platform in May 2011. Leader Tim Hudak has said that OSAP would be expanded to allow access to more “middle-class students”, i.e. that restrictions on eligibility for loans would be changed. This expansion would be funded by the elimination of the new Trillium Scholarships for doctoral students, which were designed to lure international talent to Ontario. Hudak called the program “unfair” and “out-of-touch.” One interesting thing about this approach is that it’s well out of line with what the federal Tories have done by creating newer, larger fellowships that are available to “elite” international students. The PCPO also plans to create “up to 60,000 new post-secondary spaces,” which is almost identical to the Liberals’ plan for continued expansion. Since they have made no comments about tuition, my guess is that tuition will continue to increase, and students would be more likely to require OSAP funds from the government.
Undergraduate accessibility is the focus for three of the four major parties in the Ontario election. The Liberal and NDP platforms, and to some extent that of the Green Party, are designed to address the up-front costs of postsecondary education through non-repayable student assistance, and to limit debt through changes to OSAP. A significant point of difference is that the Liberal approach could be described as “targeted” while the NDP policy aims to offer a smaller reduction to a larger number of students (i.e. non-needs-based reduction). A tuition freeze would affect all non-international university and college students, while the OLP grant would funnel larger amounts (bigger reductions) to fewer students by narrowing the criteria for eligibility. There are drawbacks and benefits to both approaches.
The same kinds of caveats apply to enrolment increases and satellite campuses. The new campuses proposed by the OLP could be seen as addressing the geographic aspect of accessibility by bridging the distance for students in areas further from larger central campuses, they also present the possibility of further stratification within the system given that teaching is not valued as much as research in academic careers. “Competition” between universities for new student spaces could exacerbate this effect.
Of course not all policy players agree that these proposals follow the appropriate logic. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates has criticized the Liberal plan as over-complicated and difficult to implement, while accusing the CFS of advocating “Tea Party” style policies (i.e. tuition freezes) that reduce costs for the most privileged students as well as the neediest. Usher seems to take the view that tuition increases don’t negatively affect accessibility because enrolment numbers have not decreased in Ontario, in spite of increased tuition. This is a narrow view of accessibility that takes into account only the number of students participating. I would argue that accessibility should include reducing high tuition and large debt burdens that disproportionately affect under-privileged students and create financial strain during their studies and in post-graduation life.
In any case, I think it’s positive that there is such a strong focus on PSE funding in this election and that three of the parties have produced platforms involving decreased costs for students; this is becoming more important given that more young people’s lives are being affected by these costs.
For academically ambitious Canadian university students, including those finishing their undergraduate degrees this year and those already in graduate school, September is grant application season.
Grant-writing is like the unpleasant medicine of graduate school. While the outcomes are beneficial in terms of professional development (and sometimes, funding), the process of application is painfully difficult and nerve-wracking for many students.
Though we’re fortunate that the funding is available at all, the competition for federal Tri-Council scholarships — those from SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR — is intense, and with increasing numbers of graduate students applying that situation is only likely to worsen. Particularly after a recession and a significant increase to enrolments, funding is tight. Financial pressures on grad students intensify the competitive nature of funding, as well as the need for students to distinguish themselves from their peers in the ever more difficult academic market.
If financial pressure and academic competition alone aren’t enough, the process of application can also feel like a course of bureaucratic hoop-jumping. I suffer from “bureaucratophobia”, and I always felt anxious having to order transcripts (from four different universities), getting the “ranking” forms and letters from referees, and making sure to correctly fill out every esoteric section of the actual applications, as well as sticking to the technical directions for producing the proposal. I remember being told at one point that I’d used the wrong colour pen.
Graduate students get stressed about grants in part because they tend to feel as if they have no control over the outcome of their application; most of the selection process is hidden from view. Our lack of insight into the process can make the outcome look like “luck”. But is that an accurate assessment?
For SSHRC grants, with which I have direct experience, the application is often worked on by students with their supervisors for more than a month before it’s due. But building a successful application is a process that actually starts much earlier, since the first “screening” mechanism is your GPA. Undergraduate grades, built up over years, are an important factor especially when applying for a Master’s grant.
You also need time to build relationships with the professors who’ll end up supporting your application by writing letters of reference. Some students now find it difficult to find referees from their undergraduate years, having had little or no contact with permanent faculty members.
The last thing to develop is your project proposal, in which you’re required to imagine and articulate a feasible piece of research that can be completed in the allowed period. Often there are no examples provided of successful grant proposals. Even when examples are available, you can’t see what the rest of that person’s application looked like, so you don’t have a clear sense of why they may have won.
After the application leaves your hands it’s passed to an internal audit committee at the program level, then to a faculty committee (often a faculty of graduate studies). The desired result is that it’s sent on from the university to the Tri-Council in Ottawa, where there’s a chance that funding will follow.
At the student’s end of things, much of this process is about waiting, in a great tense silence filled by the effort to “just forget about it” between submission in October and announcement of results sometime late in the second semester.
Graduate students fear that the grant assessment process is not meritocratic. When all applicants have A-averages, when every proposal is of high quality, how are decisions made? Of course politics — of individuals, departments, and universities — can make its way into decision-making that is supposed to be about “merit”. Perhaps your topic isn’t currently a major issue in the field, or you lose out because of the internal dynamics of a department or academic discipline. As an applicant, you have no way of knowing because no feedback is returned, only a result.
There may well be an element of sheer luck; certainly there’s a hefty helping of serendipity, which isn’t the same thing. More often there’s just a long-term plan, a lot of good mentoring, hard work, and the right topic or project at the right time.
I’m lucky in that my own tribulations with grant applications have come to an end. And I’m even more fortunate in that I won grants for my Master’s degree and for my PhD. I got to see the most positive result, though certainly the process was extremely stressful even with strong support I had from faculty mentors. Perhaps the experiences of many graduate students — anxiety and frustration with the process — point to the need for more specific explanations from the Tri-Council and more advice and support during grant applications.