Canadian Graduate and Professional Students – A Happy Bunch (Except for the Ones That Aren’t)

The Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) published highlights from the latest Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey (CGPSS), administered in 2010. The Association has also indicated that researchers are permitted access to an anonymized survey dataset, “for purposes of improving graduate student experience in Canada.” Access requests, made through an online form, will be reviewed by the CAGS National CGPSS Steering Committee. Some key findings are captured below:

Doctoral, Master’s Students Are Generally Satisfied with Their University Experience

Among 13,400 doctoral students surveyed, 50% rated the relationship of their graduate program content to their research or professional goals as “very good” and “excellent” (30% thought it was “good,” while the rest rated it as “fair” or “poor”).

More than 60% rated similarly the quality of the support and opportunities received in conducting independent research since starting their graduate program. However, only 40% of doctoral students rated the opportunities for student collaboration or teamwork as “very good” and “excellent.” (The lower satisfaction scores for student collaboration/ teamwork among doctoral students should not come as a surprise, given the typical length of a doctoral program and the largely independent nature of the work).

Among 13,500 master’s students (with thesis), more than half rated the relationship of their graduate program content to their research or professional goals as “very good” and “excellent.” 56% said the same thing about the quality of the support and opportunities received. 48% thought the opportunities for student collaboration or teamwork were “very good” and “excellent.”

English: Graduate Students' Union at the Unive...

English: Graduate Students’ Union at the University of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Drill Down Though and You’ll Find Differences: Sciences & Health Sciences vs. Non-Health Professions & Humanities

Mean scores by disciplines indicate that doctoral students in Business/Management valued more than all others the “program content” and “research collaboration” (but somewhat less “student collaboration” and “independent research”). On all these categories, doctoral students in Sciences, as well as those in Health Sciences had higher levels of satisfaction than students in other programs (students in Health Sciences were slightly less satisfied with “program content”).

The worst scores on “program content,” “student collaboration,” “independent research” and “research collaboration” were registered from doctoral students in Non-Health Professions (and from students in the Humanities relating to collaboration opportunities).

Master’s students (with thesis) present a more mixed picture. Students in Sciences were the most satisfied among their peers with “independent research” and “research collaboration.” Students in Education were among the most satisfied with “program content” and “student collaboration.”

Master’s students in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Non-Health Professions were more likely to indicate they were less satisfied with these aspects of the student experience.

CAGS points out that “[b]reakdown by gender and immigration status also has been considered. Differences appear quite small, however. Since representation by gender and immigration status is highly non-homogeneous across disciplines, and disciplines have a significant influence, general breakdown by gender and immigration status does not seem to be relevant. This breakdown should be studied at the discipline level.”

Doctoral Students: Do It All Again? Same Field, Different Place…

Among doctoral students, just 31% answered “definitely” to the question “If you were to start your graduate/professional career again, would you select this same university?” However, 54% would select the same field of study and 50% would select the same faculty supervisor.

CAGS notes that doctoral students in Business/Management give on average higher marks for “research training and career orientation.” On the other hand, doctoral students in the Humanities give on average higher marks for “quality of teaching” but lower marks for ‘“research training and career orientation.” Engineering students give low marks for “supportive dissertation advisor” and for “quality of teaching.” A summary of benchmark scores by disciplines, at the doctoral and master’s level (with thesis), can be found on the CAGS website.

Survey responses were obtained in 2010 from 38,618 students at 38 Canadian universities (19,199 from Ontario, 10,208 from Quebec, and 9,211 from other provinces). “The survey originated from joint US/Canadian efforts to survey graduate students, parallel to the similar study of undergraduates, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).”

Professional Education in Canada: State-of-the-art Programs Offset Premium Price Tags

In its September 17 issue, Maclean’s magazine included a set of statistics on Canada’s professional schools. Significant information was provided on tuition levels and access to programs ranging from engineering to environmental studies. An assessment of these figures reveals an environment in which students have a wide variety of options to choose from, but many of them require tough financial decisions. The monetary investment varies quite widely across the country and across professional areas. Below, a few key findings from three fields: MBA, law and medicine.

MBA: expensive programs, but lots of choices

Canada offers a wide variety of Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs. Maclean’s points out that “tuition and program length vary considerably – the differences are often determined by the type of program – as does the average GMAT score of incoming students. The traditional MBA – two years, full time – is no longer the only way to go, with many schools offering part-time studies.” Canada also offers a large range of Executive MBA (EMBA) programs, “targeted at people who already have a career but want to take it to the next level by earning an advanced degree […]. Tuition, often covered by employers, is generally high” – over $100,000 at some schools, but these programs are among the best in the world.

The vast majority of Canada’s MBA schools have a significant population of international students – at seven of 38 schools over 50% of the student population are international students. Two universities (Thompson Rivers and Vancouver Island – both in British Columbia) have well over 75% international students in their MBA programs. As with other specialties, tuition fees vary considerably from province to province and from school to school (Quebec programs charge significantly less – for provincial residents – than programs in the rest of Canada).

While the full cost of a MBA program at Université Laval is $4,563 ($10,163 for students who are not Quebec residents), the program tuition at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management is $88,446. Carleton’s Sprott School of Business charges $15,418 for its MBA program, while tuition at Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management is $22,702.

LAW: Quebec vs. Rest of Canada

In the province of Quebec, private law is based on the “civil law” tradition (and public law follows the “common law” tradition). This makes Quebec a hybrid legal system, as opposed to the rest of Canada where the common law is the standard. For this reason, most law schools in Quebec are teaching civil law (McGill, Université de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal, Université de Sherbrooke, Université Laval and the University of Ottawa). McGill, Ottawa and Montreal offer, however, dual common/civil degrees or the choice between the two legal specializations (the University of Windsor and York University do the same in Ontario).

Flag of Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

Flag of Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given the traditionally lower fees in Quebec, the yearly tuition for civil law schools is just $2,493 ($6,183 for students who are not Quebec residents). The only exception is the University of Ottawa, where the tuition for a civil law program is $8,165 per year. For common law schools the tuition fees range widely, from $2,493 (McGill, for Quebec residents) to $27,420 at the University of Toronto – a ten-fold differential! The fees at the University of Ottawa’s common law school are $14,568 per year. These figures do not include “other compulsory fees.”

MEDICINE: significant financial investment and high competition

Some of the lowest tuition fees for medical school in Canada can be found – again, unsurprisingly – in Quebec (in some cases even if you are not a provincial resident). The highest, on the other hand, are at Ontario medical schools. The average tuition at four Quebec universities – Laval, McGill, Montreal and Sherbrooke – is $3,906 yearly, not including compulsory fees ($10,302 for students who are not Quebec residents). The average yearly tuition to attend a medical school in Ontario, based on figures from six universities – McMaster, Ottawa, Northern Ontario, Queen’s, Toronto and Western – is $20,955, not including compulsory fees.

Besides the high price tag, gaining admission to one of Canada’s medical schools is in itself a difficult process, given the soaring competition for the relatively few spots. This is a reflection of the value placed by students and the Canadian society on medical education and formal qualifications, and the high level of development reached by Canada’s medical schools. Maclean’s notes that “success rates for in-province applicants are generally higher than for out-of-province.” The international students’ success rate is the highest at the University of Calgary, AB (26%), Dalhousie University, NS (18%), and the University of British Columbia (12%).

Canada’s high tuition fees and record investment in education

In its latest Education at a Glance report (2012), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) lists Canada among the countries with high levels of tuition fees, but also well-developed student-support systems. The report’s country notes confirm that Canada is “a leader in higher education, with its high attainment rates and its ability to produce a skilled workforce with generally good labour-market outcomes.” The country spends about $21,000 per post-secondary student per year – the third-highest amount among OECD countries after Switzerland and the United States.

OECD research also suggests that Canada’s model (high tuition fee and student support) “can be an effective way for countries to increase access to higher education. However, during periods of economic crisis, high levels of tuition fees can put a considerable financial burden on students and their families and can discourage some of them from entering [post-secondary] education, even when relatively high levels of student support are available. This topic is highly debated in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.” The 2012 Quebec student protests were one of the latest and most visible efforts to engage the students and the larger society in a conversation on tuition levels in this country. As indicated in a recent blog post, the choice Quebec made will inform, if not define, the conversation on university issues in the province (and beyond) for years to come.

Education as a Driver of Regional Integration: Not in North America

“Education should be the foundation of a North American community,” US academic Robert Pastor argues in his book “The North American Idea” (2011). This is a proposition that he presents in several of his publications: acknowledging that North America is still a loosely structured construct, the educational sector would present the potential of bringing together citizens and institutions from Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Robert Pastor is modelling his plan on the role placed on education in a different regional context – the European Union (EU). In a previous book, “Toward a North American Community” (2001), he pointed out – without providing supporting evidence – that “the consensus among analysts is that the funds [for regional assistance in the EU] were most effectively employed in projects aimed at infrastructure and higher-level education.”

Cover of "Toward a North American Communi...

Cover via Amazon

North America could presumably learn from EU realities and replicate on this continent some of Europe’s policies and programs in the area of education. Pastor looks at education – along with other areas of international cooperation – and notices both a disappointing reality in terms of limited levels of student exchanges and the concrete potential for improving this situation. If the latter would happen, it might equally lead to spillover effects and closer regional integration in other sectors – from politics to energy to border issues.

In “The North American Idea,” the US academic notes that Canada ranks only fifth and Mexico seventh “in sending students to the United States – much fewer than from China, India, Taiwan, and South Korea. About one thousand Mexicans study in Canada, and Americans study much less at universities in their two neighbors than in Europe or Asia.” Proximity doesn’t equal curiosity, he concludes in a somewhat disappointed tone.

Critical voices call Robert Pastor the “father of the North American Union” (for observers unfamiliar with the discourse around regional integration, the label “North American Union” carries with it negative connotations, particularly in conservative political circles. Pastor himself prefers the term “community”). He was and largely remains one of the strongest proponents of closer ties, across a variety of sectors (including education), between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

This being the case, it is only natural for him to recommend that the three governments “promote exchanges, research, and studies on North America,” support three-way collaboration between post-secondary institutions, establish “language immersion” programs, streamline standards on credit transfers and professional credentials, and increase their efforts in promoting North American ideals.

These are all excellent ideas and Robert Pastor should be commended for his efforts in promoting a more deeply and broadly integrated higher education sector on this continent. His proposals however face tremendous challenges, mostly of a structural nature. I will just list here three of them and elaborate more in future blog posts:

(i) North America is *not* the European Union. Any student of European history and politics will tell you this. The underlying conditions that contributed to the creation of the EU do not exist in North America. The EU itself may be more of a fluke than a model for other regional entities. Trying to replicate EU approaches elsewhere is an unfeasible scheme. Moreover, European integration is largely stalled – European themselves question the value of some of the existing multi-level arrangements.

(ii) The differences between Canada, the United States and Mexico – looking at political and socio-economic indicators – are so large and so diverse that across-the-board integration between them is virtually impossible for the foreseeable future. The US remains the world’s sole superpower and Mexico suffers from very significant social, economic and law-enforcement crises – all of them strong reasons for Canada to be cautious in promoting further integration with its neighbours.  Simply put, there is no will at a federal level to spend political capital and resources to advance deeper regional cooperation. Furthermore, education is not the most exciting sector to focus on, for both politicians and the citizens.

(iii) Finally, all three countries are federal political systems and education is largely a sub-national (state/province) responsibility. Even if they wanted, in most cases the federal governments would not be able to influence significantly patterns of cooperation between private organizations and professional associations across the continent.

Robert Pastor is right when he points out that education should be the foundation of building a meaningful regional entity. Yet “should” is the key word here – it denotes a normative position more than a realistic suggestion. If North America were to follow the evolution of the European Union (an unlikely course of events), the place to start may need to be sought elsewhere.