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Margin Notes

Two different takes on what ails universities

I look at Margaret Wente and Alex Usher, and their differing critiques of Canada’s postsecondary education system.


I find Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente amusing. I like how she’ll mischievously throw a big stink bomb into the proverbial crowd (her readers) and then sit back – with a smile on her face, I imagine – and enjoy the reaction.

She was at it again this week with her piece on … well, what was the point, exactly? I think it was that Canada’s universities need to adapt or suffer the consequences. But adapt in what way wasn’t entirely clear. Her column also included the usual red herring of supposedly intransigent, overpaid academics, many of whom, she seems to suggest, do research of little value.

But, there is often the germ of a truth in her pieces. In this particular column, I think she’s right that taxpayers are likely not going to support perpetual, continued increases in funding to universities. There is certainly an argument to be made that universities remain underfunded in Canada relative to some other jurisdictions, but I don’t think the public sees it that way. Plus, governments face many other competing priorities (health care, anyone?).

And I think she’s right that there is at least a perception that the quality of undergraduate education is slipping. As she pointed out, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty sent a shot across the bow of the province’s colleges and universities that they need to be more accountable for the taxpayers’ dollars that support them. “Can I honestly say that I have got qualitative improvement as a result of these investments [in higher education]? I don’t think so, and we need to talk about that,” the premier said.

The other point I think she was making is that there needs to be a rethinking of the dynamic between research and teaching. Again, she was short on specifics. But, for that, there was a much more informative and helpful blog post in the Globe’s online Globe Campus section by Alex Usher.

It’s hard to summarize Usher’s piece succinctly, but I agree wholeheartedly with his view that we need more incentives for universities to improve teaching and student learning, and to support innovative and novel ideas when looking for ways to increase quality.

He writes:

Just imagine what would happen, for instance, if the Government of Ontario set aside $50-million each year to be given to the institution that got the best ranking in a teaching satisfaction survey.  Or for one that had the best demonstrated ability to improve student engagement, or for receiving the highest satisfaction ratings from local employers with respect to graduate quality.

Imagine what institutions would do to get hold of these prizes, and how they would change their internal processes and curricula to compete for those funds.  What kinds of exciting innovations in teaching and educational delivery might occur?  What kinds of new educational choices would students have?

I’m a bit worried about his suggestion of liberalizing tuition fees to spur innovation, but nevertheless there is a lot in his post to reflect on. I recommend anyone involved in higher education in Canada to give it a read.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Dr.Doinglittle / April 14, 2010 at 21:21

    So Wente found some salary stats for one of the highest paying universities in Canada – and then concludes that all universities are bloated with overpaid teachers. She conveniently ignores the fact that the vast majority of teachers in university are expendable sessional part-timers who earn less than a quarter of that.

    This is the superficial level of analysis Ms. Wente’s columns are well known for (Dick Pound, feel free to chime in)

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