2018 Canadian Higher Education Year in Review

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 2019, but for now, we’d like to take a look back at the year that was.

We’ve selected the top ten stories of 2018 using the same process we use for choosing stories in our Academica Top Ten and Indigenous Top Ten publications. To begin, we drew on the expertise of our team of researchers and consultants, who spent 2018 working with clients at over 100 post-secondary schools across Canada to solve institutional challenges and move higher ed forward. We combined this expert insight with user traffic data gathered from 30,000+ Top Ten readers and over 7.5 million Top Ten emails that went out in 2018, creating a selection process that draws on unparalleled access to both an on-the-ground understanding and bird’s-eye-view of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing Canadian higher ed.

As an added benefit, we’re also happy to offer a PDF download of an unabridged version of the 2018 Year in Review, which offers more in-depth analysis and more examples of how specific institutions and initiatives are leading the way on key post-secondary issues. 

So without further adieu, here are the top stories of 2018...

Skills and the school-to-work transition

The focus on graduate employment outcomes has been a concern of Canadian post-secondary education for years now, but 2018 saw an emerging consensus around skills and competencies as the key elements for enhancing students’ school-to-work transition.

Harvey Weingarten, President of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, kicked off the year with a New Year’s Resolution to “continue advocating for quality testing programs by determining the knowledge and skill set of graduating students, and replace the term ‘learning outcomes’ with ‘skills measurement.’” This point was reinforced by the ongoing development of the federally-funded FutureSkills Lab, an initiative whose stated mission is to ask what critical skills workers will require in the future, how these skills will be measured, and how they can be taught and learned effectively.

Additionally, 2018 saw a number of think-pieces on the school-to-work transition that focused largely on  technological disruption; precarious employment; and the resilience, flexibility, and 21st-century skills young people will require to cope and thrive amongst these forces. In September, Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke boldly claimed that “one of the ingredients in Shopify’s success has been to completely ignore academic credentials in hiring” in favour of a more skills- and experience-centric approach.

In November, the international data company Burning Glass published a report that assigned numeric risk indicators to various university majors, which were then ranked according to a student’s risk of underemployment after graduation. This was followed by the release of a HEQCO study in late November which found little difference between the critical-thinking skills of incoming and graduating students at Ontario’s universities, although the study noted “considerable variation between programs.” In the final days of 2018, the Conference Board of Canada also released a report noting that while the teaching of “human skills” is proving to be very difficult, it remains essential to the future of Canada’s post-secondary system and economy.

The international student experience

As international student enrolments in Canada continued to hit record highs in 2018, the year saw a shift away from quantity-focused recruitment strategies to an growing focus on the quality of the international student experience.

In February, the University of Toronto attracted international attention when it announced that it would begin charging domestic tuition rates for its international PhD students. Times Higher Education wrote at the time that the move represented a significant step in U of T’s effort to attract leading talent from around the world. Less than a month later, McMaster University announced that it would lower international PhD tuition fees, in addition to increasing funding and improving its research environment in an effort to attract top international PhD students.

The year also saw challenges to the international student experience. In March, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government announced that it would introduce a legislative amendment repealing the provision of universal health care to the province’s international students. However, individual institutions were quick to meet this new challenge, with several announcing throughout the year the creation of new student health insurance policies to provide international students with some or all of the coverage they lost due to the legislative change. The year also saw a growing trend of international students becoming the targets of scams that ranged from the solicitation of down payments for fake housing, the charging of a fake “Welcome to Canada” tax, and even a “fake kidnapping” scheme.

One area of growing interest in the international student experience in 2018 was career preparation for international students looking to stay and work in Canada after graduation. On this issue, the Atlantic provinces emerged as national leaders, particularly with the expansion of the Study and Stay Program. The program, which began as a pilot in Nova Scotia, was slated to expand into New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland in September.

In September, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations published a report outlining the numerous benefits that international students bring to Canada’s economy, workforce, and post-secondary culture.

#MeToo in Canadian higher ed

Stories of sexual violence and misconduct loomed over Canadian higher education in 2018. The following timeline, though not exhaustive, outlines the prominent cases on this topic:


  • The BC Human Rights Tribunal agreed to hear a complaint about the length of time it took the University of British Columbia to handle a sexual assault complaint by a former student.

  • The Canadian Federation of Students expressed concern about the federal government’s proposal to withdraw funding from institutions that failed to meet certain standards in addressing campus sexual assault.

  • The University of Manitoba faced criticism for a campus survey on sexual assault that reportedly contained agree/disagree statements that, according to critics, reinforced myths about sexual assault that were hostile to women.



Higher ed in Ontario under Doug Ford

Although they were tight-lipped about PSE prior to the June election, Doug Ford’s newly-elected Progressive Conservatives have not shied away from intervening in—and, some have argued, interfering with—Ontario’s post-secondary sector.

In September, Ford told the province’s universities and colleges that they would need to develop and implement free speech policies or face funding cuts. Chris Selley of the Ottawa Citizen contended that the move was “mostly harmless symbolism,” but the Canadian Association of University Teachers argued that the policy marked an “unprecedented interference with institutional autonomy.” The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations also expressed concern with the policy.

In July, the Progressive Conservative government also introduced an omnibus billthat would end a record-breaking strike by academic staff at York University. CUPE President Mark Hancock stated at the time that Ford was “sending a clear message to working people in Ontario that, despite all the rhetoric, this is not a government for the people.” A Vancouver Province op-ed countered that the university and the union shared the blame for the five-month work stoppage, and that Ford was right to end the strike.

These moves were in some way a prelude for what, to many, was the most dramatic of Ford’s post-secondary policy moves. In October, Ford announced the cancellation of three planned university campuses in the GTA region. The move provoked criticism from many corners, but found support from Trent University President Leo Groarke. Citing a 2017 HECQO study, Groarke argued that the campuses would place a further strain on existing institutions that are struggling to fill seats.

This news was soon followed by another announcement that Ford would cancel plans for a proposed Francophone University that had received support from the previously governing Liberals.

The Challenges of Indigenization

In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, many post-secondary initiatives have worked to transform good intentions about Indigenous-settler relations into real-world implementation. Our previous Year in Review features have focused largely on the brighter side of Indigenization in the Canadian post-secondary landscape. But this year, we’re going to focus on the challenges of Indigenization and Reconciliation.

Angelique EagleWoman’s resignation as Dean of Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law was something of a bellwether for the challenges surrounding Indigenization in PSE in 2018. “At times, I went to people higher in the administration and asked for their intervention and, again, it all led to me seeing there was no way forward,” she told the Toronto Star. Council members from several First Nations forwarded a list of recommendations for systemic reform in response to Eaglewoman’s resignation.

After EagleWoman’s departure, Lakehead pledged to curb systemic discrimination and racism on its campus and in its administration. But the conflict wasn’t over. In May, Indigenous leaders spoke out against Lakehead’s decision to appoint Justice George Patrick Smith as the interim Dean of Law to replace EagleWoman. Smith reportedly sentenced Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Chief Donny Morris and five Councillors to six months in jail for their refusal to grant the mining company Plantinex access to their territory 10 years earlier.

In November, EagleWoman said that she would be suing the university for racial discrimination.

Eaglewoman’s case would not be the only story calling attention to the challenges of Indigenization in 2018. Here are some other notable developments:

  • In June, two Indigenous faculty members left Saint Mary’s University in Halifax out of frustration with the school’s efforts toward Indigenization.

  • In the second half of 2018, Indigenous students at the University of Saskatchewan sought to form an independent student union. USask Vice-Provost of Indigenous Engagement Jacqueline Ottoman said at the time that she would be happy to help any group that would like to form a union.

  • In November, the Students’ Society of McGill University voted 78.8% in favour of dropping the nickname of the school’s athletics teams, The Redmen.

  • In December, Lynn Lavalée, the University of Manitoba’s first Vice-Provost of Indigenous Engagement, resigned from her position, alleging that university administrators resisted her efforts to fight systemic racism.

It is worth noting that these spaces of contention, and the many others that exist across the country, are essential to the cause of Reconciliation. It would be dangerous to think that post-secondary institutions could Indigenize in a truly meaningful way without this process being challenged by the very individuals and communities whom Indigenization is intended to recognize and support. University of Saskatchewan President Peter Stoicheff summed up the position of Canadian post-secondary institutions well when, earlier this year, he noted, “We will know that we have made headway when Elders, when Indigenous students, when Indigenous leaders and Indigenous communities are telling us that we are.”

It’s also important to note that 2018 saw many positive steps taken by post-secondary institutions to create more Indigenous campus spaces, support the preservation of Indigenous languages, and incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing into academic disciplines. In August of 2018, the Canadian Press ran an article highlighting some of these efforts. The year also saw Canadian institutions make an effort to incorporate Indigenization directly into their strategic planning, one of which was the University of Saskatchewan, whose new strategic plan was highlighted in an Academica Forum Original article in October. In June, Academica Group also worked with Algonquin College to host the inaugural Global Conference on Indigenizing Entrepreneurship.

Student evaluations of teaching take a big hit

Midway through 2018, we saw a surge in stories questioning the reliability of student assessments of post-secondary teaching.

The trend began with an op-ed published in May, in which Northwestern University Law Professor Michelle Falkoff highlighted mounting evidence suggesting that student evaluations of teaching are rife with gender and racial biases. Falkoff’s criticism was quickly followed, however, by another op-ed in which Grand View University History Professor Kevin Gannon argued that when student biases are accounted for, teaching evaluations can still provide important information to teachers looking to improve the classroom experience.

Just over a week later, Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed published a piece stating that student evaluations of teaching were in need of a significant overhaul. Early in July, the website RateMyProfessors.com announced that it would be removing its infamous “chili pepper” icon, which had previously allowed students to rank their professors by level of physical attractiveness.

All of this debate in the US was only prelude to a landmark decision by a Canadian arbitrator William Kaplan, who was overseeing a case between Ryerson University and the Ryerson Faculty Association. In a precedent-setting ruling, the arbitrator declared that the university could no longer use faculty course surveys (FCS) for the purposes of measuring teaching effectiveness for promotion or tenure due to the evidence of persistent gendered and racial bias. Kaplan noted, however, that the evaluations could still be used to gauge student satisfaction and provide instructors with feedback on their teaching. The decision was applauded by faculty from across Canada.

PSE delivery in Canada’s North

2018 was something of a watershed year for PSE in the Canadian North, with two stories in particular dominating the Academica Top Ten and Indigenous Top Ten: the push to offer university degrees in Canada’s territories, and the future of Aurora College, an institution that provides adult and post-secondary education in the Northwest Territories.

These two narratives have produced divergent outcomes. While Yukon College’s recognition as a degree-granting institution from provincial partners in YK and Alberta seemed to affirm the legitimacy of PSE in the North, a long-awaited review of Aurora College continues to raise urgent questions about the role of post-secondary institutions as lifelines for small northern communities.

In December of 2017, the Campus Alberta Quality Council (CAQC) determined that Yukon College was ready to deliver and sustain high-quality undergraduate degree programs. The recognition stemmed from a partnership between the Governments of Yukon and Alberta.

Meanwhile, a 143-page review of Aurora College sparked intense debate in the Northwest Territories. The review prompted an outcry from the local community following recommendations that the college be moved from Fort Smith to Yellowknife. Others spoke out against the suspension of the school’s social worker program. The review also recommended that the school be converted to a polytechnic.

Later, the NWT released its official response to the review of Aurora College, noting that it would accept 51 of the report’s 61 recommendations, including the proposal to turn Aurora into a polytechnic. According to CBC, the recommendation to relocate the campus from Fort Smith to Yellowknife was partially accepted.

Pressure on senior admin in the West

It’s nothing new for senior administrators in Canada’s post-secondary sector to face criticism for the salaries and benefits associated with their position. However, a general pressure on senior admin seems to have grown in Western Canada over the past two years, with faculty provincial governments, and institutions themselves taking a closer look at executive compensation and staffing numbers.

University of Saskatchewan President Peter Stoicheff set the tone for this shift in 2017 when he announced that his school would respond to a 5% provincial cut in its operating budget by “seriously looking at” the salaries paid to its top administrators. In August of 2018, USask followed up on this claim by launching a public database disclosing the salaries of its top earners. In November of 2018, an SK Task Force on Regional College Efficiency also recommended that the Nipawin-based Cumberland College and Melville-based Parkland College enter a partnership that would see the two schools share a single President/CEO and board of governors.

The pressure on senior admin spread to Manitoba in June 2018, when the ruling Progressive Conservatives announced a 0.9% cut to post-secondary operating grants. This announcement was followed by a directive ordering a 15% across-the-board cut in all public sector managerial positions, which the province later confirmed would apply to post-secondary education. The 15% reduction in senior administrative positions would go on to be implemented by colleges and universities across the province.

This newfound pressure placed on senior administrators found perhaps its most public expression in March 2018, when Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt rebuked the University of Alberta and its President David Turpin for hiking student fees rather than cutting costs to senior administration. A few days later, Turpin clarified that all of UAlberta’s financial decisions (including planned cuts to executive compensation) had been submitted to the ministry long before Schmidt’s comments, and that no objections had been made by the province at that time. Turpin followed this response by holding town halls at UAlberta’s campuses to discuss the fiscal pressures faced by the university.

By May, UAlberta Board Chair Michael Phair told the Edmonton Journal that the Alberta Premier’s Office was “very interested” in “moving forward (and) restoring the relationship between the university and the government,” adding that a public apology from the government might be in the offing.

Cannabis comes to campus

The legalization of recreational cannabis in 2018 had a massive impact on the Canadian post-secondary system, as there seemed to be no part of higher ed that wasn’t touched by the legislation and the culture shift it heralded.

To begin, the legislative change would see the emergence of some of North America’s first post-secondary institutions to allow smoking cannabis on campus. Inside Higher Ed highlighted the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Victoria as three Canadian institutions that allowed recreational marijuana use on campus. A series of additional articles explored the diverse ways that Canadian campuses would regulate the use of cannabis on campus, with many moving toward completely “smoke free” campus policies.

In January, debate was sparked in QC when the Fédération des cégeps and Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) demanded that cannabis outlets not be permitted to exist near any CEGEPs or universities. The fédération des cégeps also reportedly called for marijuana possession to be completely banned for all post-secondary students, regardless of age.

One of the most significant trends to come out of the legalization of marijuana was the explosion of partnerships between institutions and private sector companies. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but offers a general cross-section of such partnerships:

  • In January, Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario announced the official opening of its Applied Research Centre for Natural Products and Medical Cannabis (ARC). The college followed this announcement in April by announcing a partnership with Kwantlen Polytechnic University to offer Cannabis Career Training courses through its Distance Students and Continuing Education department. In October, Loyalist also announced that it had partnered with VIVO Cannabis to research extraction techniques for commercial cannabis oil products.

  • In February, Gemma Karstens-Smith of the Globe and Mail produced a strong overview of the efforts being undertaken at Canadian post-secondary institutions to train students for work in the cannabis industry.

  • In May,  the University of New Brunswick and Canada House announced a Memorandum of Understanding to foster research on the potential health benefits of cannabis.

  • In June, Canopy Growth Corp, Canada’s largest cannabis company, stated that it would donate $2.5M to establish the the Canopy Growth Professorship in Cannabis Science at the University of British Columbia.

  • In July, Conestoga College announced that it had partnered with cannabis company James E Wagner Cultivation to investigate how new technologies can advance current cannabis cultivation practices.

  • In September, the University of Alberta partnered with Edmonton-based Atlas Growers to research potential uses for cannabis waste, as only the buds of the plant are used for smoking.

In 2019, it will be worth watching to see whether the enthusiasm generated around public-private cannabis research partnerships is maintained, and more broadly, whether this momentum spreads to other post-secondary research areas.

The power of place

For years, the promise of worldwide internet connectivity has led some to declare the 21st century a world beyond the limitations of physical place. What 2018 saw, however, was a renewed emphasis in post-secondary education on the power of place to address challenges related to innovation, sustainable communities, and social infrastructure.

In February, the federal government announced the five groups that together would receive $950M from Canada’s new Innovation Superclusters Initiative. The initiative marks an unprecedented attempt by government to create and bolster regional economies through the promotion of excellence in a particular area, effectively attempting to create Silicon-Valley-like regions for each of the supercluster subject areas. The five recipients were the Ocean Supercluster based in Atlantic Canada, the SCALE.AI Supercluster based in Quebec, the Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster based in Ontario, the Protein Industries Supercluster based in the Prairies, and the Digital Technology Supercluster based in British Columbia.

Another storyline in post-secondary education that reinforced the importance of place came from a growing interest in the power of post-secondary institutions to solve the challenges faced by the local communities in which they are based.

In March, leaders from the higher ed and non-profit sector argued in an Academica Forum Original that that whereas large businesses used to “anchor” local communities with stable employment and procurement activity, the increased international mobility of companies has meant that this community anchoring needs to be increasingly performed by publicly funded institutions like schools, hospitals, and libraries. In May, Simon Fraser University President Andrew Petter also noted that Canada’s network of universities, colleges, and institutes was ideally positioned to take on this responsibility, not only through the core mission of teaching and learning, but also “in the ways we use land and facilities; purchase goods and services; manage and invest funds; steward human resources; and nurture and maintain relationships.”

In June, Simon Fraser University, the British Columbia Institute of Technology, the University of Northern British Columbia, and Vancouver Island University partnered with the McConnell Family Foundation to found the BC Collaborative for Social Infrastructure. The initiative promises to focus on green campuses, Indigenous entrepreneurship, social procurement, and library outreach programs. In September, University of Toronto President Meric Gertler wrote an op-ed highlighting how place was becoming ever-more vital to innovation across the world.  

What to look for in 2019

In a SectorVu poll conducted in December, we asked our readers to select (from a list of options) what they thought would be the biggest priority for Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2019. Here’s what the post-secondary community told us:


“Which of the following do you think will be the biggest priority for Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2019?

It remains to be seen what will happen in Canadian higher ed in 2019, but we at Academica plan to be with you every step of the way as we all work together to move higher ed forward. Thank you for reading this year’s Canadian Higher Education Year in Review. We wish you all the best for 2019.  

Want even more Year in Review content? Click here to download the unabridged version.

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