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Margin Notes

The Globe and Mail’s re-education

Some thoughts on the paper’s in-depth look at the state of Canada’s postsecondary education system.


The latest in what the Globe and Mail calls its “Our time to lead” series focuses on postsecondary education, with the first instalment published on Oct. 6 (under the oddly spelled title “re:education”). While some may associate the Globe’s coverage of university issues (unfairly) with the often simplistic observations of columnist Margaret Wente, the leading essay launching the series, written by Erin Anderssen, was a fair and accurate portrayal of the current state of affairs.

There was the one cliché of “Keats-quoting baristas,” but overall the reporting was balanced. The article notes that Canada has the highest proportion of adults in the world with a postsecondary education, but rightly observes, “being the most educated … may not be the same as being the best educated.”

Issues such as the massification of higher education, the rising costs of university and increasing student debt, and the slowness of universities to adopt new innovative teaching practices, were all touched on. The article also talks of the relatively poor job market for young grads, a matter that is largely beyond the control of universities.

The article also asks whether universities can be “all things to all people,” as well as the much deeper question of whether the goal of universities is to train skilled employees or to create a broadly informed citizenry.

Some proposals for reform are briefly mentioned: that universities need to be more specialized, with unique missions. There is, of course, already some of that – nobody will confuse Mount Allison University, say, with the University of British Columbia (or, as the article puts it, “if you want to study oceanography, you would not go to the University of Saskatchewan”).

The idea of creating elite institutions and primarily teaching institutions was also raised.

I have a few quibbles with some of the points made. First, there is great innovation going on in teaching at universities that sometimes goes unrecognized, and in recent years university leaders seem genuinely eager to improve the undergraduate student experience.

And, while it’s important to ask whether students are actually learning the sorts of things they should be learning (whatever those are), I get impatient with criticisms from employers that many of their newly graduated hires do not arrive with the critical skills they’re looking for. Many Canadian businesses are already fairly criticized for shirking their responsibilities in research and development, leaving that mainly to universities, and they also seem to have done much the same thing in terms of employee training. Once upon a time, employers actually played a role in upgrading employees’ skills for the specific needs of their industry. Or here’s an idea: many universities are greatly expanding cooperative education programs – why don’t more companies get involved in these programs, thus giving students valuable work experience?

One other issue not addressed is the student’s responsibility in all this – not so much in terms of their program choices, although I do think it’s incumbent on them to at least give some consideration of how their choices will translate into a fulfilling career. But rather, more in terms of students really taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them at university.

If a student attends class sporadically, does the minimum to pass, is not really engaged with campus life and doesn’t get involved in activities outside the classroom, then he or she may not have much to show for it after four years. I think for students to really benefit from their university education, they should get involved in such things as student clubs, student government or other campus activities, and/or take advantage of educational experiences like community-service learning, undergraduate research projects, study abroad or the above-mentioned co-op programs, to name a few.

In that context, I was interested to read at the end of Erin Anderssen’s article about the University of Regina “guarantee.” If students agree to be assigned to a counsellor, to take job-training seminars, to volunteer or work and to maintain a minimum average, the university will give them a guarantee: If they cannot find a job related to their field, with the university’s help, in the six months after they graduate, they will be given a year’s free tuition to come back and beef up their skills.

The offer is certainly interesting, but what caught my eye was the comment about the program from a student, Elizabeth Morin: “It’s not asking you to do anything you shouldn’t be doing already. … But it’s easy to get caught up in university and just go to class to study. You need work experience. You need other skills.”

The Globe’s extensive coverage, including online interactive features and infographics, continues for two weeks.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Peter Eglin / October 10, 2012 at 12:41

    Surely the need of over 50% of students to spend 10-15 hours or more per week in paid employment to keep afloat financially goes a long way in explaining low participation rates in extra-classroom campus activities. Then there’s just the large amount of work we try to get them to do to fulfill the standard requirements of five courses per term. No wonder they drink so much.