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In my opinion

Missing the target

The U.K. risks being overtaken by Canada in yet another area of higher education.


An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Spending Freely on Research, Canada Reverses Brain Drain”, Feb. 20, 2011) discusses the advantageous position the Canadian higher education sector is in compared to the United States. The article focuses on Canadian research funding policy since the late 1990s. New programs and funding streams have been introduced, designed to attract scholars from around the world to Canadian universities and to keep Canadian rising stars in the country.

Canada in the 1990s was in the grip of government spending cuts and public sector retrenchment. For the Canadian federal government, research funding represented a politically justifiable means of directing funds into the higher education sector. Jennifer Lewington, author of the Chronicle article and a Canadian-based reporter on education issues, draws the conclusion that these sustained investments in university research are putting Canada in a stronger position than the U.S. and United Kingdom to recruit the next generation of world-leading researchers. The validity of her prediction is strengthened by new visa restrictions on foreign nationals coming to the U.S. and the U.K.

While Canada may not be the primary English-language destination of choice for university academic staff, it is certainly eating into the future prosperity of U.K. and U.S.-based university research. There is an equally significant policy divergence occurring between the U.K. and Canada in the realm of student access to higher education. The U.K.’s new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government conducted a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) last autumn. A number of programs faced the chopping block in the interest of reducing public expenditures. One of these was “AimHigher.”

The AimHigher program was introduced by the Labour government in 2004 as one of the tools through which the county would achieve its (now abandoned) goal of 50 percent school-leaver participation in some form of tertiary education. AimHigher-funded programs, organized and offered at the local school level, included such activities as visits to university campuses, residential summer schools in universities, open days and student mentoring schemes.

The programs were targeted to schools and students in disadvantaged communities to encourage and support participation in higher education. The government has suggested that the negative impact of killing AimHigher (as of July 2011) will be ameliorated by a new National Scholarship Program (“Aimhigher brought down by coalition axe”, Times Higher Education, November 25, 2010) and by requiring individual universities to conduct more of their own student outreach (“How to Produce an Access Agreement for 2012-13”, PDF, Office For Fair Access, March 1, 2011). Unfortunately, given the funding cuts facing universities, it is difficult to imagine that increased student fees will produce enough new revenue to fund expanded university-based student outreach efforts. This is to say nothing of the economies of scale lost when many universities are duplicating their outreach efforts versus funding coordinated, locally based programs that work with multiple institutions.

Discussion about the elimination of AimHigher has been overshadowed by the national debate over fee levels and the cutting of teaching funding in the humanities and social sciences. This prioritization is understandable – the new fee and accompanying income-contingent loan repayment system effects those currently accessing university education. The middle class, the largest single component of the voting public, are disproportionately represented in universities. Not surprisingly, the fees (and loans) this group will be paying have come to dominate the discussion over access to higher education.

Despite the public fixation on the fees issue in the U.K., research suggests that fees are not the main reason individuals from under-represented groups (such as those from lower socioeconomic status families) do not attend university. Research extending back as far as the late 1980s suggests that parental encouragement is the single most important factor whether or not a child considers higher education an option (Stager, Focus on Fees, 1989). Parental encouragement is often tied to parental achievement in higher education, but not exclusively. More recent research has found that peer group expectation (i.e. what one’s friends’ plans are) is also a major contributing factor. While ability to pay fees is not an insignificant aspect of access to higher education, the importance of family and peer-group supports must also be considered when designing policy to attract underrepresented groups to universities. Students have to know how to get to university before worrying about the cost. This is exactly what AimHigher was designed to address.

Canadian policy makers have embraced the above research and are investing in outreach programs designed to support and encourage primary and secondary school students living in underprivileged environments to finish high school and consider higher education. One such program is Pathways to Education (see Students at risk show resounding success with community-based program). It started as a community-led initiative in a depressed area of the city of Toronto. The Pathways program provides mentorship and additional academic support to secondary school students in socially disadvantaged areas of the country.

While the Pathways program does not repair pre-existing inequalities in educational or family environments, it does provide academic and social supports designed to broaden students’ expectations of life after completing secondary school. It coordinates mentorship for students at risk of not completing secondary school as well as exposing students to vocational and higher education. Like AimHigher, Pathways is community-based but is supported centrally through government funding and infrastructure support.

The legacy of Canada’s investment in university research during a period of cutbacks is now being born out. Canada is literally stealing leading academics from the countries it used to fear – the U.K. and U.S. This change required sustained policy and funding committed to a goal of attracting researchers to Canadian universities. Canada is also committed to making its higher education systems accessible. It should be alarming that at the very point the U.K. government should be mitigating the most disastrous effects of public sector cuts, it cuts a program designed to seek out and encourage participation from those individuals most at risk of being lost to higher education. Instead, public debate (including many well-intentioned academics) has focused on the price tag for those who would attend university regardless of the price. The U.K. needs to sort out its higher education policy priorities or it risks being left behind by Canada. Again.

Andrew Boggs is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford.

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  1. Guy Gingras / May 26, 2011 at 07:55

    It is true that Canada is recruiting international “stars” to move to Canada, but was is being done to repatriate young Canadian scientists having to work abroad because of lack of faculty positions at Canadian universities?

    Guy Gingras, PhD

    Stem Cell and Brain Research Institute

    INSERM U846

    Lyon, France

  2. Sven Gunder / June 8, 2011 at 07:27

    Attracting academic stars is a fools game. The problem with the people that are attracted by these programs is that they are complete mercenaries. They don’t have any loyalties to institutions, people or develop connections to the host cities. When the next opportunity eventually arises, see you later!