The other main event of my most recent trip to London (besides my conversation with Raffi) was the second Green Party of Canada Policy Conference in the ongoing “Green Plus” series, this one on post secondary education, held at the University of Western Ontario. I won’t go into as much detail about this policy conference as I did about the first one. That is to say, this post will be not quite as long as a novella.
Instead of segmenting my summary by speaker, I’ve decided to do it more by topic. This is largely because of the degree to which the speakers agreed with each other, or at least spoke to the same themes. (I should again reiterate that the meeting was not intended to create policy, as that can only be done by a vote of the membership in a general meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to learn more about the issue and have a critical discussion, which will help inform the creation of policy in the future.)
Our Cast Of Characters
- Dr. Karin Cope, Acting Director of Writing Resources at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD)
- Trevor Hanna, Vice-PrÃ©sident aux affaires internationales et fÃ©dÃ©rales, FÃ©dÃ©ration Ã©tudiante universitaire du QuÃ©bec (FEUQ)
- Sean Junor, Manager of Knowledge Mobilization, Educational Policy Institute (EPI) Toronto
- Dr. Andrew Potter, Public Affairs columnist for Macleanâ€™s, visiting scholar with the Educational Policy Institute, Toronto
First, The Good News
All speakers began by emphasizing the positive. Namely, Cope pointed out the fact that Canada leads OECD countries in the number of people with tertiary degrees, and that having a post-secondary degree generally means higher income, better sex (I’m going to refrain from theorizing on why that might be), and generally happier people. That being said, there are some looming areas of concern. Two of the most obvious examples are the increasingly critical amount of student debt and deferred infrastructure costs, as is the case in Nova Scotia, where the deferred maintenance bill is around half a billion dollars.
The real trick, explained Cope, will be to figure out the true cost of education, as well as the true value to society. Those things aren’t easy to measure, but of course that’s just the kind of challenge that Greens like to embrace.
Undergrad is the New High School
Potter spent the most time on this, but it was echoed by Junor and Cope as well. They argued that undergraduate programs, from both the perspective of the student and the professor, have become a lot like high school used to be.
There are two main arguments behind this observation. First, more people are pursuing post-secondary education than in the past, which means that a BA, for example, is becoming almost as common in the job market as a high school diploma was several decades ago. Second, university professors are spending increasing amounts of time teaching basic spelling, grammar, and writing skills to university students — skills they should have learned in high school.
Commodification and Massification
All of this contributes to the commodification of the undergraduate degree, and the massification (you can rarely escape a university lecture hall without hearing at least one made-up word) of the graduate degree.
Commodification of undergrad programs referrers to the sense that students are now buying a brand name credential, as opposed to participating in a community or increasing their ability to think critically. That was my own experience, in fact. Whenever I had a complaint or question about why my undergrad was being pursued in a certain way, the reaction from my peers was always something to the effect of, “Chris, it doesn’t matter. Everyone knows we’re just buying a $40,000 piece of paper.”
This situation is further aggravated by the increasingly prominent belief by some students, and particularly business students, that cheating, plagiarizing, and buying your way through university is fair game.
Massification of graduate programs referrers to the fact that, according to Potter, we’re giving out the same number of masters degrees today as we were undergraduate degrees forty years ago.
The result is what he calls an “educational arms race,” where people seek out greater and greater credential (either a masters degree, or a prestige undergrad) in order to distinguish themselves in the job market. The problem with that, Potter argues, is that the extra time and resources being spent on this arms race don’t actually raise the population’s level of education or contribute to the economy. He cautions against any federal policy that would feed into this system.
Teaching and Research Don’t Mix
The original intention of our university system (still Potter talking) was to have small schools like Trent focusing on undergraduate programs (ie. teaching) and large schools like University of Toronto focusing on graduate programs (ie. research). However, the Canadian preference for universalism has meant that all schools have tried to be everything to everyone.
The problem with that is that the skill set that’s required to be a good teacher and the skill set that’s required for research are very different. While it’s commonly assumed by professors that there’s some kind of symbiotic relationship between teaching and research, that’s not true. Studies show that for most faculty members, there’s a reverse relationship between the two (high research hours mean low student contact and vice versa).
The solution is to somehow create a more clear distinction between the two functions of teaching and research. In reality, that’s happening anyway, though in a less than desirable way. Cope pointed out that undergraduate teaching duties are increasingly carried out by temporary, contract employees with little to no job security or benefits, which leads to little to no loyalty to the employing institution or their students. Likewise, tenured professors spend most of their time on graduate work.
How to actually accomplish this distinction is a more difficult question. Potter and Junor both advocate for a “grand bargain” whereby the federal government would take control of graduate studies (since research is largely a federal responsibility) while leaving undergraduate studies with the provinces, but neither one of them thinks that could be achieved politically. A more practical solution may be to separate the two distinctions in an intramural fashion, assigning teaching and research responsibilities to different faculties. In addition, faculty members should be allowed to decide at the time of their hiring weather they want to be evaluated and promoted based on their teaching skills or their research abilities.
A great deal of the question and answer time was spent discussing whether or not free education is a desirable goal. I was surprised to hear some interesting arguments that it isn’t.
The conversation was initiated by a Green Party member in the audience who referenced Canada’s international commitment to the goal of free post-secondary education by way of our signing of a 1970s United Nations agreement. Potter countered by saying that the federal government had no business making such a commitment in the first place, since education is clearly a constitutional responsibility of the provinces. There was a general consensus from the panel that, if free education is going to happen, it should happen at a provincial level.
And yet, Cope and Junor questioned the desirability of free education from a social point of view. Junor began by identifying that the two barriers to participation in a post-secondary education are accessibility (determined largely through high school grades) and affordability (determined by ability to pay). Even if you made education free, it would still only be accessible to those with the highest academic credentials, who, for the most part, also happen to be those who can afford university anyway. The problem of access, therefore, is larger and more systemic than can be addressed through universally free education.
Cope also pointed out that when tuition fees are reduced, that disproportionately benefits higher-income students because they make up a larger percentage of the university population. The money it takes to lower tuition would be better spent on needs-based grants to ensure that it gets to those who need it most.
Junor summarized his argument by saying something to the effect of, “If you asked me if the cost of tuition for lower-income Canadians should be close to zero, I’d say that’s about right. And if you asked me if the amount of government assistance going to the wealthiest Canadians should be close to zero, I’d say that’s about right.”
In other words, it’s cheaper, more feasible, and more socially just to make education free (or close to free) only for those who can’t afford it through needs-based grants than to try to do so for the entire population through the lowering or elimination of tuition. Also, if the ultimate goal is accessibility, we need to address larger systemic inequalities in addition to dealing with affordability.
Meanwhile, in the Real World
Of course I didn’t agree with everything the speakers said, but I came away feeling like I had a better understanding of the challenges facing post-secondary education in Canada, and what some of the solutions should be. Then four of us walked around the campus trying to convince students to vote in the advance polls. The mixture of confusion and amusement that I received from many regarding this “voting” idea was not as encouraging. It’s no big mystery why politicians find it so easy to ignore university students.