on May 20, 2012
From the subtitle ("100 startling things you don't know...") I was expecting more of a telltale/gossipy book where campus insiders could air their dirty laundry and let the general public & policy makers know what's actually happening on campus and what needs reforming. Given the paucity of hard-hitting books focusing on the Canadian university scene we need this, notwithstanding "Ivory Tower Blues" by Côté and Allahar. There's lots of books of this type for American universities so why not one (or several) for Canada? Well, we do get some dirty laundry, along with the authors' view on what needs changing, but the material presented is very uneven - sometimes solidly argued, often contradictory and sometimes just mere opinion.
Overall, this book is basically a grab-bag of arguments covering different aspects of the modern Canadian university. A few themes, however, do emerge: (1) we have far too many unqualified students attending university and standards are dropping all the time in order to get bums in seats. For a deeper analysis of this problem see Côté and Allahar's book. (2) Basic competencies in reading, writing and thinking are in very short supply along with someone defining what a core curriculum is, especially in the Faculty of Arts. Someone needs to address this so that employers will know what kinds of skills they can expect from graduates. (3) There's a serious question as to whether all that research money in universities drive significant innovation in the wider Canadian economy. They give some evidence that not much national wealth creation comes from all this spending. (4) We should stop pretending all universities are excellent (whatever that means) and allow different universities to focus on different aspects of the market as happens in the U.S. (5) Business schools and large donors probably have too much influence over some Canadian universities at present.
Too often Coates and Morrison are reticent at naming institutional names when they have insider knowledge of bad practices or which contradict university marketing fluff. The authors hide behind statements like "A Canadian university was recognizing ..." and "One Canadian university offered a degree..." and "A decade ago faculty members at a Maritime university started complaining...". Well, what are the names of these institutions?
One quite specious argument was chapter 27 "Toronto Rules the Canadian Academic World". I was expecting them to construct an argument along the lines that U. of Toronto is like Harvard or the other Ivy-league schools which hold disproportionate sway over American business, politics, institutional government, academia, research and so on. But in this chapter all they tell us is the GTA has more students than anyone else. (Yes, it took two Ph.D.'s to promulgate such a nonsense 'argument'). That's hardly what's meant by `ruling the academic world' guys.
I would have appreciated more references directly in the text rather than a very incomplete set of sources at the end. If you're going to change opinion or public policy then you need to have some solid data behind your thoughts especially for the big ticket items such as how funding models and accessibility needs to change.
Some chapters are quite good: 87 (If we ran the university), 1 (university isn't for everyone), 9 (universities want high schools to shape up), 19 (universities need a proper admission test), 39 (we should abolish the three-year degree), 68 (the shame of the sessionals).