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Margin Notes

Crisis? What Crisis?

Is there a crisis in higher education in Canada, and if so, what is it?


I was leafing through my September copy of The Walrus – a fine Canadian magazine, by the way, well worth the subscription – and came across an intriguing little notice of an upcoming article scheduled for the magazine’s October issue: “Our higher education crisis.”

It’s always interesting for me to see how the mainstream media – and, in this case, an award-winning national magazine – covers higher education issues. This upcoming article has me intrigued. The title raises an obvious question (or, in fact, a couple of questions, depending on your point of view). If your job is to promote the value of higher education in Canada, you may well ask, “What higher education crisis?” But if you work on the front lines in the higher education sector, you might well wonder, “Which higher education crisis?”

The October issue will be on the newsstands on Sept. 10, so I guess we’ll have to wait to find out. I could just contact the editor and ask him what it’s about, but that would spoil the fun of speculating.

Let’s take the first question first. I will focus on universities because it’s the sector I know best.

Few, I think, would dispute that universities generally have had an enormously favourable impact on Canadian society. They’re vast fonts of knowledge, gateways to personal growth and understanding, an ideal emulated throughout the world.

A university education is also popular. Undergraduate enrolment continues to climb – up nearly 44 percent since 2000, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, reaching more than 1 million students in 2011. Enrolment in graduate studies has grown by more than 80 percent during the same time period.

And a university education pays. Using Census data, AUCC estimates that graduates typically earn $1.3 million more than those with a high-school education alone. The lifetime income advantage for a bachelor’s graduate over a registered tradesperson or college grad working full-time is $1 million.

I could go on, using AUCC’s talking points, but you get the idea.

Now, the much more fun question to ask is which crisis in higher ed will the Walrus article address? I certainly hope it has nothing to do with the supposed “bubble” in higher education that might be about to burst, like the housing bubble, and which has been speculated on ad nauseum in the U.S. and which I think is a silly fallacy.

So what’ll it be? The increasing use of casual labour (i.e., part-time contract teachers)? That would be interesting, but difficult to cover, considering the frustrating lack of data on the issue.

What about the apparently uncertain job prospects for graduate students, a topic we’ve covered quite a bit on this site and particularly in the Black Hole blog? Possibly, but I don’t think that’s on the radar for most people.

Other possibilities: escalating tuition and student debt; the increasing cost to governments of providing higher education in a constrained fiscal environment and in the face of competing priorities; the “corporatization” of universities; the apparent mismatch between what students learn and what the economy needs; or the notion that students are, in fact, learning very little from their education. Have I missed any?

I invite you to play along. What do you think is the crisis in higher education?

P.S.: I wonder if I should refrain from using ’70s song references for headlines. I’m showing my age.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Atif / August 28, 2012 at 12:36

    Interesting post – there is no shortage of problems with the current system. Is it the debt students acquire to get a university education? The lack of job prospects afterwards? The increasing commercialization of higher education? The lack of skills being taught? The emphasis on scantrons and multiple choice questions? All of the above? The possibilities are endless!!

  2. Leo Charbonneau / August 28, 2012 at 13:44

    Funny, as soon as I posted this blog post, I flipped through another Canadian magazine, L’actualité (Sept. 1 issue), and lo and behold they have an article on the TRUE crisis at universities (in Quebec, at least): underfunded pension obligations for retiring faculty and staff! Add that to the list.

  3. Rob Annan / August 29, 2012 at 11:37

    What fun! More suggestions: shrinking university budgets vs expanding societal expectations? misled undergrad expectations of job preparation vs. education? class sizes? tuition rates? international education? Perhaps it’s going to be an expose on the abhorrent nutritional habits of graduate students. Maybe The Walrus should launch a series.

  4. susan bloch-nevitte / August 29, 2012 at 15:53

    I love this guy!

  5. Steve / August 31, 2012 at 08:17

    My experience it’s the over production of Ph.D.s A friend of mine, also unemployed and a Ph.D., likens Ph.D. programs to puppy mills. Universities just keep pumping graduates out with little regard as to whether there are actually Ph.D. level jobs around. Coupled with a preference for hiring foreign Ph.D. graduates, the preference for contract academic labour rather than tenure track, the stalling of academic careers in postdoc jobs…. well that $1million “extra” money quickly disappears. In fact, studies show that there is a steep decline in returns when one moves from BA, to MA to Ph.D. It’s better to take a second Masters than a Ph.D. …. I find the Ph.D. program is something that just keeps overpaid, under worked, and inflated egos busy…. most profs would rather be doing research than teaching…. and that’s fine with university admins… the Ph.D. glut by far is the most pressing issue….

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