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Speculative Diction

A missed opportunity to contrast Canadian and U.S. higher-ed systems

The two systems are different, just not quite in the way a recent op-ed portrayed them.


If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may have noticed that periodically I write posts critiquing how the media cover higher education, sometimes dissecting a particular piece in detail (that’s my media studies background coming into play). Today’s post is another in the series, and this time around I’m taking a closer look at a recent column from the Ottawa Citizen about the differences between postsecondary education in the United States and Canada.

My interest was piqued when I saw the initial premise of the article, since it seemed to be making a crucial point: Canada and the United States are quite different, and thus a meaningful comparison of education issues in the two countries requires some context-setting and explanation of those differences. The author, philosophy professor Joseph Heath, criticises the “lazy habits” of Canadian journalists who assume that “whenever anything bad is happening in the United States, it must also be happening in Canada, and so there’s no need to actually go and check.”

It turns out the main prompt for this piece was “the recent uptick in concern over the tyranny of ‘political correctness’ in our universities,” including “a number of recent accounts coming from the U.S. of traumatized professors, explaining how they’ve become terrified of their students [and] of administrators rolling over and playing dead, afraid to offend students’ increasingly delicate sensibilities.” According to Heath these students’ behaviours reveal a sense of entitlement that’s fed by a consumerist view of education, which in turn is a symptom of high tuition fees. Once again no examples are provided, so I’ll direct you to the case of Northwestern University prof Laura Kipnis, and to this article (Heath doesn’t offer any example of Canadian “concern” other than Rex Murphy, who doesn’t really count).

This is an odd choice of issue when illustrating the differences between the U.S. and Canada, to be sure. But the article really starts to veer off track when Heath tries to explain all this in more detail.

To start, Heath claims that “Canadian universities are in the business of mass education” while “fancy” U.S. universities are not—because the University of Toronto educates more students than all the Ivy League schools combined. But there’s no reason to focus only on “top” universities when by definition they don’t represent the whole system; and while it may be true that the U.S. Ivies are much smaller than U of T or UBC, they are also moreelite institutions. They’re private non-profit universities with small student populations, proportionally large graduate student enrolments, and hefty endowments (Harvard’s is currently over $35 billion). Nothing really comparable exists in Canada. Meanwhile most university education in the United States happens outside the Ivy League institutions, so it’s not clear why the latter are the chosen examples.

Next Heath claims that because U.S. universities (again, only the “fancy” ones) charge so much tuition, they’re beholden to students and parents and must respond to student complaints—unlike at U of T, where students pay low tuition and can be safely ignored. Still sticking with the Ivy League, Heath argues: “offend a student, you get a call from the parents. The same parents you’re milking for over US$60,000 per year.” Yes, in the U.S. tuition fees tend to be much higher than in Canada; and that’s not just something confined to the Ivies. Small but prestigious private liberal arts colleges, for example, regularly beat out Harvard and Yale on the list of most expensive universities to attend. But again, we have to ask why the comparison between the U.S. and Canada is limited to these expensive institutions that educate only a small proportion of U.S. students.

While I agree that student consumerism is an important issue, the point is not well made here. And its counterpart, according to Heath, is a total lack of accountability in Canadian institutions: “if you fail a few classes in Canada, nobody will be calling to check on you” because supposedly the universities don’t have to care about retention. U.S. institutions on the other hand are depicted as paternalistic, “[pandering] more to students” because they’re driven to ensure “customers” stay enrolled. It seems there’s something in this argument to annoy everyone, particularly the assumption that staff would only care about student success if it affected the bottom line.

In fact to Heath, Canada’s “public mega-universities” are “pretty much completely insulated from ‘customer complaints.’” This conclusion is based on his personal experience of having had “no blowback.” But what about the adjunct professor at Queen’s University who received plenty of “blowback” about her course material when students objected to her teaching anti-vax theories? Students certainly raised their voices then. What about the York University student who misunderstood a prof’s example in class, took his words out of context and made immediate complaints? The Canadian examples may be fewer and further between (Canada has a smaller population after all), but they do happen.

Lastly, Heath offers an analysis of the differences between campus political climates in the United States and Canada. He argues that because they’ve been shut out of the political system, “left-wing students and faculty in the U.S. have practically no outlet for their political energies or frustrations” (other than on campus). I can’t speak for colleagues south of the border, but to me this sounds absurdly simplistic. Perhaps Heath has been reading in the U.S. higher ed news the many column inches devoted to the idea of the dominance of “liberal” (left-leaning) faculty in U.S. universities—though it’s certainly not only left-wing students and faculty raising a ruckus on campus.

Following this logic—and taking Québec as a stand-in for the whole country—Heath asks, “if you’re an undergraduate in Canada, why fuss around with campus politics, when you can run for parliament?” Never mind the thousands of students across the country (not only in Québec!) who engage in activism and political organizing, both on- and off-campus, some of it through party-affiliated organizations but much of it through student unions and other cause-based collaborations. Or perhaps these would be dismissed as “the usual low-level scuffles between left-wing and right-wing student groups.”

Heath has called journalists “lazy” but has himself fallen into a trap where the U.S. media are regularly ensnared: he focusses on the Ivies only rather than looking at (or even mentioning) the diversity of the whole higher-ed picture, and offers no justification for the narrowness of the comparison. But this is part of a bigger problem, also a regular one in higher-ed media coverage: that of extrapolating from one example (including from personal experience) as if it’s the template for how higher-ed happens generally.

What’s my point in dissecting this piece in such detail? It’s partly to show how much can go awry in one short column that reaches a fairly broad audience; but this is also a chance to highlight some significant differences between the U.S. and Canada that are not often enough discussed outside of academic and policy circles. A few examples I’d include: the higher rate of unionization and higher salaries for contract faculty; the much slower pace of marketization; the relative stability of tenure; the lack of differentiation; a much less extreme hierarchy of “have/have not” universities; and the very small proportion of private universities. In fact, Canada’s universities have been described as relatively homogeneous, a situation that is decried by the U15 group on a fairly regular basis.

Lastly, Canada’s lack of a national department or ministry of education is unusual and should warrant at least some discussion, given the effect it has on the nation’s policy landscape. All the differences I’ve listed are relevant to conversations happening in the U.S. (regarding tenure, adjuncts, privatization, tuition fees and so on), much more so than the issue of whether or not students here are too “politically correct.” With so much to discuss, it’s about time we saw more informed public commentary about what Canada looks like in comparison to the rest of the world; it might be helpful and provide some perspective for everyone.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Joseph Heath / July 3, 2015 at 11:07

    Of course I’m aware that there are large state schools in the U.S., that charge lower tuition, that do most of the work educating Americans, etc. The reason I didn’t discuss them is that, as far as I can tell, all of the “political correctness run amok” stories coming out of the United States are from the small liberal arts colleges (e.g. Brandeis), Iveys, or places like Northwestern (my alma mater), which are tiny by Canadian standards. So my point was just to say that these sorts of places — where all of the students-intimidating-faculty action seems to be occurring at the moment — have no counterpart in Canada.

    As to the issue of whether U.S. students and faculty are more disenfranchised from the political system, I don’t exactly understand your objection, or why you think we disagree. The fact remains that left-wing U.S. students and faculty have a lot more trouble getting exciting about working for the Democratic party than Canadian students and faculty do working for the NDP or the Green Party. If you don’t like Quebec examples, then consider a nice Toronto example, of my colleague (philosophy professor) Rachel Barney, who ran as the Green Party candidate in Trinity-Spadina. There are simply a lot more points of access to the political system in Canada, which naturally tends to broaden people’s activism to beyond just campus issues.

    Finally, I was obviously tweaking people’s noses a bit in emphasizing the student-unfriendliness of Canadian universities. Still, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the type of customer service we offer undergraduates. (That having been said, UofT is probably worse than most, which may affect my perception. The G&M survey, which looks at student perceptions, is illuminating in that regard — our students hate us!. They hate us so much, they even think we have a bad library!)

    You are right though that I forgot to mention unions as a factor, particularly for contract workers at Canadian universities. I mentioned that in a follow-up on my blog. As for the other differences you mentioned, good luck fitting those into an 800-word op-ed!

  2. Jack Longmate / July 11, 2015 at 13:02

    Regarding “mass education” as opposed to a “fancy” variant, there can be no debate that the institution of the two-year community college has a similar role across our both of our countries.

    I believe those two-year institutions face very similar pressures: the desire for institutional flexibility by limiting the number of secure faculty and the temptation to manage on the cheap by hiring lesser paid sessionals or adjuncts, to identify two primary issues.

    Vancouver Community College, and others that are part of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of British Columbia, have achieved working conditions for all faculty that, as an American, most of us can only dream about: equal pay for equal work, equal work, and job security. A number of American policy makers dismiss the Vancouver Model as applicable for the U.S. because it is Canadian and they presumption that, being Canadian, things must be different. However, the fact that Canadian institutions face the same pressures as U.S. institutions, and precarious contingent employment is as common across Canadian institutions as it is across the United States faculty unionists, undermines that presumption. What has made the difference, I believe, has been the leadership in Vancouver that managed to transcend the elitism among faculty and established solidarity that has been manifest through faculty strikes. As an American contingent, it is difficult to image tenured faculty going out on strike to protest the working conditions of their non-tenured colleagues.

    Not mentioned in this article is a subject of concern: the inclination of some Canadian institutions to seek accreditation through U.S. accreditation agencies. I believe that would be a mistake.

    Jack Longmate
    Adjunct English Instructor
    Olympic College, Bremerton, Washington USA

  3. Chris / July 13, 2015 at 23:22

    I have always enjoyed Melonie’s posts and found them to be insightful, including this one. However, Joseph’s rebuttal is also compelling, especially his point about word counts in print. Perhaps this is a (hopefully not missed) opportunity to contrast print and blog critiques and comparisons of higher-ed systems. Are these two media biased toward different conclusions based solely on word count?

  4. Benjamin Locke / August 25, 2015 at 14:36

    By whatever standard is used, there is no denying that Canadian universities are generally considered inferior to American universities. The feeling has always been “I would rather go to the University of Kansas” because it is “made in the U.S.A.” than the “University of Toronto” or “University of British Columbia” which are never-heard schools, especially outside of Canada or North America. I have three children, two of whom went to the U.S. for higher education (University of Chicago and Iowa State University) and another who went to Canada (University of British Columbia). When I tell family and friends in Malaysia that my two children went to American colleges, they say “wow,” “that’s nice”, “they must be smart to have gotten there,” etc., etc. When I introduce my other kid who went to Canada/UBC, they often ask “why did he not study in America?” or “Is he considering doing graduate work in America.”

    So I think Heath may have written about the grand dames of American higher education, but the same points will generally apply to most American universities (or “made in the U.S.A.” students and research work).

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