Why Canadian professors aren’t afraid of their students

Posted on June 9, 2015 in Education Delivery System

OttawaCitizen.com – Opinion/Columnists
June 8, 2015.    Joseph Heath

One of the lazy habits that Canadian journalists sometimes fall into is talking as though Canada and the United States were the same country. This shows up most clearly in the belief that whenever anything bad is happening in the United States, it must also be happening in Canada, and so there’s no need to actually go and check.

You can see this at work in the recent uptick in concern over the tyranny of “political correctness” in our universities. There have been a number of recent accounts coming from the U.S. of traumatized professors, explaining how they’ve become terrified of their students. And cases of administrators rolling over and playing dead, afraid to offend students’ increasingly delicate sensibilities.

All of this has been enough for some commentators to proclaim a new dark age descending over all of North America, as our universities become, as Rex Murphy put it, “factories for reinforcing received opinions.”

This big trend is one that I’ve seen no evidence of in Canada. I suppose something could always blow up, but so far all there have been are the usual low-level scuffles between left-wing and right-wing student groups, the sort of thing that has been going on forever. The fact is, Canadian universities are quite different from American ones. Even though we have a fairly integrated job market, the incentives that the institutions face are almost completely different in the two countries.

There are few better ways of illustrating the difference than to look at the top U.S. colleges and compare them to a highly-ranked Canadian university, like the University of Toronto where I work. The first thing you’ll notice is that American schools are miniscule. The top 10 U.S. universities combined (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.) have room for fewer than 60,000 undergraduates total. The University of Toronto, by contrast, alone has more capacity, with over 68,000 undergraduate students.

In other words, Canadian universities are in the business of mass education. We take entire generations of Canadians, tens of thousands of them recent immigrants, and give them access to the middle classes. Fancy American schools are in the business of offering boutique education to a very tiny, coddled minority, giving them access to the upper classes. That’s a really fundamental difference.

The second thing is that U.S. schools charge astronomical tuition fees. Most of the top 10 charge over US$45,000, but then they make students live on campus as well, which brings the total bill to over US$60,000 per year. University of Toronto, by contrast, charges annual tuition of just slightly over $6,000 for an Arts and Science degree, and students can live wherever they want, including at home.

Because of the tuition fees, fancy U.S. colleges have what one might call a strong customer-service orientation. No wonder these schools are worried about “offending” people. Offend a student, you get a call from the parents. The same parents you’re milking for over US$60,000 per year.

Also, because U.S. colleges charge these fees on a per-semester basis, they are extremely sensitive to fall semester drop-outs. The number of students they can accept is limited by the number of residence spaces. Lose a student before Christmas, you wind up with an empty dorm-room for the rest of the academic year. As a result, they have begun to practice “yield-management” just like airlines and hotels, overbooking the incoming class, or doing staggered enrolments, so that they can slot new students into whatever rooms become empty in January.

I mention this only to emphasize the point that U.S. colleges care a lot about their tuition revenue, and will bend over backwards to do student retention. If you do badly in a few classes, someone from the administration will actually give you a phone call to find out if you’re doing okay, and if you want to talk about it. The atmosphere this creates on campus is, in my view, cloyingly paternalistic, but it’s what Americans have come to expect. It’s the business model.

That’s why many U.S. colleges have all but stopped failing students, or enforcing rules against plagiarism. It’s also why they pander more to students in the content of their course offerings. But if one were to assume, on this basis, that all universities are doing the same thing, in Canada and the United States, one would be failing to recognize very real differences between these institutions.

Public mega-universities in Canada are, for better or for worse, pretty much completely insulated from “customer complaints.” During my 20 years at University of Toronto, I’ve never had blowback from anything I’ve said or done in class. This of course creates its own problems, but cravenness in the face of student opinion is not one of them.

(The situation in Canada is not as bad as in France, where the universities actually try to get half of the first-year class to drop out. But let’s just say that, if you fail a few classes in Canada, nobody will be calling to check on you.)

There’s one other big difference between Canada and the U.S., which greatly affects the political climate on campus. Left-wing students and faculty in the U.S. have practically no outlet for their political energies or frustrations. Both political parties in the United States are ossified and essentially corrupt. As a result, a huge amount of political energy that should be directed at changing the U.S. government is stymied, and so gets redirected into campus politics.

In other words, intellectuals in America are genuinely alienated from the political system. Many persuade themselves that purifying the universities is actually an important first step in bringing about broader political change. Usually though it’s just a sign of desperation. Recognizing that they will never be able to bring about significant political change in their country, they turn their attention to the small corner of the world that they do control.

Canada, by contrast, has an incredibly dynamic political system, with very accessible political parties and low barriers to entry. After the last federal election, I overheard a funny conversation between a group of professors I know in Montreal, comparing notes on how many of their students had been elected as MPs. If you’re an undergraduate in Canada, why fuss around with campus politics, when you can run for parliament?

To the extent that Canadian students do engage in militant action, it has been largely focused on their own economic interests (lower tuition, higher funding guarantees), rather than abstract ideas about social justice.

The accessibility of the political system, along with the existence of a genuinely left-wing political party in Canada, not to mention the Green Party, hugely affects the political landscape on campus. All of it serves to siphon off a lot of political energy, putting it to better use, and preventing the development of the sort of hot-house atmosphere that prevails in many U.S. colleges.

None of this gives us immunity from the forces that are currently roiling the academy south of the border. But institutional differences do matter, and when it comes to the universities, there are enormous differences between our two countries.

Joseph Heath is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

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