Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2003

Warped Political Policies Devalue Post-Secondary Education

Victor Catano
This past summer the country has been preoccupied with SARS, Mad Cow Disease and power outages. Overlooked in the media is the emerging crisis in higher education. August brought with it the annual Statistics Canada report on tuition fees. Once again, fees have increased dramatically over the past year. Undergraduate tuition fees rose by 7.4 per cent overall, bringing the total increase to 179.4 per cent since 1990-1991. That is an average increase of more than 15 per cent per year for the last 12 years. Increases in auto insurance, which have not reached these levels, have been major political issues in recent provincial elections. This year's increases in tuition fees for professional schools are placing programs in medicine (16.7 per cent), law (19.4 per cent) and dentistry (20.9 per cent) out of the reach of lower- and middle-income families.

All of the public opinion polls that Decima Research has conducted for CAUT show funding of higher education is a major issue that ranks among the top concerns of the public. In the recent Nova Scotia provincial election, where the ruling Progressive Conservative government lost its majority, both the Liberals and New Democrats made education and/or tuition freezes central issues of their campaigns. Higher education issues also promise to be an important focus of the upcoming election in Ontario where only now are we beginning to hear the full impact of the province's double cohort on universities with overcrowded classrooms and lack of residential facilities. It is becoming evident the electorate has recognized the need to restore core funding to post-secondary institutions. Deferred maintenance of buildings (and power grids) can only go so far before the system grinds to a halt.

In part, the funding problems have developed because of cutbacks in transfer payments to the provinces, mostly when prime-minister-in-waiting Paul Martin was finance minister. Martin was quite open in saying he was not going to increase provincial transfers for higher education funding or social services that provincial premiers would then use for tax cuts or to pave roads. Recently, however, when campaigning in Cape Breton, Martin recognized that the University College of Cape Breton was one of the few means of spurring economic growth and development in Cape Breton and deserving of special funding on that basis. Much the same could be said about any university in Canada. His remark, however, illustrates the failure of politicians to recognize the true value of universities in advancing knowledge and educating the public, apart from their role in economic development. Regrettably, this same philosophy is present in the government's innovation strategy.

The federal government seems to be pursuing a policy, without public consultation or debate, of creating a two-tiered university system in which there will be one category of teaching-only universities and another where teaching is carried out by contingent faculty while tenured faculty pursue research that can be commercialized and patented for the gain of the university and the economy. Additionally, money is being directed into having two-year colleges undertake the major part of teaching through articulation agreements or, in some cases, becoming teaching-only degree-granting institutions. The Canada Research Chairs program is a good illustration of this thinking when the initial ground rules prohibited CRC holders from teaching.

The stealth policies of the federal government appear to be following an agenda developed in the U.K. by the Blair government to create a two-tiered university system. In both cases, bureaucrats point to a meta-analytic study1 to justify their actions. Based on research from the 1970s, the study's authors found only a small correlation between research output and teaching effectiveness. Although others have raised numerous problems with the study, it continues to surface in policy documents. More qualitative studies consistently find that students want to be involved in research projects and perceive the value of having their faculty involved in research. In fact, bodies such as the U.S.-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business use undergraduate research opportunities as one of their accreditation criteria.

Research benefits undergraduates by allowing them to experience and participate in the most recent developments in their fields without having to wait to learn about them two or three years later when a new textbook arrives on the scene. Research helps undergraduates to develop critical thinking skills and teaches them how to gather and integrate information. Asking whether good researchers make good teachers (or vice versa) is nothing more than a red herring that removes the focus from the legitimate question of what makes post-secondary education different from other parts of the educational system: high quality teaching takes place in an active research environment that stimulates students to challenge and question the status quo.

Rather than introducing policies that concentrate research in a handful of "elite institutions" governments should develop policies that would strengthen the research capacity throughout the post-secondary system and prevent the further fragmentation of teaching and research. Such policies could include greater support for research collaboration with faculty at "teaching-only" institutions and more weight given to the scholarship of teaching at research-intensive universities.

The misguided policy of viewing creation of knowledge apart from its dissemination through teaching will only have negative consequences for the post-secondary system and for the nation.

1 Hattie, J. & Marsh, H.W. (1996) The Relationship Between Research and Teaching: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66(4), 507-542.