Lowering Higher Education

By James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar

Lowering Higher Education begins with a familiar complaint: standards are slipping in Canadian universities, with grade inflation, an increasing emphasis on credentialism, and widespread student disengagement contributing to institutional “mission drift.” Vocationalism (job training) now takes precedence over education (defined as learning to engage in critical thought). Humanities departments in particular are now little more than pricey recreation centres churning out worthless “BA-lite” or “faux-BA” degrees.

What may make this sound even more familiar is the fact that Lowering Higher Education is a sequel to Ivory Tower Blues, a provocative 2007 book on the same subject by the same authors, James Côté and Anton Allahar, a pair of sociology professors at the University of Western Ontario who are unashamed idealists when it comes to higher education.

Those ideals may strike readers as a bit quaint today. For Côté and Allahar a university education speaks to “the central philosophical issues at the heart of the human community: the promotion of social justice, the inculcation of a sense of morality and social responsibility, a commitment to the pursuit of social equality, and the recognition of the dignity of all people.” Higher education is an engine of personal and intellectual transformation that also has an essential political function, turning students into future leaders of society and informed and engaged citizens.

These are lofty goals indeed. Where, then, did things go wrong?

The original sin of Canadian universities was “massification”: a dreadful word that refers to the unbridled expansion of the university system that took place at the end of the twentieth century, turning elite institutions into overcrowded diploma mills and creating a higher education bubble economy.

The authors see the main antidote to massification as being more funding. Of course. But they also recommend a contraction and re-focus on the university’s core mission. This doesn’t mean restricting access to worthy candidates, but it does call for getting rid of a lot of dead wood. Which would have practical consequences that Côté and Allahar don’t seem keen on addressing.

Make no mistake: what is being called for is a radical downsizing. According to Côté and Allahar anywhere from half to as many as 90 per cent of today’s students qualify as “seriously disengaged.” (I might add that from my own experience this sounds right.) Presumably smaller class sizes and better teacher-student ratios would help them become more engaged, but it’s clear the authors think that many of these students shouldn’t be in university at all. What then? A critic of the authors’ earlier book makes the point:

leaving them [the students who shouldn’t be at university in the first place] out would be fine if we don’t mind closing down half our universities and displacing very large numbers of our faculty and staff. Save for the highly selective universities, our campuses are financially dependent on these same students who seem so ill-suited for the kind of education many faculty would prefer to provide.

The system, in other words, would collapse under such practical reforms. Unfortunately this crucial point is only raised at the very end of the book, and only briefly answered with the vague hope that better high school preparation will actually lead to an increase in qualified enrolment. This is magical thinking writ large. In any event, until that happy day Côté and Allahar are content to call on more government funding (funding that will, also somewhat magically, not be tied to enrolment), while emphasizing that a liberal education remains, by definition, something that exists outside the functioning of the larger economy.

The authors stress that the origin of the word “liberal” is the Latin liber, or “free.” They quote approvingly a source who describes such an education as a lifestyle of leisure, free from consuming material cares and involving a certain “largess.” “Liberal education,” they affirm, “cannot be bought.” A university is not a corporation, and students are not consumers.

As appealing as this idea of the university may sound, it was never very convincing in the past and is ridiculous today. Universities are corporations, and quite large ones at that. This is something there’s simply no getting around. While Côté and Allahar cast a cold, critical eye on some of the problems facing Canada’s system of higher education, their solutions are grounded in a myth.

Review first published online December 12, 2011.