Volume 29 - Number 11 - Thursday, February 27, 1997

Are students receiving the education they deserve

by Sylvain Comeau

There is no question that Canadian universities are under unprecedented financial pressure, caught between mounting financial costs and severe government cutbacks. But do these pressures mean that they are being forced to shortchange students?

That was the question at hand for a pair of longtime observers of the university scene. At a seminar organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, McGill's dean of education Ted Wall and Peter Emberley, director of Carleton University's new College of the Humanities, offered their thoughts on how well universities were treating their most important customers.

Emberley is no stranger to the topic. The author of two controversial books about Canadian universities, Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada and Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities, Emberley was quick to list the forces he believes are at fault for diluting the quality of education offered to university students.

For one thing, Emberley believes that universities are under pressure from corporations--and students anxious about high unemployment rates--to focus more and more on practical job skills. These new demands are endangering the intellectual and spiritual growth that universities have traditionally tried to offer their students.

"There is a pressure to restructure the scholarly culture so that it more efficiently and directly prepares students for the workplace, and a pressure to use it as an engine of social transformation," said Emberley.

"Sociologists of work are now reporting that the workplace is transforming at the rate of a major shift every four to six years. This is why retraining has become such a priority in our society; skills continually lag behind technical innovation.

"The question is whether it is still efficient to think of education primarily as training individuals for a specific set of skills, and whether specialized study and research are the best preparation for a workplace subject to continuous adjustment."

Emberley's answer goes against the grain.

"For years, we've discounted the value of a general education, but perhaps especially today, we should be putting a premium on the intellectual adaptability that can be acquired in the rigorous core curricula of interdisciplinary studies."

Emberley argued that the information age we're entering into requires free thinkers more than specialists.

"There is a massive shift from material production to information management in the workplace; in addition, more work time is spent on communication, personnel administration and marketing than 20 years ago.

"As labour becomes more abstract, is it not sound practice to pay far greater attention to creativity and imagination, to forms of synthetic judgment and the capacity to articulate ideas?"

Emberley warned that the effort to create "a seamless web between the university and the workplace" may leave universities vulnerable to the pitfalls of technology.

"Technology's universalizing and homogenizing force leads to a situation in which the idea of knowledge is degenerating into mere information, and where higher education becomes synonymous with all other forms of learning.

"Stepping back, even temporarily, from the dynamo of technological growth, may lead us to be more spiritually balanced, less inclined to think that all mysteries are problems to be solved, less bored and attracted to frivolous pastimes, and more realistic in our expectations for contentment in life. On all these fronts, we risk dramatically shortchanging our university students when we buy heavily into the image of the scholarly culture as a business corporation."

While Emberley worries about corporate agendas and the glorification of technology, he spies yet another threat to universities emerging from the left.

The professor and author points to political correctness as a caustic force on Canadian campuses.

"Many universities seem to believe that the tensions and predicaments that individuals face can be structurally explained as springing exclusively from a lack of social power, that systemic injustice pervades all aspects of Canadian society, that university curricula are utterly dysfunctional, and the renewal of curricula--scholarly research and teaching--must derive from an analysis that uses the categories of race, gender and ethnicity."

Emberley sees the result as an attack on the scholarly culture.

"In gendering and racializing history, politics and reason--the cultural left's way of saying that all ideas can be understood paramountly as struggles of sex or race--is a rally cry to deconstruct or corrode trust within the bookish or scholarly culture."

He gave some recent examples of the tribal divisiveness that results.

"Where has this agenda led university policy? When the Johnson Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University was advertised, non-blacks, even if they were acknowledged black Canadian studies scholars, were sharply told that eligibility was restricted to blacks. In 1993, at the University of Western Ontario, an English professor was prevented by angry protesters from talking about a lesbian feminist poet, because he was not himself a lesbian feminist--although he was gay."

Dean Wall viewed the academic landscape with a far more optimistic eye. Universities might not be perfect, said Wall, but students certainly reap benefits from attending them.

He opened his presentation by citing results from the 1995 International Adult Literacy Survey, which demonstrated "that university graduates, on average, scored the highest level of prose literacy." In addition, "data from this survey confirmed that the higher the level of literacy, the more likely an individual is to be employed. Furthermore, the report states that 'there is a large income bonus for those workers with high literacy skills.'"

Wall also cited a Human Resources Development Canada report published in 1996 which showed that "the percentage of 1990 graduates working full time two years after graduation ranges from 87% for those with a doctorate to 73% for those with a Bachelor's degree, versus only 64% for those with a trade or vocational education."

Wall suggested that students bear the largest responsibility to make sure they aren't short-changed.

"Our education system has become--as a whole--much more diversified. It's trying to appropriately educate many more different kinds of individuals than in the past. Students must avoid shortchanging themselves, and choose the programs, the courses, the professors that are right for them. They must decide the purpose of an education; therefore, (the question of whether students are being shortchanged) can only be answered at a very personal level."

Wall did acknowledge that cutbacks are a very real threat to the quality of education in the present and future.

"At McGill, over the last five years, our operating budget has declined 27%. In my own faculty, we have just completed a budget reduction exercise of six per cent, which translates approximately to $600,000. Not having the funds to replace retiring faculty and staff members makes it difficult to maintain a truly excellent learning environment for our students, no matter how imaginatively we reorganize and optimize our teaching, research and student services."

Wall does see a bright side to the cutbacks, in universities' ability to reinvent themselves.

"The potential threats arising from fiscal pressure, if handled properly, could become opportunities. Budget constraints may generate the motivation to develop internal and external partnerships to more effectively and efficiently share the human, physical and fiscal resources that are available."

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