Re:education: Mapping Canada's 21st Century University System

Friday, October 26, 2012

On October 6, The Globe and Mail introduced Re:education in their Our Time to Lead series, which looked at everything from digital learning to debt loads. One of the highlights in our minds was the article by James Bradshaw, published on October 13, which examined the value of a broad education in today’s society. It picked up on something we also find noteworthy: rapidly expanding economies and education systems, ones that have previously focussed tremendous attention on science and technology, are turning to Canada for advice on liberal arts curriculum citing poor overall career performance and lack of leadership opportunities for even their best engineering or science graduates.

What was unfortunate was one of the final notes of the series. In her latest critique of Canadian universities and disparagement of academics, Margaret Wente offered readers a series of false choices: pitting access against quality; teaching versus research; the humanities and basic sciences against applied science and technology; what professors want to teach versus what students want to know. She suggested creating a dual university system that separates research from teaching, and focussing the teaching enterprise on getting students jobs.

Fortunately, the real world is not just black and white. Is it really a negative that PSE participation rates are at an all-time high, that more than a million Canadians are now enrolled as undergraduates? Is it possible that the majority of these students have opted to study something other than a profession or a trade because for them, going to university is partly about the experience of getting an education, of having the opportunity to explore and discover where their interests and talents really lie?

She is right that students are keenly interested about their job and income prospects after graduation. And it’s true that a university graduate with a professional degree will likely start off with a higher salary than graduates from other disciplines. But what happens when we project forward beyond that initial point of entry to the job market and look at earnings over a career? Studies clearly demonstrate that the earnings potential of social science and humanities graduates rapidly takes off a few years after graduation. But even more telling is that, according to AUCC, the lifetime income advantage for a bachelor’s graduate over a high school education is more than $1 million.

There is a lot that can be done to further improve higher education in Canada, including better leveraging the research-teaching advantage, and promoting access to learning while maintaining and improving quality. But the last thing we need is to embrace the California example as Ms Wente seemed to suggest. Once a model of public higher education in North America, the state university system is in free fall now. Cuts of more than $1.6 billion in the past decade have undermined both access and quality, damaged teaching and research, and tarnished the experience of higher education for students and faculty alike.

Fortunately, we can make other choices in Canada, better choices, more informed choices which enhance both quality and access.