Ken Coates brought his reduce-enrolment agenda on the road, arguing in favour of the resolution that “too many Canadian kids are going to university” in a debate held in Ottawa April 29 by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. Arguing against the resolution was Lloyd Axworthy, former president of the University of Winnipeg and a former federal cabinet minister.
Dr. Coates, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovations at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, recently wrote a report for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives which argued, among other things, that university enrolment should be cut by up to 30 percent. Dr. Coates reiterated that proposal during the debate with Dr. Axworthy.
The recent report by Dr. Coates also suggested that more focus should be directed towards colleges and polytechnics. He did not repeat that argument, per se, during the debate, but that message was implied in his remarks.
The National Post, the morning after the debate, published versions of the opening arguments delivered by Drs. Coates and Axworthy the previous evening. The published versions from Dr. Coates and Dr. Axworthy are not quite verbatim transcripts of what each said, but I’ll quote from these as faithful, albeit truncated, renditions of what they presented.
Dr. Coates opened by saying he is “a fervent advocate for university education for those students with the ability, the appropriate level of preparation, the motivation and curiosity needed for academic success. Conversely, I do not favour encouraging students to attend university if they lack these traits. Doing well at university is difficult. It requires real grit and determination and an advanced level of skill. Pretending otherwise diminishes the degree or, even worse, forces institutions into watering down the quality of the education provided to keep students in their programs.”
Heading off to university ill-prepared and without the right level of commitment is a recipe for disappointment, with potentially serious emotional and financial costs, he said. “I always wonder why so little attention is given to the personal impact of failure on the many students who are forced to abandon their studies for academic reasons.” What’s more, he said, “allowing students who are ill-prepared for a university education into our institutions weakens the experience for the stronger students and for faculty members.”
Dr. Axworthy argued that not only does he not support the resolution that fewer students should be going to university, he believes the opposite: “We should be affirming the right and need for Canada to offer opportunity and access to any of its citizens to have the choice to attend university.” Speaking, he said, from his experience as president of an urban university, he watched with “awe and admiration as those considered as marginal or beyond the orbit of higher education blossomed into good students with an appetite to achieve.”
In the more free-flowing give-and-take that followed the scripted opening statements, Dr. Axworthy said: “If we reduce enrolment by 30 percent, Dr. Coates says the universities will get better – sure, they’re going to get better for a privileged elite in this country.” That’s because many of those who would be excluded are the socioeconomically disadvantaged, he said. “That’s a really dangerous trap, to start determining people’s future before they even have a chance to prove themselves.”
He continued: “Everybody deserves a chance, a choice, an opportunity. I think if all of a sudden we’re talking about substantially reducing enrolment, all we’re talking about is going back to an Ivory Tower that serves privileged young people and begins to ignore … the enormous creative energy of this diverse country.”
In rebuttal, Dr. Coates agreed that “universities are a place of privilege. People of high income are more likely to have their kids go to university, they are more likely to succeed, more likely to get good jobs and have high incomes because of parental advantage. We have to focus way more on undermining that. And I think letting everybody in is the least successful way of doing that. Focus on the ones who can succeed.”
The report by Dr. Coates for the CCCE has received much criticism, including from Andrew Parkin, former director general of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. Dr. Parkin, in an opinion article for Academica Group, said that “Canada does not look at all like a country that has over-emphasized university education to the detriment of colleges.” (Canada ranks only 17th in the OECD in terms of the proportion of young adults with a university degree, at 32 percent.)
Dr. Parkin also argued, and the point was reiterated by Dr. Axworthy during the debate, that if there is any group in Canadian society that is “too large” in the context of today’s knowledge intensive economy, it is the nearly one-third of young Canadian adults who either never finish high school or never pursue any form of postsecondary education.
Dr. Coates’s report touched on many more issues other than enrolment. In his “One Thought” blog, Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates gave a more detailed, point-by-point rebuttal of Dr. Coates’s arguments.
But some clearly find Dr. Coates persuasive. Before the debate, the moderator – former speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken – asked the audience who was in favour, and who was against, the resolution to cut enrolment. The response, by a show of hands, was about 50-50. However, after the debate, again by a show of hands, Mr. Milliken declared that it appeared those in favour outnumbered those opposed. What side are you on?