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Margin Notes

Things you apparently didn’t know about university

A new book by two academics spills the dirt.


Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente took one of her occasional swipes at Canada’s universities in a recent column. The source material for her gleeful putdown was a new book called Campus Confidential: 100 Startling Things You Don’t Know about Canadian Universities (second item on the list).

The gist of her column, gleaned from information in the book, was that too many people are going to university. She quotes the oft-cited statistic that nearly half of all high-school students go to college or university, thus conveniently conflating the two. In fact, just over one-quarter of young adults in Canada attend university, which places us 21st among OECD countries in terms of university participation rates. This in itself doesn’t disprove the assertion by her and the authors that too many young people in Canada are going to university, but you do have to ask yourself: Is it possible the 20 countries above us in the ranking are equally misguided?

The book is written by Ken Coates, a professor of history and dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Waterloo, and Bill Morrison, who was a university professor and administrator for over 30 years. They are no doubt eminent academics and clearly have far more experience with the postsecondary education system than I do. Which makes their book doubly frustrating for me, because it is full of opinions and assertions backed up by little supporting evidence. There is a general list of sources, but almost no direct references for any of their claims.

I will admit the book is a fun and fast read, and there are many things in it with which I agree. Among them, sections entitled: “Your Professor is Not Overpaid,” “Universities Need a New Funding Model” and “Top Priority: [Should be] Teaching and Learning.”

And when it comes to straight-up opinions, well that’s fine – they’re entitled to them. Falling into this category are such things as: “Campus Idealism is Dead and Buried,” “Universities Detest Helicopter Parents,” and my favourite, “Eighteen is the new Fifteen.”

There are also a few things that seem fairly self-evident, for example: “University isn’t for Everyone,” “Your Success in Life is Not Guaranteed by a University Education,” and “Not Every University is World-Class.”

But there are also assertions that are quite controversial and to my mind require some evidentiary support. Among these: “A Degree is Not Such a Hot Investment” or the section titled “A Nasty Secret,” which posits that “a dismally large portion” of students don’t graduate and become “academic failures.” And certainly some readers would take issue with the section, “University Tuition is a Bargain.” Incidentally, doesn’t that contradict the statement about a degree not being such a hot investment?

Another of the “100 startling things” is titled simply “The University Myth,” which questions the value of “continued exponential growth in undergraduate education.” The authors write: “Countries are racing to educate their youth, all believing that a highly educated workforce is crucial to national success. The only thing missing in this assumption is evidence.” Yes indeed. I wish the authors had heeded their own words.

Professors Coates and Morrison will no doubt counter that this book is aimed at a general audience and is not meant to be an academic treatise. Fair enough. However, if we are to have a serious debate on the many pressing problems facing our postsecondary education system, I think a bit more academic rigour would be helpful.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Grant McMillan / April 5, 2011 at 12:07

    I know Dr. Coates from his days as Dean of Arts at the University of Saskatchewan. He has a great ability to poke the hornets’ nest and see what happens. I think this book is another of his pokes. I thought the questions he asks were the important ones; the answers are less so. It’s time to poke our own sticks into the nest and stir things up. I find the conversation engaging!

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