At HEQCO’s November Learning to Earning Conference, UBC labour economist Craig Riddell presented the results of his research with David Green on literacy skills, recently published as “Ageing and Literacy Skills: Evidence from Canada, US and Norway.” The findings are alarming and support the concern that David Trick, Richard Van Loon and I expressed in Academic Reform, that lower faculty-to-student ratios, lower faculty teaching loads, and lower student engagement are likely to be reducing the quality of Canadian undergraduate education.
We have not been alone in expressing this worry. As Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University, said: “We all feel and know that the character of the undergraduate experience has deteriorated in our lifetimes, especially so in the last decades. And we know in our heart of hearts that this experience can and should be much better.” But other academic administrators have challenged the contention that undergraduate education quality has been declining.
Evidence to the contrary is provided by the Green and Riddell study. It found that undergraduate learning outcomes have been declining over time in Canada, at least since the 1970s. Literacy skills were measured by scores on the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey and the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. These surveys assess, according to Green and Riddell, “skills used in daily activities – at work, in the home, and in the community. In other words, these are basic cognitive skills used in daily life.”
When Green and Riddell compared the literacy scores of university-educated Canadians in the two surveys they found that university-educated 26-34 year olds in 2003 had lower scores than the comparable cohort had in 1994. This cannot be explained by increased university participation rates because a statistically significant decline is found at the upper end of the literacy scores, among Canadians who would have attended university regardless of overall participation rates.
After determining ageing effects – the declines in literacy of any cohort over a nine-year period – Green and Riddell were able to estimate the literacy levels of preceding “synthetic cohorts” of 26-34 year olds, in effect estimating the scores that the cohort would have achieved if comparable literacy surveys had been conducted in 1985 and 1976. They conclude that the literacy levels of high-literacy, university-educated, 26-34 year olds in Canada has declined more or less continuously from 1976 to 2003.
The Green and Riddell findings do not prove conclusively that over time Canadian universities have been providing lower quality in undergraduate education. Some might argue that the trends have changed since 2003. Others might suggest that there are additional factors such as declining academic rigor in high schools and a less literacy-friendly socio-economic environment that have contributed to the decline in literacy scores. Still others might argue that universities (or other parts of the education system) are providing more of some skills (e.g., digital skills, team work) at the at the expense of literacy skills. But I think that most Canadians concerned about education quality would agree that research demonstrating that each decade’s graduates from our universities have poorer learning outcomes than the previous decade’s graduates should serve as a wake-up call for policy-makers and university educators alike.
This is not just an Ontario issue. The Green and Riddell findings on declining literacy of successive Canadian graduating classes should add urgency to the task of improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of undergraduate education from coast to coast.
-Ian D. Clark, Professor, School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto.www.ian-clark.ca.
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