17 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Demand for relevance versus the push for open courses

For those planning to attend university in Ontario, entrance applications were due this week. Across Canada, the autumn news cycle has traditionally focused on which university to choose.

But this year, in the wake of October’s higher education rankings, the conversation is about how to make Canadian universities better, rather than which one is best for you.

There is a certain dissatisfaction being vented against everything from low-tech pedagogy to decreasing research funding. But the loudest conversation when students and parents are involved is the relevance of degrees and employment of graduates.

This discourse, however, rings a little hollow in an era of open courseware and seemingly infinite educational choice. The pessimism about Canadian universities is largely in reaction to the overall decrease in rankings put out by the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings in October.

Although Canadian institutions are still well represented in the rankings, six of the top eight lost ground to their competition. Even small decreases were keenly felt. The University of Toronto’s decrease of two places was enough to displace the only Canadian institution from the top 20.

The first reaction to this slide in rankings was to question THE’s methodology.

In a similar vein to William Patrick Leonard’s blog last week, scholars questioned the ranking indicators, the emphasis on inputs, and the yearly variation in weighting.

But this scepticism about the rankings did not last long. Led by the Globe and Mail’s education section, the critique of Canadian universities was taken fully to heart and key stakeholders were invited to voice their opinion on how to strengthen Canadian post-secondary education.

Relevant degrees versus open courses

Two of the most frequent prescriptions – the call for relevant degrees and that for open courses – are highly contradictory.

The first calls for more relevant degrees and ready employment for graduates. This argument is laden with student testimonials about attaining obscure degrees and working as baristas in coffee shops after graduation.

Critics put the responsibility on universities and governments to ensure graduates are coming out of post-secondary education with useful skills in demand by employers.

At the same time, other stakeholders are calling for widely accessible programming, such as MOOCs – massive open online courses – in a tone that suggests any post-secondary education system without them is falling dangerously behind the times.

In many ways higher education systems cannot avoid involvement since MOOCs are essentially borderless and students can access programming from remote locations. But these two suggestions are not compatible with each other.

As long as students can access any programme they choose via MOOCs, then there is no possibility of ensuring that all degrees are relevant and meet employment demands. Put more bluntly, as long as students are willing to enrol in irrelevant, ‘barista’ degrees these programmes will continue to exist.

Ironically, both arguments attest to the power of market-oriented education.

The call for relevance insists that universities should facilitate an equilibrium that meets the demands of labour. Conversely, MOOCs suggest that the insatiable student demand for post-secondary education should be filled through innovative programme delivery.

This situation is simultaneously favourable and detrimental to departments that have long been criticised for their irrelevance. While they have little to offer by way of employability, if students are demanding their courses in ancient Sanskrit they will continue to be offered – though perhaps virtually.

Ultimately, economic theories of supply and demand are limited in their assumption that individuals are always rational actors.

As applications are submitted across Canada this week it is beyond the power of parents, professors or policy-makers to ensure that students apply for relevant or employable degrees.

The battle between relevance and open access will always be won by students, while they have the purchasing power to choose their barista degrees.

* Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada.
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