Barbara Kay: Higher education needs a rethink
Wednesday June 6th, 2012
Nobody can predict the end game in the never-ending Quebec protest against tuition hikes. It can’t be good either way: frozen tuition means the province is being run by mobs; tuition hikes will keep resentment smoldering, but won’t make a real dent in the true costs of a university education.
Whatever happens, we may as well use the debacle as inspiration for a badly-needed rethinking of the whole unsustainable paradigm of higher education.
As my colleague Matt Gurney noted in a recent column, inflation in Canada from 1991-2007 rose by 35%, while tuition costs throughout the country rose as high as 275% in Alberta (in Quebec a comparatively paltry 111%). But our students are lucky compared to those in the United States. Here, annual tuition fees top out at about $7,000 for arts students, and across Canada student debt ranges between $20,000-$30,000 (in Quebec it is only $14,000), for a total of about $10-billion. In the United States, the annual cost of a four-year undergrad degree is $21,000 and accumulated student debt has just passed $1-trillion.
An entire library could be filled with books lamenting the present state of higher education in the arts and humanities — the lack of intellectual diversity, the dumbing down of courses to accommodate the unmotivated lowest denominator who must not be failed on principle, and other well-publicized grievances. So while knowledgeable observers agree that a university degree is a sine qua non for the job market, they also agree that while it is serving more numerous clients, higher ed is delivering less than it did as an elite institution. Many undergrad degrees conferred today are largely pro forma, as universities are not producing a plethora of critical thinkers or even proficient writers.
We can’t have both low-cost and mass education unless we make some drastic changes, either by serving a drastically reduced clientele, or changing the platform for delivery. Some suggestions:
- free tuition, but merit-based and/or requiring military/community service in return, as some Scandinavian countries do. Lesser-qualified students could go for vocational courses with diplomas in beefed-up, lower-cost community colleges. That way, only the truly interested would make it into universities and would rise to a rigorous standard;
- technology on a massive scale, as is inevitable anyway. One can see Canadian potential, for example, in now-operative Massive Open Online Courses and Seminars (MOOCs and MOOSes) in the United States, showcasing accredited courses with academic superstars from Harvard, MIT and Stanford. Instead of a multiplicity of professors at many universities teaching the same basic courses, a single Nobel laureate can “lecture” a million students by subscription. Local universities can provide supportive tutorials with lesser academic lights;
- extended years of study that combine easily with full-time jobs. This has been the hallmark of Concordia’s success: evening, weekend and summer courses that allow maximum flexibility to accommodate real-life situations;
- community college work/study programs that allow students to finance their studies as they learn. To wit:
My first job after finishing my graduate studies was teaching Business English to students at the Sir George Williams School of Retailing (Sir George Williams University was the precursor to Concordia). I loved that school’s model. My students attended full-day classes Monday to Wednesday. Thursday to Saturday they worked for minimum wage in seven program-affiliated department stores which deployed them on job rotations that gave them a holistic retail experience.
It was a win-win for students and stores: The stores had eager, reliable interns for predictable periods at minimal cost, and the students made enough money to finance their education, as well as getting the kind of real-life experience that allowed them to hit the ground running on graduation, when they found ready employment as assistant managers and buyers in the stores they already knew well.
This apprentice-style education/work combination was particularly good for instilling the non-cognitive skills that are the real keys to success in the outside world: discipline, reliability, organization and humility, the kind of traits a sheltered and permissive campus bubble doesn’t emphasize. It seems to me that this organized study/work template would be suitable for any number of industries, notably technology itself.
If students are to get the free ride Quebec protesters claim they want, it has to be a no-frills and far more focused ride. Of course what really needs changing more than anything are our unexamined beliefs that a university education is such a necessary, even sanctified rite of passage for young people that de-democratizing it or attaching a civic price tag to it is an untouchable idea. Not every unopened box belongs to Pandora. It’s time to open this one.