A Happy New Year to all the members of the higher ed community in Canada and beyond. We look forward to sharing many incredible stories with you in 2017, but for now, we’d like to take a look back at the year that was with our Second Annual Canadian Higher Education Year in Review.
Instead of highlighting the top ten individual news items of 2016, we’ve decided this year to curate and explore the ten themes that most defined the Canadian PSE landscape over the past twelve months. So without further ado, this year’s themes are:
After Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its recommendations in mid-2015, 2016 saw postsecondary institutions from across Canada working to implement these recommendations in a variety of ways. These efforts often fell under large-scale indigenization initiatives, and included a host of new programs and community consultations designed to make schools more welcoming to and representative of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Moira MacDonald wrote a comprehensive article on the subject of indigenization for University Affairs, while Academica Group published a piece outlining concrete ways that institutions can pursue indigenization initiatives.
On the federal level, critics challenged the Canadian government's decision not to include $50M per year in new funding for the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, which the Liberals had pledged to do during their 2015 election campaign (1, 2). An Access to Information request filed by the federal NDP later revealed that postsecondary funding for Indigenous students had declined by 18.3% between 1997 and 2015, due in part to a 2% cap on yearly increases in funding to the PSSSP that has been in place since 1996.
In April, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that the federal government has a constitutional responsibility to Métis, Inuit, and First Nations peoples without registered Indian status, which extends to the delivery of social programs and services such as the Post-Secondary Student Support Program.
Conflicts in Campus Culture
2016 saw a number of high-profile conflicts concerning the culture of institutions. Trinity Western University won legal victories in Nova Scotia and British Columbia to secure accreditation for its proposed law school, while it lost a bid to overturn a denial of accreditation in Ontario. These legal battles drew attention to TWU’s community covenant, which critics alleged amounted to discrimination against the LGBTQ community; yet TWU and its supporters insisted that denying accreditation for its law school constituted a violation of the school’s religious freedom. In November, the Law Society of British Columbia announced that it would take its case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The year also saw University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson criticize a proposed federal human rights bill and state that he would refuse to use genderless pronouns if a student asked him to do so. Peterson’s positions on free speech and related issues have sparked national debate about a potential conflict between academic freedom, campus inclusiveness, and human rights law (1, 2).
The events of Brexit and the US presidential election further fueled debates about inclusiveness and freedom of speech on postsecondary campuses. Critics have accused students and social activists of being unwilling to hear uncomfortable or different points of view, while others have argued that appeals to rational dialogue and freedom of speech disproportionately benefit those who are already privileged and make campuses less welcoming for members of marginalized groups (1, 2, 3).
Sexual violence figured prominently in many higher ed news stories throughout 2016, as concerns grew about a lack of accurate data on the subject and institutions pushed for the development of sexual assault policies. In April, British Columbia joined Ontario in mandating that all postsecondary institutions develop standalone sexual misconduct policies. In October, the Manitoba government also introduced new sexual violence legislation that was praised by the Canadian Federation of Students.
While some institutions had a relatively smooth experience developing and installing new policies, others encountered difficulties or barriers that highlighted the complexity of the process and the issue at hand. The Ottawa Citizen ran extensive coverage of the creation of Carleton University’s sexual assault policy, which was approved by the university’s board in early December following months of debate.
Throughout 2016, a number of schools across Canada were accused of not properly supporting victims or not taking enough action against those accused of committing sexual violence (1, 2, 3). These accusations often grew into larger debates about the role that postsecondary institutions should play in policing matters of sexual assault.
The emphasis on internationalization in 2016 was nothing new compared to recent years, but what was new was the changing nature of this term and what it means for Canadian higher ed. For starters, 2016 saw a greater emphasis on the two-way nature of internationalization, with a growing emphasis on the need to encourage more Canadian students to study abroad (1, 2, 3, 4). In April, Academica released a StudentVu report charting Canadian students’ attitudes toward study abroad.
One of the year’s biggest developments in the area of internationalization was a set of changes that the federal government made to policies impacting international students coming to Canada. In March, the government introduced legislation reducing the period of physical residency required to apply for citizenship and allowing students to count time spent studying in Canada toward this requirement. In November, a new change to Canada’s Express Entry immigration system also increased the number of points awarded to applicants who obtain a university degree in Canada.
But perhaps the biggest theme in internationalization in Canadian higher ed this year was Canada’s demonstration of openness to the world at a time when other western countries appear to have become more closed. Many Canadian institutions brought in new programming to support Syrian refugees who wished to attend Canadian institutions (1, 2, 3, 4), and in the wake of both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Canadian institutions and policy analysts began reporting higher numbers of inquiries for enrolment from international students. In recent months, school presidents have also made explicit calls for Canada to embrace openness at a time when other countries have not (1, 2, 3). This openness toward international students was echoed by Canadian students in a StudentVu report published in April.
Free PSE Tuition
In 2016, Ontario and New Brunswick became the first provinces to offer free tuition to students from low-income families. The move in NB generated backlash, as many protested the elimination of the province’s tuition tax credits and private colleges threatened legal action for not being made eligible for the province’s Tuition Access Bursary program. In Alberta, a decision by the NDP government to continue a provincial tuition freeze was met with concern from some PSE leaders, who said that the inability to raise tuition would force schools to look elsewhere to make up for budgetary shortfalls.
In April, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations Chairman Erik Queenan published a piece suggesting that the introduction of free tuition models in other provinces was highly likely following the decisions in ON and NB. On the national stage, the Canadian Federation of Students released a report calling for free PSE tuition across the country and held a nationwide day of action in support of this mission.
Student Mental Health
2016 saw a number of concerning reports on trends in student mental health across Canada. A national survey of 44,000 PSE students showed an increase in the number of students reporting serious mental health crises. A study of Ontario teenagers also found that 14% of students qualified as having “serious” psychological distress compared to 10% in 2013. Among the most concerning studies was the National College Health Assessment survey, which showed that one in every eight postsecondary students in Alberta had “seriously considered” suicide within the past year. The cross-country numbers on mental health correlated with reports of increased demand for mental health services at some campuses, leading to concerns about whether the supply of such services could keep up with demand.
These concerning numbers, however, also gave rise to a number of stories on how Canada’s postsecondary institutions were responding to the declining mental health outcomes of postsecondary students. A number of Atlantic institutions participated in a three-year initiative to “create, evaluate, and disseminate a comprehensive and effective campus mental health framework.” The Torontoist also ran a piece featuring some of the positive initiatives undertaken by colleges and universities in the Greater Toronto Area.
There were few trends in learning that generated as many headlines in 2016 as work-integrated learning (WIL), with countless members of the higher ed community and the general population calling for more WIL opportunities for Canada’s postsecondary students. Among the most highly touted benefits were the workplace preparation, professionalization, and industry partnerships that WIL fosters (1).
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne garnered both skepticism and support after boldly calling for 100% of postsecondary students in ON to complete some form of WIL before graduating. Some questioned whether so many opportunities could be created, and if so, what quality of learning they would provide. Prominent higher ed leaders such as University of Calgary President Elizabeth Cannon and George Brown College President Anne Sado also called for universal WIL opportunities, co-authoring a piece that laid out four fundamental principles that will set Canada on the path toward this goal.
Canada’s Business Higher Education Roundtable also made headlines in June with a call for universal WIL opportunities across Canada. To support this mission, the BHER commissioned Academica Group to produce a comprehensive report on the state of WIL in Canada and how it might be expanded and improved going forward. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario also released a helpful guide to better clarify what makes for a positive WIL opportunity.
2016 saw an increased awareness around cyberattacks against postsecondary institutions. One of the most prominent examples was a “ransomware” attack in which the University of Calgary paid a hacker $20K in order to retrieve encrypted data. One UK report later revealed that 63% of PSE institutions in that country had suffered these types of attacks, with one institution reporting that it had suffered 21 distinct attacks during the reporting period. In September, David Shipley, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Information Technology Services at University of New Brunswick, spoke with the CBC about the school’s four point strategy for handling cyberattacks. Memorial University launched a ransomware awareness campaign after experiencing its own attack in an effort to help students understand how to avoid ransomware attacks and what to do in the event of one occurring.
These stories gave rise to a new awareness around the frequency and commonality of these attacks. This trend has coincided with a number of schools making significant investments in cybersecurity research and training (1, 2, 3).
Learning Outcomes, Employability Concerns
2016 saw continued growth in the number of stories relating to postsecondary learning outcomes and learning outcomes assessments. One of the more striking stories came from a Statistics Canada report in September, which showed that many postsecondary graduates who had been considered “overqualified” for their jobs lacked basic skills in reading, writing, and numeracy.
The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario also announced that it would pursue large-scale assessment of core skills for both the college and university sectors. The organization also produced a report demonstrating that in practice, colleges and universities tend to use learning outcomes assessment in similar ways.
Conversations about learning outcomes assessment have often overlapped with concerns about the employability of today’s postsecondary graduates, and about what skills employers are demanding in greater numbers (1, 2).
In May, the Conference Board of Canada released a report calling for a greater alignment of Canadian PSE and the demands of the labour market, beginning with the production and communication of better labour market data. In its pre-budget submission for 2017, Polytechnics Canada petitioned the federal government to take a more active role in connecting students with employers, beginning with the production of better labour market data.
2016 saw colleges and universities continue to deepen their connections through a number of pathway agreements, collaborations, and other initiatives. Perhaps one of the most significant collaborations came at the beginning of the year, when Colleges and Institutes Canada and Universities Canada launched an online resource to support universities and colleges looking to foster new cross-sector collaborations and partnerships. In the summer of 2016, six postsecondary institutions based in Edmonton announced that they would work more interdependently to make Edmonton itself a more desirable destination for PSE.
These broader collaborations were complemented by dozens of new articulation agreements, guaranteed transfer agreements, and diploma-to-degree pathway agreements between Canada’s universities and colleges. In April, University World News ran a piece arguing that as students’ take increasingly diverse paths through PSE, governments and institutions will need to bolster their efforts to ensure that credit transfer policies keep up with changing times. The article specifically highlighted the efforts of the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer, which it suggests can offer a potential model for other jurisdictions looking to make the boundaries between institutions and PSE sectors more porous.
1. While by no means exhaustive, this list has been prepared by our editorial and management team to reflect the themes chosen by you, our readers, through your level of engagement with the stories published in our Academica Top Ten throughout 2016. We considered reader engagement data in combination with how frequently certain topics were covered by regional and national media, while also drawing on our team’s understanding and experience to determine which subjects had the greatest impact on the higher ed landscape.