Back to school: What is the media saying?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Nour Aoude, Media Officer, Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences

As Media Officer at the Federation, I monitor “back to school” media every September to get a snapshot of what dominates current debates and conversations in the postsecondary education (PSE) sector, and what some of the biggest priorities and challenges are moving forward. This extensive—but by no means exhaustive—round-up gives an idea of some of those current conversations.  

This year, there were clear messages about the enduring value of PSE. According to a Council of Ontario Universities survey, 94% of Ontario undergraduates landed jobs two years after graduating, the majority of which were in fields of study or closely related skills acquired at university. This includes graduates of the liberal arts who, according to York University professors Thomas Klassen and John Dwyer, have the skills needed for interesting and well-paying careers. On a similar note, University of Windsor president and vice-chancellor Alan Wildemen argued that the liberal arts are a great economic investment and are crucial in our multicultural, globalized world. Still, others with a more financial lens praised PSE generally but maintained there was a pay gap to consider between STEM and arts graduates.

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay “What Is the Point of College?” poignantly addressed the strife arising from these conflicting visions of university as a place to predominantly promote human betterment versus learn skills for employment. The value of university is neither solely financial nor spiritual, according to the author, because “the qualities of your skills and of your soul….are two separate questions that aren’t quite separable.”

Nonetheless, the positive indicators about the prospects of PSE graduates did not entirely dampen concern over the rising cost of postsecondary education and textbooks, especially in Ontario where average tuition is the highest in the country. Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador were the provinces with the lowest average tuition. Other articles pointed out the increased use of food banks on campuses as a worrying trend. The rise in tuition for international students from France studying in Québec has not, however, caused a decline in interest in this experience, according to UQAM.

Reconciliation and Aboriginal education have been in the spotlight too. Stephen Toope, President of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Science, argued in his Globe and Mail op-ed that reconciliation must include closing the graduation gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. Universities Canada’s “Principles on Indigenous Education” have been adopted by the University of Toronto and 96 other Canadian universities, while British Columbia has announced a $3.7 million investment to bolster access and success for postsecondary Aboriginal learners. In Saskatchewan, where Aboriginal enrolment is rising at the University of Saskatchewan, tailored orientation programs are helping to facilitate students’ journey in PSE alongside efforts to ensure that indigenous knowledge and experience are reflected in curricula.

Beyond reconciliation, it is heartening to see that PSE is one focal point of broader social and ethical conversations. As the global refugee crisis develops, Canadian scholars are among many being called upon by media and activists for their expert knowledge. The University of Alberta has announced an award to cover tuition and living costs for up to ten Syrian students, along with efforts from other institutions like Ryerson University and the University of Regina. Meanwhile, Jeff Rubin, University of Toronto alumnus, called on his alma mater for greater initiative in fossil fuel divestment, citing it as a “moral and fiduciary responsibility.” In Ontario, a different equity issue is in the spotlight as the shortage of French university programs is being challenged by the province’s minority Francophone community.

As always, the postsecondary sector is alive with concerns and challenges. As the year develops, I look forward to seeing the transformations ahead.