Back to school 2019 - What is the media saying?

Friday, September 13, 2019

Lily Polowin, Communications Coordinator, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Since I started working for the Federation on May 31 (the first day of Congress 2019), I’ve been doing all I can to get up to date on the conversations the media is having about post-secondary education in Canada. With the rhythms of a new semester starting up, here is a summary of what makes back to school 2019 unique. Happy reading!

Equity and representation in academia are top of mind for many this back-to-school season. The Canada Research Chairs program recently updated its equity measures with more ambitious targets that will aim to represent traditionally marginalized groups proportionally to their presence in the general population rather than to a specific hiring pool. Equity experts such as Malinda Smith point out that the argument that diversity is antithetical to excellence relies on nothing more than a negative stereotype. The new targets will use an intersectional lens and disaggregated data to capture specific needs.

The prevalence of this conversation is not limited to the humanities and social sciences. Some medical schools in Canada, such as that of the University of Manitoba, have added a new section to their application that aims to capture the extent to which prospective students’ socioeconomic background may have disadvantaged them on the application form. The new application format aims to correct the inequality by assigning a numerical value to specific answers. The results at U of M appear successful so far: in a recent graduating class, more than half of graduates were women, 10 per cent were Indigenous, 20 per cent were from rural areas and 50 per cent were from families with an income of less than $75,000. At Queen’s University, a new course has been introduced to teach first year medical students about the school’s former ban on Black students. Queen’s recently apologized for the ban that was enforced from just after veterans returned from World War I all the way until 1965. The course, aptly named “Who gets to be a doctor?,” will ensure that all incoming medical students are aware of the school’s history of racial discrimination. Meanwhile, the Lord Dalhousie Scholarly Panel on Slavery and Race at Dalhousie University has just released its Report on Lord Dalhousie's History on Race on Slavery. It is the first time a Canadian university has examined its history with regard to slavery and race, and the report recommends actions Dalhousie can take in response.

Thirty-one post-secondary leaders from across the country spent time in three Yukon cities at the “Perspectives on Reconciliation” institute in August to learn ways of incorporating Indigenous knowledge and history into their institutions. Some key suggestions were to re-examine policies that may create barriers for Indigenous students, to encourage Indigenization in the senior ranks, and to increase the number of Indigenous students and faculty. Some universities already seem to be on the right track. Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops has an award-winning program called Knowledge Makers, which encourages research by Indigenous students using Indigenous methodologies. The program has had more than 65 students since 2015 and has separate streams for undergraduate and graduate studies.

As the federal election nears, students are mobilizing to make their concerns known. Forty-six student unions across the country are joining forces to release an open letter to the federal political parties asking them to consider their concerns, some of which are increased support for Indigenous students, elimination of interest on student loans, programs to help students integrate into the workforce, and more. Student concerns are especially poignant in Ontario, where recent cuts to OSAP funding are forcing some to sit out the year. Since the Ford government’s new initiative to allow students to choose which ancillary fees they pay took effect, student groups that rely on these fees to operate are campaigning to persuade their fellow classmates to support them. Indeed, it seems it’s not an easy time to be a student; the number of post-secondary students seeking mental health support in 13 institutions increased by 35 per cent between 2011 and 2015, and some universities are increasing their investments in free mental health services in an attempt to keep up with the demand. 

In Quebec, some are calling for mandatory training for CEGEP teachers, arguing that simply earning a bachelor or master’s degree in one’s subject matter does not provide graduates with the pedagogical skills needed to be a good teacher. The new Bill 21 is coming into effect this season, meaning that despite a shortage of public school teachers, the government’s policies are turning away capable candidates because of their choice to wear head coverings. On the positive side, there is some great news for Franco-Ontarians: the Ontario and federal governments recently signed a long-awaited agreement that will commit both to fund the creation of the first francophone university in Ontario: l’Université de l’Ontario français.

International students arriving at Pearson airport this year will be met by staff from Destination Ontario who were in their shoes not long ago. Some lucky students will be participating in homestay programs that give them a rich cultural exchange. Meanwhile, international students in Manitoba are organizing to pressure the future provincial government to reinstate the international health care coverage that was cut in 2018. Another body providing aid for international education is WUSC, which offers up to 130 places to refugee students every year. Unlike many other immigration procedures, this program gives the students an automatic permanent residency, allowing them the chance to establish themselves in Canada once their studies are done. On the federal side, the Trudeau government has a new plan to diversify the international student population coming to Canada beyond India and China, and it wants to encourage these students to move to smaller Canadian cities.

Some academics are joining a movement to limit their air travel to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including Ryan Katz-Rosene, President of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada (a Federation member). A recent study found that professors at Université de Montréal travel an average of 33,000 km per year for their research. With air travel being one of the fastest growing sources of C02, the flight shame movement is growing. 

Two new programs at Western University are educating graduate students and employers alike on how to bridge the gap between school and work. A big part of that gap is learning how to explain core competencies in plain language – which is a good thing because motivation, adaptability and other “soft skills” are often what can make or break a job candidacy, even when technical skills are involved. Considering your own collaboration style can help you articulate your post-academic career goals.

Ultimately, the fight for equity and representation would not be happening if opportunities and outcomes really were equally available to all. Here’s hoping that the prevalence of these topics in the media this year indicate we are stepping towards a future where the cycle of privilege determining success -- in both visible and invisible ways-- can be broken.


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