If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may have noticed that periodically I write posts critiquing how the media cover higher education, sometimes dissecting a particular piece in detail (that’s my media studies background coming into play). Today’s post is another in the series, and this time around I’m taking a closer look at a recent column from the Ottawa Citizen about the differences between postsecondary education in the United States and Canada.
My interest was piqued when I saw the initial premise of the article, since it seemed to be making a crucial point: Canada and the United States are quite different, and thus a meaningful comparison of education issues in the two countries requires some context-setting and explanation of those differences. The author, philosophy professor Joseph Heath, criticises the “lazy habits” of Canadian journalists who assume that “whenever anything bad is happening in the United States, it must also be happening in Canada, and so there’s no need to actually go and check.”
It turns out the main prompt for this piece was “the recent uptick in concern over the tyranny of ‘political correctness’ in our universities,” including “a number of recent accounts coming from the U.S. of traumatized professors, explaining how they’ve become terrified of their students [and] of administrators rolling over and playing dead, afraid to offend students’ increasingly delicate sensibilities.” According to Heath these students’ behaviours reveal a sense of entitlement that’s fed by a consumerist view of education, which in turn is a symptom of high tuition fees. Once again no examples are provided, so I’ll direct you to the case of Northwestern University prof Laura Kipnis, and to this article (Heath doesn’t offer any example of Canadian “concern” other than Rex Murphy, who doesn’t really count).
This is an odd choice of issue when illustrating the differences between the U.S. and Canada, to be sure. But the article really starts to veer off track when Heath tries to explain all this in more detail.
To start, Heath claims that “Canadian universities are in the business of mass education” while “fancy” U.S. universities are not—because the University of Toronto educates more students than all the Ivy League schools combined. But there’s no reason to focus only on “top” universities when by definition they don’t represent the whole system; and while it may be true that the U.S. Ivies are much smaller than U of T or UBC, they are also more–elite institutions. They’re private non-profit universities with small student populations, proportionally large graduate student enrolments, and hefty endowments (Harvard’s is currently over $35 billion). Nothing really comparable exists in Canada. Meanwhile most university education in the United States happens outside the Ivy League institutions, so it’s not clear why the latter are the chosen examples.
Next Heath claims that because U.S. universities (again, only the “fancy” ones) charge so much tuition, they’re beholden to students and parents and must respond to student complaints—unlike at U of T, where students pay low tuition and can be safely ignored. Still sticking with the Ivy League, Heath argues: “offend a student, you get a call from the parents. The same parents you’re milking for over US$60,000 per year.” Yes, in the U.S. tuition fees tend to be much higher than in Canada; and that’s not just something confined to the Ivies. Small but prestigious private liberal arts colleges, for example, regularly beat out Harvard and Yale on the list of most expensive universities to attend. But again, we have to ask why the comparison between the U.S. and Canada is limited to these expensive institutions that educate only a small proportion of U.S. students.
While I agree that student consumerism is an important issue, the point is not well made here. And its counterpart, according to Heath, is a total lack of accountability in Canadian institutions: “if you fail a few classes in Canada, nobody will be calling to check on you” because supposedly the universities don’t have to care about retention. U.S. institutions on the other hand are depicted as paternalistic, “[pandering] more to students” because they’re driven to ensure “customers” stay enrolled. It seems there’s something in this argument to annoy everyone, particularly the assumption that staff would only care about student success if it affected the bottom line.
In fact to Heath, Canada’s “public mega-universities” are “pretty much completely insulated from ‘customer complaints.’” This conclusion is based on his personal experience of having had “no blowback.” But what about the adjunct professor at Queen’s University who received plenty of “blowback” about her course material when students objected to her teaching anti-vax theories? Students certainly raised their voices then. What about the York University student who misunderstood a prof’s example in class, took his words out of context and made immediate complaints? The Canadian examples may be fewer and further between (Canada has a smaller population after all), but they do happen.
Lastly, Heath offers an analysis of the differences between campus political climates in the United States and Canada. He argues that because they’ve been shut out of the political system, “left-wing students and faculty in the U.S. have practically no outlet for their political energies or frustrations” (other than on campus). I can’t speak for colleagues south of the border, but to me this sounds absurdly simplistic. Perhaps Heath has been reading in the U.S. higher ed news the many column inches devoted to the idea of the dominance of “liberal” (left-leaning) faculty in U.S. universities—though it’s certainly not only left-wing students and faculty raising a ruckus on campus.
Following this logic—and taking Québec as a stand-in for the whole country—Heath asks, “if you’re an undergraduate in Canada, why fuss around with campus politics, when you can run for parliament?” Never mind the thousands of students across the country (not only in Québec!) who engage in activism and political organizing, both on- and off-campus, some of it through party-affiliated organizations but much of it through student unions and other cause-based collaborations. Or perhaps these would be dismissed as “the usual low-level scuffles between left-wing and right-wing student groups.”
Heath has called journalists “lazy” but has himself fallen into a trap where the U.S. media are regularly ensnared: he focusses on the Ivies only rather than looking at (or even mentioning) the diversity of the whole higher-ed picture, and offers no justification for the narrowness of the comparison. But this is part of a bigger problem, also a regular one in higher-ed media coverage: that of extrapolating from one example (including from personal experience) as if it’s the template for how higher-ed happens generally.
What’s my point in dissecting this piece in such detail? It’s partly to show how much can go awry in one short column that reaches a fairly broad audience; but this is also a chance to highlight some significant differences between the U.S. and Canada that are not often enough discussed outside of academic and policy circles. A few examples I’d include: the higher rate of unionization and higher salaries for contract faculty; the much slower pace of marketization; the relative stability of tenure; the lack of differentiation; a much less extreme hierarchy of “have/have not” universities; and the very small proportion of private universities. In fact, Canada’s universities have been described as relatively homogeneous, a situation that is decried by the U15 group on a fairly regular basis.
Lastly, Canada’s lack of a national department or ministry of education is unusual and should warrant at least some discussion, given the effect it has on the nation’s policy landscape. All the differences I’ve listed are relevant to conversations happening in the U.S. (regarding tenure, adjuncts, privatization, tuition fees and so on), much more so than the issue of whether or not students here are too “politically correct.” With so much to discuss, it’s about time we saw more informed public commentary about what Canada looks like in comparison to the rest of the world; it might be helpful and provide some perspective for everyone.