This past Tuesday afternoon I participated in another panel (‘tis the season!) about higher education, this time at the University of Toronto. The panel was part of a pre-conference event for the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, addressing how the “pragmatic agenda” is represented in media coverage of higher education. According to the event description, this agenda includes a focus on issues such as privatization of costs (and tuition fees), technological solutions to systemic problems, the “completion agenda” and job training, and emphasis on the value of STEM disciplines alongside critiques of the liberal arts. The other participants on the panel were Janice Gross Stein, Clifford Orwin, and Scott Jaschik, and the moderator was Rick Salutin. The keynote talk was given by journalist Tony Burman, formerly of Al Jazeera.
I’ve been looking forward to Worldviews because media coverage of higher education is an area in which I’ve had an interest for some time. I think this is at least in part because my undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies with a focus on mass media and linguistics. In my MA thesis I analysed university PR, and since I started my PhD I’ve done several projects involving media coverage of university-related issues such as the York University strike in 2008-2009, and the CERC announcements in 2010, and written a few blog posts on the theme of media and academe. Aside from my interest in these issues, I also attended the last Worldviews conference and thought it was an unusually interesting mix of attendees (primarily from the media and from academe, and international in scope).
Before the event, we discussed the panel format and Mr. Salutin proposed a question in advance: “what are your frustrations and criticisms regarding media treatments of the pragmatic agenda in higher education?” The response I gave to this was that, probably because I research this area, I find oftentimes complex issues are simplified in media articles in ways that more clearly support one argument or another that is associated with some particular agenda. The way a problem is framed tends to point to a particular solution. Since so many problems seem to be framed primarily in economic terms, there is a certain reductionist logic that recurs in the discussions.
The example I raised was that of the media coverage on MOOCs. I’ve written a piece about this phenomenon already, and I’ve also been following the ongoing coverage from a variety of sources since it first exploded last year. During the panel discussion I found that while I wanted to use MOOCs as an example of media discourse, the debate drifted to the pros and cons of MOOCs and not to the way that they are talked about and positioned within existing political, economic, and institutional contexts and discourses. I think if we focus in on that positioning, there are clear connections to the most salient post-secondary “crises” of the day. This is part of why MOOCs in the abstract have become a kind of popular trope for educational change, if not in mainstream Canadian media, then certainly in the higher ed news and in a number of U.S. media sources. For example (pardon the scare quotes):
- Emphasis on curing a problem of “scale” through technological intervention, which is presented (inaccurately) as a form of genuine accessibility;
- Focus on “outcomes” rather than (educational) processes;
- Metaphors of “delivery” and “production” that point to the objectification and commodification of knowledge and learning;
- The assumption that what the university does can and should be “unbundled” for “efficiency” and “flexibility”;
- “Value” is defined in a specific way, i.e. economically;
- “Quality” is envisioned on market terms, e.g. “elite” professors (who efficiently deliver educational “content” to tens of thousands of students);
- Concomitant critiques of faculty mediocrity, particularly in terms of teaching, placed in relation to rising tuition fees;
- Framing of higher education “crisis” and necessary radical, institutional change with metaphors of inevitability such as “avalanche”, “tsunami”, “storm” and “wave”, all of which invoke natural disasters over which people have no control, and to which they must “respond” quickly and appropriately.
Further to the MOOCs example, we can also look at the amount of “debate” driven by big name players in (ed-) tech and publishing right now, and how the agendas there can play in to the fragmentation and privatization of higher education. This rhetoric supports the strategy of commercializing and commodifying education for a larger, international “market”. In addition there have been a number of articles in the mainstream press by “thought leaders” such as Clay Shirky and Thomas Friedman, that demonstrate false analogies and hyperbolic assumptions that fit with much of what I’ve described above.
Thankfully, raising this example didn’t totally derail the rest of the discussion, though overall the panel did make me wish I had the time right now to do more research on media coverage, particularly the “link bait” pieces that seem to be popping up with more regularity these days (such as the recent “don’t do a PhD” article in Slate, and last year’s Forbes article describing faculty work as relaxing). These provide us with another example of how important issues can be hijacked in the name of raising an angry response that generates pageviews – in other words, the changing political economy of the media interacts with the context of higher education and influences how it’s talked about and understood. I think that’s a good reason for us to pay attention to that relationship and to the kinds of talk it produces.
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.
To start out this shiny new year, we’ve already seen another example of something that has happened several times over the past 12 months: the Higher Ed News Fiasco. This time we can thank Forbes Magazine, specifically Susan Adams, for presenting us with an article about the “least stressful jobs” in the United States in which “university professor” is top of the list.
I have no interest in countering the Forbes article, since so many others have already covered that ground effectively. But I do think the mistakes made were indicative of a lot of the misperceptions that non-academic publics have about how universities work, which are being amplified in the echo-chamber of mass media. For example, Adams falls into the trap of assuming that professors have essentially the same job as public school teachers: “unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year”.
Of course this is nonsense. Anyone who has the summer off at this point is either close to the end of their career, or unemployed. But this is for some reason a common conflation. Looking back to last March, David C. Levy wrote a column for the Washington Post in which the same “point” Adams makes in Forbes–that “even when school is in session [professors] don’t spend too many hours in the classroom”–is used to argue that faculty simply don’t work hard enough. So the faculty job is reduced to teaching, or rather, to the time spent teaching in a classroom. But this is part of what Dr Isis calls the “lazy professor trope”, a theme that has recurred in media coverage and also in pop culture representations of university faculty.
A third example of ridiculously bad coverage comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education. In May 2012, a blog post by Naomi Schaefer Riley was published on the CHE site, and in this post she argued that Black Studies departments should be eliminated (the post was extremely insulting about young scholars working in that research area). Schaefer Riley was soon fired from CHE, though she was later given the opportunity to condemn the academic “mob” in a follow-up article for the Wall Street Journal–in which she consistently spells Tressie McMillan Cottom’s name incorrectly. Of course, coming from the Chronicle this kind of thing is doubly egregious, since higher education itself is the focus of their publication.
So, how does it happen that major, respected news sources can produce this sort of fluff and present it in all seriousness as “journalism”? What exactly is the process that gave rise to this kind of reporting on an issue that has become so much more visible politically? After all, it’s not like the information wasn’t available for Adams, if she’d chosen to go looking.
It’s possible that these writers were simply more committed to a particular position than to fact-checking. It’s also possible that some publications want a poke at the anthill, in the hopes of stirring things up and generating attention for their own higher ed coverage. Both Forbes and the Chronicle published follow-up articles that refuted the initial posts. This strategy covers two bases: it makes the publication look as if it’s amending its errors by posting “correctives” or the “other side” of the story, and it also brings even more attention to the original issue (and post), thus generating yet more pageviews and more responses, and so on. It’s disingenuous but very effective.
While we shouldn’t be surprised to see mainstream for-profit media outlets using strategic sensationalism, we do need to hold them responsible for the incredibly poor quality of some of the information they’re providing. This is a problem for the author as well as Forbes, because if you have a platform, i.e. a major national publication, then you also have a responsibility to your audience; and if you’re publishing articles to a significant audience, you should be employing some form of quality control.
The real scenario would have been sensational enough. In another simple but staggeringly irresponsible statement, Adams misses one of the biggest issues in U.S. higher ed today: “Universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professors by 2020” (emphasis added). This conflation of both the tenure-track and adjunct positions is a crucial error that elides the key issue, the radical decline of tenured profs as a proportion of the US academic workforce. The adjunct workforce was one of the hot topics at this year’s MLA conference, which was also occurring in early January. In fact it must have taken actual effort to ignore the wealth of information available on the subject of faculty careers and the problems faced by the academic workforce (not just in the U.S., either).
Why does this matter? I believe, as I’ve argued before, that media representations have effects on people’s perceptions and that this has political implications. That’s why those of us working in universities should be making an effort (where possible) to contribute to media coverage and public debates about post-secondary education. This isn’t about being “defensive”; often, there are “missing issues”, gaps, and arguments made that don’t seem to fit our first-hand experiences and knowledge of universities and how they work. And while there are restrictions on mainstream media articles that make writing them more of a challenge–for example, limited space and the need to translate complex issues for a larger audience–I still think we should be trying to fill in those gaps if and where we can.
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.
By now, many of you may have seen or heard about the (infamous) Washington Post column of March 23 in which author David C. Levy argued that most professors should teach more because currently, they don’t put in enough work hours.
Those of you working in universities already know that there’s a significant leap in logic required to get from “professors are not efficient enough” (they don’t provide us “value for money”) to “professors should teach more”.
“What about the other work academics do?” might be the first question that occurs. Indeed, partway through Levy’s article research work falls off the agenda, becoming part of the spare (wasted!) hours that academics spend not teaching. Administration or “service” work doesn’t count. And as for the hours spent preparing classes, this is an argument swiftly dismissed by Levy, who maintains that “the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth”. I’d argue that Levy’s “30-week academic year” is the myth we should be dismissing.
The “big picture” for this column is illustrated early on in Levy’s argument: he’s framing the “inefficiency” of professors against the rising costs of education, particularly to students and families through high tuition fees, which have led to increased debt burdens. This high cost is positioned alongside the individual economic necessity of having a post-secondary credential, as expressed by the highest levels of political authority (President Obama) through policy programs and endorsements.
The response to this column was immediate and generally very negative, on Twitter and also in many of the comments on the blog (and in quite a few longer written responses; here, and here, including one by Paul Krugman of the New York Times). There was even one post arguing that managerial logic of efficiency simply wasn’t being applied in the right way by Levy in his opinion piece.
For some time now I’ve been paying attention to the way universities and academic work are depicted in the media. During my undergraduate degree I became interested in discourse analysis and the political economy of media, and the politics and policies affecting education. Looking at the media coverage of education debates has been a natural extension of those interests (in fact, I’ll be presenting on this subject at this year’s Canadian Communication Association conference). Over time I’ve written multiple blog posts and essays about media coverage of universities, and media analysis is also a part of my dissertation.
I think that’s why I find myself disappointed but unsurprised by the kind of shallow parody provided by Levy’s column, mostly because I follow the higher education news and I see a lot of pretty frustrating stuff being passed off as serious/informed analysis. I understand if that sounds high-handed, but I think most professors, for example, could provide better commentary and/or analysis than David C. Levy – and would probably be responsible enough to do so (as several of them have done already).
But most people working in PSE aren’t really contributing to the larger discussion in a visible way. When the arguments are informing public conversation and political debate, we need to pay attention to, and provide a response for, what’s being said. I think the often shallow and ideologically polarized (and polarizing) media coverage about higher education shows us that facts will not be enough to make our argument heard; there are so many contextual factors working against us that we need more.
As one retort not only to the Levy article but to all the simplistic and reductionist coverage of PSE issues, Lee Skallerup Bessette proposed a “DayofHigherEd” for today, Monday April 2nd, 2012. All academics – including those off the tenure track – are encouraged to blog, tweet, comment and generally communicate to “outside” audiences about the work they do during an academic day (Twitter hashtag: #DayOfHigherEd).
As part of my contribution on Twitter today, I’ve set up a series of timed tweets of my past blog posts relating to relevant PSE issues. We need to relate the misconception that “most professors don’t work hard enough” (and other stereotypes) to larger issues in PSE, and I think “Day of Higher Ed” could be a great way for us to start opening up that discussion.
This weekend I was working on an essay about graduate education and decided to look up a few key statistics to add to my argument, hoping I could strengthen my point using numbers as well as words.
Little did I know what I was in for. While I’ve searched for statistics many times (not always with success), I thought I’d be able to find what I was looking for this time around. But the numbers I wanted turned out to be frustratingly elusive. I was looking for three things: the attrition rate (on average) from Canadian PhD programs; the proportion of PhD graduates who land tenure-track jobs (either immediately or within, say, five years); and the proportion of Canadian university teaching staff who have non-permanent (contract) and/or part-time positions.
While those numbers probably won’t tell a happy story, I was surprised to have so much trouble finding them. I didn’t even make it to the attrition statistic yet, because the other two took up so much time; from what I observed, attrition is not a focus in spite of the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) pointing out that higher enrollment has not translated into increased numbers of PhD graduates. That’s one example of how the main focus seems to be on enrollment and graduation — what went “right” — as opposed to attrition, which is considered “failure.”
The second example, that of PhDs who find tenure-track work, should have been a cinch given the heightened concern with this issue among graduate students and faculty. I had trouble believing that no-one had produced a study about this, but sure enough, there was nothing straightforward available. How this crucial research could be missing in action is something of a mystery (this was the closest thing I found so far).
Lastly, the proportion of non-tenured faculty is an important number to track in a context where academic hiring trends have been shifting for some time, and these directly affect PhD students and graduates. After a frustrating search through graduate survey results and through research reports produced by a number of different organizations, I finally turned up one Statistics Canada article that compared employment in the teaching profession between 1999 and 2005, based on data from the Labour Force Survey. There seemed to be nothing that was more recent and comprehensive, and almost all the numbers I found relating to academic hiring were focused on full-time faculty (or on one institution only).
During this process I noticed that the graduate student surveys seemed to provide a very thin snapshot — rather a grainy black-and-white photocopy — of results. Asking whether students are “satisfied” with their PhD program experiences (as the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey does) seems like a rather limited way of discovering what’s going on in graduate education, considering the issues involved. The SED seems to have ended with a data set from 2007-2008; its results have been used alongside the Canadian Graduates Survey (CGS) to produce a picture of PhD career outcomes, but once again this is a surprisingly foggy image. Graduates planning to work in the “education services industry” are classified into one large group — no mention of full time, part time, university or college, permanent or contract.
This is not to say that I wouldn’t like access to qualitative research on these issues, too. I think well-designed surveys produce information that is a good start, but we also need to develop qualitative investigations to find the stories behind those numbers. For example, the SED shows up the trend that mainly young, single men in the life sciences and other STEM areas tend to be those who leave Canada after the PhD for further training and job opportunities in other countries. This tells us about the effects of gender, life circumstances, and area of research on the career paths of PhD graduates. Also worth noting is the significant amount of attention given (in the survey results) to migration of PhD graduates; this relates to the concern for building national “human capital.”
It’s disturbing to me that even given the expansion PhD enrollments, and the emphasis placed on graduate education and its role in the economy, so little information seems to be available about what is happening to PhD students and graduates. There’s also a larger point to my complaint about having a hard time finding these numbers. Statistics are a political issue. Though they can be superficial, they’re still better than nothing and they can highlight important trends. This is why it’s disturbing that the current Canadian government does not seem to place much faith in research (funding has been cut from other important surveys as well). I think we have to ask, if this is happening in education research, where else is it happening?
On Friday, Feb. 24, on the heels of much recent debate about post-secondary education policy in Ontario, TVO’s “The Agenda” aired a discussion about the “purpose of the university.”
I found myself frustrated at the set-up for the show, and by the discussion that came out of it; and I want to discuss that frustration because TV shows like this one are part of the ongoing public debate — often occurring in the media — about how universities work, what they should be doing, and for whom.
Firstly, the guests certainly didn’t represent a spectrum of viewpoints that seemed relevant to the issue in the Ontario context. Two of those included on the panel were in the United States, and all the panel members were administrators representing what looks like a narrow demographic slice — there was no-one under 50 years old. Notably in a debate about undergraduate and graduate education in the present and future, there were also no students or recent graduates invited to comment, and no faculty members, only administrators (including University of Toronto’s provost Cheryl Misak, Council of Ontario Universities president and CEO Bonnie Patterson, and McMaster University’s president, Patrick Deane).
Another problem with the panel was a lack of coherent policy perspective, which could have been provided by inviting one of the many strong PSE scholars who reside in Ontario (for example, one of those who spoke at the recent OISE conference on the subject). If U.S. viewpoints are present, why not ask a U.S. researcher of higher education to comment? This exclusion seems odd, given the number of people who could have spoken about the issue. Were any of them invited to participate?
This set-up is important because it helps to explain the discussion that followed, in which there was no mention of the contentious debate about teaching universities in Ontario, or of the Drummond Report, or of the still-unreleased (but leaked) “3x3” paper from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, all of which have been reported on recently by major media sources in Ontario.
Much of the discussion involved the key underlying theme of the value of university education and how this value could and should be best maximized and translated into benefits for individuals and for the larger society. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this central issue is what drives much of the media coverage about universities. In this case it manifested as a focus on whether most students should have a general “liberal arts” education, or more “narrow” professional education that is designed to “train” them for specific kinds of work.
In spite of the economic themes that dominated, a real debate about debt was one of the gaping holes in this discussion of the “value” of university education (only one of the participants raised the issue and it was not taken up). There was little mention of workforce or demographic changes and their implications for young people; the increasing pressure on them in the form of tuition and loans; and the academic job market and its effects on graduate education (other than the provocative question of whether there are “too many PhDs”). This seems even more surprising if we consider the influence of financial factors in students’ decisions to pursue either professional/specialized or general education. Does nothing lie between those two extremes? How are students negotiating this situation?
“The Agenda” host Steve Paiken was definitely going for provocative points, raising the infamous Economist article that questions the value of PhDs, for example, and repeatedly returning to the theme of “value for money” as a concern for universities’ “stakeholders”. Swinging from the very general to the very specific, there was also a discussion of the metrics of university “outcomes”, with assurances that such instruments are under development (but with little question of whether this just reinforces deeper assumptions about education governance, economics, and the quantification of intangible externalities).
A debate about “the university” in general definitely has its place, but for an Ontario audience it would have been more interesting and relevant to frame things in terms of the current issues being raised here and now. I felt the discussion really failed to link larger theoretical problems, like the one about liberal education that kept re-surfacing, with specific and significant changes being proposed to the Ontario system and being debated now by politicians and academics, students and journalists. With different participants and structure I think it would have been much easier for that kind of discussion to happen, since the connections are important and they’re there, waiting to be made.