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).”

The Need for a National Debate on the Future of Canada’s Post-Secondary Sector

Just several weeks apart, the Province of Ontario and the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) released two formal positions on post-secondary education. The first one is a discussion paper released in late June 2012 and titled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge.” The other is a “Pre-Budget Submission Regarding the 2013 Federal Budget” – CAGS, early August 2012. (CAGS is a Canada-wide association bringing together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the country’s three federal research-granting agencies).

Official Flag of Ontario since 1965

Official Flag of Ontario since 1965 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three themes are common across the two documents and constitute core policy positions: (i) Canadian/Ontario graduates need to be “more immediately employable”; (ii) post-secondary institutions need to be more innovative in their approaches and practices; (iii) Canada’s post-secondary education system has to become more closely aware of, and more actively involved in, student international mobility.

(I) LABOUR-MARKET READINESS: Both organizations, CAGS and the Government of Ontario (Canada’s most populous province), place a great emphasis on the need for tighter linkages between post-secondary institutions and the labour market. CAGS quotes Professor Douglas Peers of York University who argues “it is essential that our [universities] prepare graduate students who are flexible, adaptable, and […] more immediately employable than may have been the case in the past.”

Ontario goes one step further, suggesting that the very future of a competitive post-secondary education system depends on it capacity to produce graduates that are career and job ready. “We see a higher education sector that has more fluidity between learning, training, and the workforce. […] We see a sector that fosters and supports our young entrepreneurs.” New three-year undergraduate degrees matching labour market needs are presented as one of the approaches for the province’s future.

(II) INNOVATION: In order to establish and consolidate that “fluidity” between universities and the job market, Ontario imagines a post-secondary sector that is “nimble” and “ready to adapt to the accelerating change of pace in technology and our economy.” Increased innovation has the potential to ensure both better outcomes for Ontario graduates and the financial sustainability of this publicly funded sector, given the Government’s need to balance the provincial budget in the long term.

From a similar perspective, CAGS “requests that the Federal Government invest in innovative skills training for graduate students in all disciplines that will complement their academic skills and make them both more competitive and more work place ready.” This investment is seen as crucially important not just for Canadian university graduates, but also – through them – for Canada’s economy and society.

(III) THE INTERNATIONAL DIMENSION: Both organizations are acutely aware of the importance of international mobility. While the Government of Ontario highlights the need to improve Canadian students’ exposure to other environments, the CAGS proposal is more concrete and potentially more consequential. It argues that Canada needs to attract the very best international talent, in a context in which it faces solid competition from other countries.

CAGS “urges the Federal Government to increase its assistance in marketing Canadian universities abroad in specific markets as it did with the very successful trip this spring (2012) to Brazil led by the Governor General. […] The availability of high quality graduate students – who might remain in Canada – and of highly educated and trained workers cannot be taken for granted. Canada has slipped in the OECD rankings of post graduates from the top to close to the bottom of the pack.” The Government of Ontario’s discussion paper is surprisingly light in discussing the impact of international students on the province’s post-secondary sector!

Taken together, these three themes – job-readiness, innovation, and international mobility – form the basis of a debate that Canada’s post-secondary community needs to engage in.  Canada has avoided it for too long, and these latest efforts to launch a national conversation on university education are most opportune. (Organizations are asked to submit written submissions in response to Ontario’s discussion paper, no later than September 30, 2012, to or by email to Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities).