CANADA: Universities face many challenges

Canada's higher education sector this year will contend with granting councils diminished by their contributions to basic research but offering increased overtures to corporate-sector partnerships. Universities will push for a more flexible research environment to help develop bilateral agreements with university researchers in emerging countries such as India, Brazil and China while student debt, already hovering at an average of C$26,000 (US$26,130) per student, is on the rise.

Among the many challenges laid out for University World News in look-ahead interviews with leading higher education figures, Jim Turk (pictured), Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said his association would continue to advocate for better funding of the university sector.

Turk said this had been diminishing in real government dollars for the last 15 years, with tuition fees continuing to make up for most of the lost funding. Just as important was the need to demonstrate how the government had been overly involved in setting the research agenda.

While the three major granting councils saw significant cuts in 2009 and a slight increase in 2010, new monies had been going to specific sectors as automotive, forestry and business.

"If you're a theoretical physicist, you're right out of luck," said Turk.He said along with giving money to the sectors it favours, the government "starves those that they don't want to fund, like the CFACS."

That was a reference to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which funded multi-year projects ranging from extreme weather to marine environmental prediction. That is until earlier last year when it had to tell its networks of researchers to wind down their projects.

A long-time critic of the corporatisation of the academy, Turk pointed to an alarming shift at Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council with a budget of just over a $1 billion a year. The council's Discovery Grant Program, a funding envelope for basic research, was on a downward trajectory over the past three years with university researchers applying for grants seeing the 71% success rate in 2008 become 64% in 2009 and then 58% last year.

The basic research programme accounted for two-thirds of the council's budget at its creation in 1978 but now hovers around 33 per cent. Turk pointed out the situation for academic researchers would worsen with council plans to cut $14.5 million from Discovery Grant expenditures over the next three years.

While basic research has seen losses, university expertise seems to be going private. The Engage Grants programme, which Turk calls "rent a prof," not only offers companies "access to the unique knowledge and expertise available at Canadian universities" but also allows them to have access to professors for company-specific problems.

On top of that, Turk referred to the increasing influence of the private and corporate sector on funding decisions. The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which has funded more than $5 billion worth of research infrastructure since 1997, is the most extreme example. Of its 12 council members, only one is a professor with five being administrators and six hailing from the corporate world.

For Dave Molenhuis, National Chair for the Canadian Federation of Students, the focus in 2011 will be on the ever-deepening student debt. Not only is there an average student debt of $26,000-$28,000 for those who complete a four-year degree, but there is a record-setting $15 billion the country's students owed the Canada Student Loans Program.

Molenhuis said that was only a part of the money students owed and extends to include provincial loans, credit lines, credit-card debt and private loans. "We're very concerned that for their first jobs they're going to be carrying that kind of debt-load," he said.

But if the average student is taking on more debt because of high tuition fees, Molenhuis and Turk both worry about the kind of access the high fees mean for Canada's large Aboriginal community which has growing numbers of young people whose university attainment is still about a third of the non-Aboriginal population.

Funding for Aboriginal students has been capped at an annual 2% growth, far lower than the demand. Noting the backlog of thousands, Molenhuis would like to see the government "fund every willing First Nation person to attend post-secondary education".

He said this was not only a moral imperative but, with the kind of tax base their success would create and the resulting lower reliance on health and social programmes, it was "an economic no-brainer".

Aboriginal education has also been high on the agenda of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. In its recent pre-budget submission, the association called on the government to increase funding for Aboriginal graduate student scholarships by $10 million per year for two years.

After a successful trip to India this fall, AUCC President Paul Davidson will also push for a change in the way Canada funds its international research collaborations: "We have to be able to access significant resources in a more timely way," Davidson said

There are also several other issues the AUCC is looking at, including calling for more money for the granting agencies, with a rebalancing of the social sciences and humanities. The latter has been getting short shrift among new funds announced by the government. Davidson is also trying to increase the number of postgraduates in the country.

I appreciate the challenge that Philip Fine had in providing a full overview of challenges facing Canadian higher education in space allotted to him. I also believe the author accurately represented the concerns of both the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Federation of Students.

Nevertheless, we could have probably raised these same issues (research and funding) ten years ago and alone, they may not fully represent the deeper challenges we are facing in Canadian higher education in 2011.

To that end, I might build on the author's good summary and the perspectives of the two lobby groups to add five additional challenges facing higher education in Canada:

1. Massification and the quality of learning: While mass participation in higher education has been under way in North America for several decades, without change it will soon reach a critical state of saturation that cannot be ignored. How will Canadian institutions and provincial governments manage this access - quality tension?

2. From access to graduation: We have witnessed a noble attempt to democratise higher education through an aggressive access agenda. However, access alone is no longer the answer. Canada has done well in OECD graduation reports (currently first in all four age groups); however the rest of the world is catching up and we must measurably increase student graduation rates in Canada.

3. Shifting from an instruction paradigm to a learning paradigm: Too often, educators ignore what we know; that the lecture format where faculty teach and students listen is antithesis to what we know about effective student learning. More effort, investment and attention is required to enhance student learning (for the benefit of our students).

4. Enhancing student mobility and learning pathways: Too many students in Canada have long been frustrated by the lack of transparent learning pathways among post secondary institutions. It is frustrating to observe Canadian institutions muddle their way through archaic student mobility philosophies while other jurisdictions around the world are demonstrating student-focused mobility solutions. This is an issue that requires more attention - including perhaps CFS leadership.

5. Information and communication technologies (ICT) and Web 2.0/3.0: If we can accept the first four challenges are legitimate issues, we also must understand how ICTs and emerging Web tools can bring about a better balance between equity and excellence in higher education (while perhaps increasing access and enhancing learning).

In addition to the author's good overview, I suggest that Canadian higher education has these additional challenges that must begin to be more effectively addressed in the coming year.

Kent MacDonald, Vice President, Academic, Algonquin College, Ottawa