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Margin Notes

Enrolment should be cut by 30 percent. Debate

Ken Coates was arguing for, Lloyd Axworthy against at MacDonald-Laurier event.


Ken Coates brought his reduce-enrolment agenda on the road, arguing in favour of the resolution that “too many Canadian kids are going to university” in a debate held in Ottawa April 29 by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. Arguing against the resolution was Lloyd Axworthy, former president of the University of Winnipeg and a former federal cabinet minister.

Dr. Coates, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovations at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, recently wrote a report for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives which argued, among other things, that university enrolment should be cut by up to 30 percent. Dr. Coates reiterated that proposal during the debate with Dr. Axworthy.

The recent report by Dr. Coates also suggested that more focus should be directed towards colleges and polytechnics. He did not repeat that argument, per se, during the debate, but that message was implied in his remarks.

The National Post, the morning after the debate, published versions of the opening arguments delivered by Drs. Coates and Axworthy the previous evening. The published versions from Dr. Coates and Dr. Axworthy are not quite verbatim transcripts of what each said, but I’ll quote from these as faithful, albeit truncated, renditions of what they presented.

Dr. Coates opened by saying he is “a fervent advocate for university education for those students with the ability, the appropriate level of preparation, the motivation and curiosity needed for academic success. Conversely, I do not favour encouraging students to attend university if they lack these traits. Doing well at university is difficult. It requires real grit and determination and an advanced level of skill. Pretending otherwise diminishes the degree or, even worse, forces institutions into watering down the quality of the education provided to keep students in their programs.”

Heading off to university ill-prepared and without the right level of commitment is a recipe for disappointment, with potentially serious emotional and financial costs, he said. “I always wonder why so little attention is given to the personal impact of failure on the many students who are forced to abandon their studies for academic reasons.” What’s more, he said, “allowing students who are ill-prepared for a university education into our institutions weakens the experience for the stronger students and for faculty members.”

Dr. Axworthy argued that not only does he not support the resolution that fewer students should be going to university, he believes the opposite: “We should be affirming the right and need for Canada to offer opportunity and access to any of its citizens to have the choice to attend university.” Speaking, he said, from his experience as president of an urban university, he watched with “awe and admiration as those considered as marginal or beyond the orbit of higher education blossomed into good students with an appetite to achieve.”

In the more free-flowing give-and-take that followed the scripted opening statements, Dr. Axworthy said: “If we reduce enrolment by 30 percent, Dr. Coates says the universities will get better – sure, they’re going to get better for a privileged elite in this country.” That’s because many of those who would be excluded are the socioeconomically disadvantaged, he said. “That’s a really dangerous trap, to start determining people’s future before they even have a chance to prove themselves.”

He continued: “Everybody deserves a chance, a choice, an opportunity. I think if all of a sudden we’re talking about substantially reducing enrolment, all we’re talking about is going back to an Ivory Tower that serves privileged young people and begins to ignore … the enormous creative energy of this diverse country.”

In rebuttal, Dr. Coates agreed that “universities are a place of privilege. People of high income are more likely to have their kids go to university, they are more likely to succeed, more likely to get good jobs and have high incomes because of parental advantage. We have to focus way more on undermining that. And I think letting everybody in is the least successful way of doing that. Focus on the ones who can succeed.”

The report by Dr. Coates for the CCCE has received much criticism, including from Andrew Parkin, former director general of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. Dr. Parkin, in an opinion article for Academica Group, said that “Canada does not look at all like a country that has over-emphasized university education to the detriment of colleges.” (Canada ranks only 17th in the OECD in terms of the proportion of young adults with a university degree, at 32 percent.)

Dr. Parkin also argued, and the point was reiterated by Dr. Axworthy during the debate, that if there is any group in Canadian society that is “too large” in the context of today’s knowledge intensive economy, it is the nearly one-third of young Canadian adults who either never finish high school or never pursue any form of postsecondary education.

Dr. Coates’s report touched on many more issues other than enrolment. In his “One Thought” blog, Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates gave a more detailed, point-by-point rebuttal of Dr. Coates’s arguments.

But some clearly find Dr. Coates persuasive. Before the debate, the moderator – former speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken – asked the audience who was in favour, and who was against, the resolution to cut enrolment. The response, by a show of hands, was about 50-50. However, after the debate, again by a show of hands, Mr. Milliken declared that it appeared those in favour outnumbered those opposed. What side are you on?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. JCVeletta / May 4, 2015 at 07:07

    It is time that university take stock of these findings and hire skills phds to their faculties.

  2. Michael Skolnik / May 6, 2015 at 16:42

    The OECD data cited by Dr. Parkin actually support the argument made by Dr. Coates. What Canada ranks 17th in is the proportion of the population which has completed a baccalaureate or higher degree. In Canada, all except a few per cent of baccalaureate degrees are awarded by universities. However, in many other countries this is not the case. For example, in the Netherlands, about two-thirds of baccalaureate degrees are awarded by hogescholen, and in Finland about 60 per cent of degrees are awarded by polytechnic institutes. In Ireland the institutes of Technology award nearly half of the baccalaureate degrees. These institutions are similar to many of the institutions that are members of Colleges and Institutes Canada. Both the Netherlands and Finland rank significantly higher than Canada in the proportion of the population with a baccalaureate or higher degree, not in the proportion of the population that has a baccalaureate degree from a university. Canada probably ranks pretty high in the proportion of the population that has a degree from a traditional university as opposed to some other type of post-secondary institution. Whether Canada should follow a number of other countries in shifting more of the responsibility for baccalaureate education to other types of post-secondary institutions should be part of the debate that this article addresses.

  3. Andrew Park / May 8, 2015 at 08:29

    I am sure that all professors who read Dr Charbeneau’s article will have had the difficult and frustrating experience of trying to teach students who are unprepared, disinterested, or unable to rise to the task of succeeding in university. I don’t know if we need to cut enrollment by 30%, but do believe that we should only be admitting students who are both interested and prepared for university study.

    It is interesting that Dr Axworthy conflates restricted access with elitism and elitism with income. Although income undoubtedly matters, it has little to do with preparation. What I have noticed is rather that low income atudents have to work more outside of school, and that this affects a range of outcomes ranging from time to degree completion, dropout rates, and personal health.

    Lowering entrance requirements to create an orgy of university access, as happened at my institution, is not going to magically create a cadre of highly educated graduates. Rather those less prepared and less motivated will have a hard time surviving and contribute to unacceptably high first year dropout rates.

    Meanwhile at the teaching end, professors have to cope with a significant minority of atudents who need remedial education in reading, numeracy, and study skills. And let’s not forget those who suffer from ADHD, OCD, depression, anxiety disorders etc. During my tenure, I have had at students with these and other problems in every class. And yet we have not been offered a single hour of training in how to help or mentor these people.

    So I imagine you will conclude that I am on Dr Coates’s side of the debate. But restricting access does not mean we have to reinforce financial inequality. We need to have rigorous admission standards augmented by some way to evaluate those who may have underachieved in high school but who nevertheless show promise. But better screening has to be accompanied by a greatly expanded program of financial aid to ensure that poverty is no longer a barrier to access for students who are qualified and motivated to attend university.

  4. Lady Smith / February 10, 2019 at 08:47

    Dr Coates is absolutely correct. There are several issues right here on University Affairs website citing students’ mental health challenges as associated with struggling to figure out where they fit in at university. Guess what, not everyone fits in at university. Trying to be something you’re not and believing (or being socialized to believe) that the only way to be a respectable adult and/or have a “good career” is to have a university degree can destroy a person.

    We look around at the students who, after completing 12 years of public education, don’t know how to learn and get frustrated at the notion of having to spoon-feed them their thoughts. Then, we break our backs accommodating their self-imposed mental health needs. How about responding with “hey, you know what? You’re not demonstrating the skills needed. Why not take a few years to figure out what you want to do with your life and what is important to you. Once you know that, figuring out how to achieve it will be easier. Right now, you’re trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. You’re within your rights to continue down this path but it could be costlier to you financially and emotionally.”
    If we made that safer to do, we could run universities far more efficiently than we currently are.