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Margin Notes

The crisis literature in higher ed, revisited again and again

What if the system really is in crisis? How will we even know?


According to a survey last fall, 89 percent of U.S. adults and 96 percent of senior administrators at colleges and universities said higher education is in crisis, and nearly 4 in 10 in both groups considered the crisis to be “severe.” More fodder for the crisis literature in higher education.

In Canada, I’d say there isn’t quite the same sense of foreboding doom, but we do certainly have our own home-grown examples of the crisis literature. This comes to mind because of a stray comment I heard recently from Glen Jones that it has been ever thus. Dr. Jones, professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said one of the first papers he ever had published, nearly a quarter century ago, was an editorial on the crisis literature in Canadian higher education. It had the  somewhat cheeky title, “Imminent disaster revisited, again.”

The nature of the crisis, perhaps not surprisingly, changes over time. In 1956, the National Conference of Canadian Universities (precursor to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada) claimed the higher education system was in crisis because of a grave lack of capacity – something we don’t hear much of now. Over the years there has also been, Dr. Jones noted, a “moral crisis,” a “crisis of confidence,” a “crisis of management,” a “crisis of mediocrity,” and the ever-popular “funding crisis.” (Remember, this paper was written nearly a quarter-century ago – what other crises could we add since then? The “skills gap” comes to mind as the latest trope.)

One of the most serious shortcomings Dr. Jones identified in most of this crisis literature was a failure to provide convincing evidence that disaster was imminent. “The crisis argument,” he wrote, “often is built on anecdotal reflection, unexplained causal relationships, or case studies supposedly demonstrating what the author assumes to be a sector-wide problem.” While the failure to provide convincing evidence in support of an argument does not necessarily imply that the conclusion is incorrect, it does bring the argument into question.

The second problem he identified was that the crisis literature is not “progressive,” by which he meant that contributions to the literature are not built upon or based on other contributions to the literature, and there is rarely any follow-up or critical analysis of the validity of these predictions. There is also rarely any explicit criteria for what constitutes a crisis. This leads to the misleading sense that the system is in a constant state of crisis. Or worse, this can lead to the “crying wolf” phenomenon. What if this time it really is a crisis? How will we know?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Ron Melchers / April 10, 2013 at 12:21

    All the same things can be said about the university “success” literature. One might expect an institution and a profession dedicated to the pursuit and critical scrutiny of knowledge to be more rigourously self-reflective.

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