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Margin Notes

Five ideas for improving Canadian postsecondary education

Leo Charbonneau looks at the Globe and Mail’s suggestions – and tweaks them.


Included in Erin Anderssen’s closing essay for the Globe and Mail’s “re:education” series on postsecondary education were “Five ideas for improving the future of postsecondary education.” It’s a challenging exercise to single out five priority areas for improvement. It’s an interesting list, with some good ideas and some not so good. Let me take them one at a time:

1. Create a national strategy

This was the main theme of her closing piece, in which Ms. Anderssen notes that, among developed countries, Canada “is unique in its failure to develop a national approach to universities and colleges.” (Similarly, the Canadian Federation of Students calls for a “federal postsecondary education act.”) The arguments in favour of a national strategy are legitimate, but irrelevant. It’s not going to happen, period. The current federal government has no interest whatsoever in inserting itself in matters of provincial jurisdiction and the provinces themselves have had a poor track record of accomplishing anything of substance through the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (an intergovernmental body founded by the provincial ministers of education).

Now, should the educational institutions work more cooperatively, particularly in terms of credit transfer and program partnerships? Yes, certainly. This is already happening, but the institutions could do much more. Perhaps CMEC could help facilitate a national credit-transfer system, but I won’t hold my breath.

2. Make teaching central

I might quibble with the idea of making teaching “central” (rather than “equal to” research), but I wholeheartedly agree that teaching and learning must be valued more at universities, and that this should be better reflected in faculty tenure and promotion decisions. But good teaching requires resources, particularly human resources. This means hiring more full-time, tenure-track faculty. Who’s going to pay for that?

3. Expand internationally

There is much merit in attracting more international students to our campuses and to encourage Canadian students to study abroad. What I’d ideally like to see is a Canadian version of the Erasmus student exchange program that would entice students to do a term abroad or even elsewhere in Canada. Perhaps that is the sort of “national” program that would interest the federal government without stepping too much on the toes of the provinces, but again I’m not holding my breath.

As for Canadian universities opening campuses abroad, which was part of Ms. Anderssen’s suggestion, that can be a financially risky endeavour, so I’m not surprised that few of our universities have taken the plunge.

4. Establish accountability benchmarks

A better idea would be to adequately fund a robust education division at Statistics Canada, rather than the recent cutbacks that we’ve seen at the federal agency. In far too many areas of postsecondary education, we simply lack the data to really know what’s going on. We also need more nationwide research of the kind being undertaken in Ontario by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. These two things would go a long way to keeping universities and colleges accountable.

5. Support Canadian online platforms

Sure, but I wouldn’t restrict the promotion of innovative teaching practices to the online realm. Innovative teaching in all its forms should be encouraged, promoted – and funded. See item 2 above.

Now it’s your turn. What are your ideas for improving Canadian higher education?

P.S. (added on Oct. 24): I do applaud the Globe, Erin Anderssen, James Bradshaw and the others who worked on the re:education series. I might have emphasized certain issues differently, but their coverage was very good and touched on a lot of the key contentious areas. As for their colleague Margaret Wente and her caricature of universities and faculty, perhaps the less said the better.

P.S. #2: Margin Notes was chosen best blog (in the blue division, for business-to-business, professional association or scholarly publication) at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards on Oct. 22. I am honoured. It is the second time that Margin Notes has taken the gold in these awards. The blog first won in 2009.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Reuben Kaufman / October 24, 2012 at 18:03

    Hello Leo,

    With regard to your comment:

    “but I wholeheartedly agree that teaching and learning must be valued more at universities, and that this should be better reflected in faculty tenure and promotion decisions.”

    Do we have any reliable data across academia to suggest that teaching/learning are not valued equally to research? I do know from my admittedly narrow experience (only one faculty at one university) that the attention paid to effective teaching has increased enormously over my 35-year career. Is good teaching rewarded at tenure/promotion time as much as good research? I’m not sure exactly how one can measure that quantitatively, but I certainly think that before one makes the assumption that effective teaching is not given adequate importance at tenure/promotion time, there should be data to back it up.


  2. Reuben Kaufman / October 25, 2012 at 13:32

    A small correction to my last comment: I shouldn’t have limited the horizon to just “tenure/promotion time”. The regular annual cycle of performance evaluation should have been included.

  3. Léo Charbonneau / October 30, 2012 at 09:23

    In response to Reuben Kaufman, I have just posted a new blog post which offers some clues as to why the perception persists that teaching is undervalued relative to research at Canadian universities.

  4. Lynda Williams / March 13, 2015 at 12:42

    Surprised by the absence of some version or other of advanced placement, prior learning assessment, accelerated degree programs and articulation. Maybe it’s assumed in accountability? The university experience is still valuable, but it needs to be unbundled and valued explicitly rather than as an excuse to persist in factory-model, fixed curriculum, fixed pace education processes. People learn at different rates and come to the starting gate with different skills. No one has time, money or patience to “start over” if their education provider can’t work with the modern reality. The big risk, of course, is sustaining reputation through integrity. It’s a big challenge but one we need to tackle.