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Speculative Diction

Making a list: Big issues of 2012 in Canadian higher ed


Since this is my last post for 2012, I’ve decided to do something rather predictable and pick out what I think are five significant issues from Canadian PSE in 2012. Here they are, in no particular order:

1: Printemps érable–Québec student movement and strike.
2012 was a year of significant student activism around the world. In Québec, the protests began over a year ago, as a response to tuition increases announced by the provincial Liberal government. An “unlimited strike” (tagged #GGI on Twitter) was called by student groups in February, 2012. The protests had significant political effect, receiving international attention and generating debate about many of the key issues in PSE policy in Canada. There was a broader reaction from Québec citizens when Bill 78 was passed by the provincial government on May 18; the protests spread as residents in Montréal engaged in the rambunctious “Casseroles” events. Québec’s student movement also built connections internationally to other activist efforts such as those in Chile, the U.K. (where tuition protests have been ongoing, in response to PSE marketization and tuition increases), Europe (in the “era of austerity”), the Middle East, and the United States (in particular the Occupy movement, which has found a home on many campuses).

2: Branding Canada–international student recruitment.

Canada is one of the few countries (if not the only one) that has no national ministry or department for education, and many have bemoaned the resultant lack of national strategy and policy in this area. But Canadian university leaders have begun banding together, since they now have a definite shared object: the international student “market” (particularly so-called BRIC nations–Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Canada has finally jumped into the fray in which Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and the U.K. have been duking it out for quite some time already. A key part of this discussion has been about building a Canadian national “brand” for recruiting international students, which is tied to the commodification of education as an “export”. The federal government went so far as to convene an Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy in August, which suggested doubling international student enrolment; in lieu of an education minister, the report was presented by the Minister of International Trade. International students are frequently viewed in economic terms, since they pay higher tuition fees, as well as providing (in the long term) “human capital”, which is of course connected to “innovation”. Canada has also made changes to immigration laws, to allow students to stay in the country more easily after graduation.

3: “Death of evidence” & science activism.
2012 was a year in which scientists spoke out loudly and publicly about the growing problems with governance of science (and research in general) in Canada. Following hard on the heels of changes to the census in 2011, came the loss of jobs from the NRC, changes to funding allocations within NSERC, and the funding cuts to multiple long-term scientific projects. Canada has also generated an international reputation for disregarding the environment. The “war on science” critique linked cuts to environmental science (including the Experimental Lakes Area) and the “muzzling” of scientists who want to communicate with media, with the big picture (summed up nicely by David Suzuki) wherein Canada has lost “face” internationally because of its regressive stance on crucial issues, and where policy decisions are based on ideology rather than research. As I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts, education research has also been cut, which seems like part of the same trend. Through this convergence of critique, the very basis of governance has come under question; scientists highlighted this by holding a protest on Parliament Hill mourning the “Death of Evidence”.

4: Online education and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
This topic was inescapable for anyone following trends in higher education over the past year. The bulk of the MOOC discussion has been emanating from the United States, probably because of the nature of the changes to higher education that have happened there. For example, there’s much greater privatization and marketization of universities and generally the cost for students is higher, so the anxiety about tuition and student debt (and degree outcomes) is intense. However, MOOCs are included on this list not just because the discussion about their “disruptive” potential has spread northward to Canada (and universities are beginning to jump onto the bandwagon), but also because MOOCs in their current incarnation appear to have been theorised and practiced here first. I’m not going to make any predictions about where the trend of big-league MOOCs is going–others have covered that ground, ad nauseum–but it certainly isn’t going away, especially given the investments now being made by elite universities.

5: Mental health on campus.

This issue has been building for a long time, but its visibility has increased exponentially in the past two years after a series of student deaths at Queen’s University and the subsequent report produced there (here is a PDF of one response). More universities seem to be paying attention, probably not because this is a “bolt from the blue” but because it highlights something they’ve been seeing in the long-term (though much of the media coverage has focused on “puppies” as a remedy). Similarly, the post I wrote about a year ago, about graduate students and mental health, received a lot of attention and was said to have “struck a nerve” (one that’s still twitching now). In the coming years universities will need to find ways of navigating the choppy waters of an issue that is serious (and carries stigma) yet regularly dismissed and de-politicized as merely a phase through which students must pass, in a context where medicating young people for their problems (rather than seeking the root causes) is “par for the course”.

That’s all from me. I wish you all a cheerful and recuperative holiday season, and I’ll see you in the new year!

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. Sean Maguire / December 25, 2012 at 12:06

    Copyright Legislation / Access Copyright agreements?

  2. Jill Andrew / January 11, 2013 at 13:55

    Thanks for your work Melanie!
    Once again I’m inspired and thankful that folks like yourself actually continue to care and document on the complexities of grad school life. It’s ironic…we talk about wanting to privilege our diverse ‘selves’….all the parts of us…the interests..the commitments that make us who we are. Yet we continue to be penalized systemically for HAVING those community and other outside-academia pursuits. Let’s face it what’s going to get us the high figure scholarship more: the straight A+ transcript or the A/A- one with years of communiity activism; The “peer-reviewed” elite journal or the anthology that will very well touch MORE ‘everyday’ lives? I tell you…here’s to a complex catch 22 situation! lol. You too have a wonderful new year!
    Jill Andrew
    Faculty of EDUC @ YORK

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