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From the admin chair

Canadian higher education at a crossroads

Universities have always been crucibles of knowledge — but can they keep up?


Convocation season is over. Thousands of graduates are looking confidently to the future, heads full, hearts proud and eyes shining with aspiration. Institutions have once again fulfilled their fundamental and Herculean mission of educating citizens who can contribute to building a more just and prosperous society.

But even as Canadian higher education lays the groundwork for our students’ future, it is fighting a constant battle on multiple fronts to survive and stay relevant in the face of pressing global challenges.

First, there’s the decline in enrollment. The pandemic that emptied out our campuses may be behind us, but the decline continues unabated. A few months ago, Higher Education Strategy Associates warned of a global collapse in college enrollment, citing a chart showing a sharp drop since 2011. One explanation could be the steady increase in tuition, especially in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia. According to Le Devoir, another factor is that the strong post-pandemic demand for labour is siphoning off university applicants.

Additionally, fewer people seem interested in obtaining a university degree, which many perceive as insufficient to secure a good job. Higher education seems to have a lower return on investment when it comes to employment and earnings, so students are opting for specialized training that is better suited to the labour market and its rapidly evolving expectations that follow technological advances, economic changes and emerging trends. Some university programs are struggling to keep up, and in certain disciplines, there are too many graduates for the number of open positions. This has led to a recent shift toward technical and vocational education and training, with students learning in-demand trades rather than going the traditional university route.

Canada also has record levels of student debt. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, federal student loans totalled $22.3 billion in 2020, far exceeding the limit set by the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act. Statistics Canada reports that approximately 60 per cent of postsecondary graduates have loans. They have to grapple with often staggering debt: up to $100,000, depending on the length of their studies. While there is a six-month grace period before they have to start paying off their loans, graduates may feel overwhelmed by the added financial pressure. The prospect of loan debt can also be a deterrent for high school students from disadvantaged, ethnic minority and Indigenous backgrounds.

Meanwhile, universities’ structural budget deficits continue to grow at a time when they already face chronic public underfunding. According to the OECD, Canada ranks among the countries with below-average public spending on higher education. Forced to find alternative sources of revenue to make up the shortfall, universities are maxing out international student recruitment and increasing tuition at the same time. Retaining qualified faculty, upgrading facilities and developing relevant curricula require substantial budgets; and universities are increasingly turning to private funding at the risk of having it shape their teaching and research, thereby compromising the very essence of their mission as independent institutions.

The obvious concern is what effect this has on academic freedom. While generally respected in Canada, academic freedom has come under threat in recent isolated incidents. Academic conferences and events have been cancelled or censored because certain groups objected to the topics being addressed or opinions being expressed, and academics have been censored, fired or punished for their research or political positions. Some academics feel compelled to self-censor because they fear potential impacts on their careers or reputations.

Public access to a range of ideas and perspectives is directly linked to respect for academic freedom, far from the purely utilitarian function we might associate with universities. In February 2023, Julien Boudon of the Université Paris-Saclay warned of the danger of “the university ceasing to be universal” in the face of public authorities who he felt were trying to put an end to open access in higher education. In addition to professional training, universities offer a holistic education that helps students acquire transferable skills such as critical thinking, communication, problem solving, collaboration and leadership — essential aptitudes in the age of the digital revolution.

Finally, academic mobility plays a vital role in the development of knowledge via exchange programs and partnerships between higher education and research institutions, as reflected in the internationalization of universities. But the financial burden of internationalization and the denial of visas to those who wish to study or conduct research are serious obstacles to this mobility. And yet mobility is vital to the advancement of research. It allows people to pool resources, share ideas and produce results more quickly by opening up access to state-of-the-art facilities and publication in leading journals.

In these times of crisis, how can universities reinvent themselves to face the future with resilience and confidence? There are several possible approaches:

Turn crisis into opportunity: The global upheaval impacting higher education is more than a one-time challenge; it’s an ongoing cycle. Universities must keep up with the times, not only by adopting new technologies, but also by modernizing their practices to become more agile and responsive to change. This means embracing new and innovative approaches, ideas and ways of doing things that can then be proposed to decision makers and businesses.

Educate the leaders of tomorrow: Universities must never forget how important educating future leaders is. A university education should not just be about acquiring the knowledge needed to get a job. Universities should serve as incubators for cultivating the leadership skills needed to change our world and the motivation needed to shape society and culture for the better.

Build corporate and community partnerships: The pandemic and resulting social issues have taught us the difference between providing academic expertise and being an engaged partner in the fight for the future. To remain relevant, universities must not only adapt their programs to meet the needs and aspirations of their students, but also have a broader impact on society and the communities around them by developing innovative approaches through corporate and community partnerships.

Create a renewed interest in higher education: It’s time for higher education to think outside the box. The pandemic has shown that universities are capable of adopting new practices almost overnight. Flexibility plays a key role in this approach, and universities can use it to tailor their offerings to current and future demand and to update the content and format of their courses so that they remain relevant to individuals, governments and industries.

Adapt to demographic and cultural change: Universities must rethink their role to become spaces that foster inclusion and innovation, taking the lead in shaping our collective future. Canada’s demographics are growing and changing, largely as a result of immigration. This demographic and cultural shift is reflected in our student populations. As such, they should be central to university growth strategies and learning pathways must be adapted accordingly.

With an age-old tradition of shaping minds and pushing societies to evolve, higher education is now at a crossroads where it must decide its destiny in a changing world. Universities must reinvent themselves in order to survive and continue to fulfill their social, cultural and educational mission. To remain relevant, they must also strengthen their social role in promoting interdisciplinary dialogue and a culture of human understanding of our environment.

Sanni Yaya is vice-president, International and Francophonie, at the University of Ottawa, where he holds the Senghor Research Chair in health and development. He is a member of the Royal Society of Canada.
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