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Canada: Undergraduates get poor value for tuition

Undergraduate students across Canada are expecting unacceptable increases in tuition fees and other services. This is particularly evident in Quebec, where students are rioting in response to increases in their tuition fees even though their fees are the lowest in Canada, and in Ontario, where students are complaining because their fees are the highest.

Nevertheless, provincial governments have been increasing their support of post-secondary education. The income to colleges and universities increased to $37.4 billion in 2008-09, the last year that data were available, from $29.4 billion in 2004-05. This represented a 27.2 per cent increase when the Consumer Price Index increased by only 9.4 per cent.

Much of this money has been directed at building graduate programs and enrolling graduate students, and not educating undergraduate students. Not surprisingly, the return on the investment — for both the individual and the economy — is much higher for undergraduate students than for graduate students.

Over the last 10 years, the number of full-time equivalent undergraduates has increased to 708,296 from 559,978; the number of full-time equivalent master’s students has increased to 81,592 from 52,365; and the number of full-time equivalent doctoral students has increased to 40,969 from 24,608.

In other words, undergraduates students have increased by 26.5 per cent, master’s students have increased by 55.8 per cent, and PhD students have increased by 66.5 per cent. At present, there are as many PhD students as there are faculty members in Canadian universities.

These data suggest there are perverse incentives for both professors and university administrators to enroll increasingly more graduate students at the expense of undergraduate students. Admitting graduate students is controlled by professors who receive many advantages in working with competent graduate students.

First, professors would rather supervise small seminars with graduate students than teach large classes of undergraduates. Moreover, the work is interesting and relatively easy because graduate students largely teach themselves.

Second, skilled graduate students help professors conduct their research, which increases the prestige of both professors and universities.

In a quiet moment, graduate students will admit that they often work six days a week, 10-hour days, for very little pay doing “slave labour” on professors’ research projects. Professors and administrators know that bringing in research grants and publishing articles and books are more valued than teaching undergraduates.

Finally, PhD students often teach the large introductory courses that professors won’t teach. In fact, graduate students are an inexpensive, highly motivated and disposable labour force. And, because these students are paid so little, they subsidize other activities in their departments with administrators and professors reaping the rewards.

Given this perverse system, it is little wonder many doctoral students drop out before obtaining their degrees. Recent statistics, in fact, show more than 40 per cent of PhD students do not graduate within 10 years.

Essentially, the system is not designed to graduate PhDs, but to produce ABDs (all-but-dissertations). This is probably good, because in 2008 only 5,421 of the almost 41,000 PhD students graduated when there were only 2,600 new academic positions at Canadian universities.

Unfortunately, neither the Canadian Association of University Teachers nor the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada have good reasons for changing the status quo because both university professors and administrators are advantaged.

Thus, provincial ministers of education, coordinated by the Council of Ministers of Education, should carefully examine the enrolment, graduation and employability of both undergraduate and graduate students in every province.

But, to change the incentive system at universities, the ministers of education will need to work together in forcing universities to do things that professors and administrators would rather not do — like improving the education of undergraduates and admitting fewer graduate students. Only then will undergraduates receive the quality education their tuition fees are paying for.

Rodney A. Clifton is a senior fellow at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba, a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and is a co-author of What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.

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