The Hidden Crisis in the Canadian University System


The Hidden Crisis in the Canadian University System

James Côté

University of Western Ontario


James Côté is a Full Professor in the Department of Sociology at The University of Western Ontario, where he has taught since the early 1980s. He is co-author of the forthcoming book Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, being published by the University of Toronto Press, from which the following material was extracted.



riticizing the university system is not a popular thing to do, because most people have heard only good-news stories about Canada being a world leader in producing graduates of higher education graduates, and how well these graduates are doing. There is no question in my mind that having many university graduates in Canadian society is a good thing. Moreover, there are many personal and financial benefits associated with earning a university degree, or more commonly now, degrees. Personally, people can expand their understanding and awareness of the world, and university graduates take more active citizenship roles. Financially, the research shows that the benefits outweigh the costs for most people, either soon after graduating for those in applied programmes, or eventually for those in general liberal arts programmes. The lifetime earnings differential compared to a high school diploma has been calculated at one million dollars for past graduates, and women have more to gain relative to men because they make much less without a degree.

My concern is that much of this in jeopardy. There are strong signs that fewer people are benefiting from their undergraduate education, especially the liberal arts degree. Personal benefits are threatened as fewer students put an honest and sustained effort into their studies, and financial benefits are in jeopardy because of the glut of undergraduate credentials we are producing, especially those earned by unmotivated students. This glut has increased competition among degree holders for entry-level jobs and placement in post-graduate programmes. Consequently, more and more graduates are seeking multiple degrees and diplomas to get even a foothold in the labour force or on the short-list of advanced programmes.

These problems are traceable to two “dirty little secrets” of the university system: widespread disengagement among students and rampant underemployment of graduates.


The benefits of a university education are at risk as a growing climate of academic disengagement grips our schools. This problem appears to begin in high school, where higher and higher grades have been given for less and less work over the past few decades. As these students have come to universities, this climate has spread and is made worse by the sheer numbers now in the system, forcing universities to water down course requirements to handle them. And, to keep students happy and in the system, higher grades have been awarded for lower performances, just as in high schools.

Universities are now mired in the twin problems of grade inflation and academic disengagement, which feed each other. MacLean’s magazine tells us that the typical student can treat university studies much like a part-time job, yet still earn a B average. The traditional standard for an average performance was a C, but that is now a thing of the past in most of our educational institutions. Many students now expect Bs for putting out a modicum of effort that produces mediocre work, and As if they do any more than this.

Grade inflation is bad for bright students who aren’t challenged and therefore do not develop their intellectual potential in ways that would enrich their lives and contribute their talent to the Canadian economy. Inflated grades are also bad for those who are average or below because they are given higher marks, but not told how to improve. With less asked of students, many simply drift through the educational system and into the workforce without building or maximizing their intellectual potentials.

The problem that critics face in pointing out this crisis is that most people appear to be unaware of the history of grading practices and the meaning of the standards they represent. This seems to be the case for many younger teachers and administrators who went through the system themselves as grades were rising and demands lowering. Let me be clear then that I am not blaming the crisis on the current cohort passing through the system. However, the crisis is coming to a head as so many in this cohort come to university with a sense of grade entitlement and what has been called a “degree purchasing” attitude – if they pay their tuition, they believe they deserve good grades.

Universities have also been guilty of promoting this consumer mentality, especially with their use of course evaluations, which often amount to little more than consumer-satisfaction surveys. When these evaluations are worded to elicit students’ emotional reactions to their professors’ behaviours and personalities, more appropriate issues are ignored, such as how challenged students in a course have been to put sustained efforts into their studies and how much they have been intellectually transformed by those efforts. Scientific studies confirm that professors assigning lower grades tend to get lower teaching evaluations; indeed, the typical student evaluation is not a reliable indicator of teaching effectiveness and explains very little in terms of student learning and achievement. This research also shows that professors who give higher grades tend to draw more students because of the promise of those higher grades; conversely, courses with higher standards have lower enrolments. Thus, while course evaluations are used ostensibly as a form of accountability, they actually have the effect of reducing the quality of education, by contributing to grade inflation and academic disengagement.

An open public discussion is needed about the grading practices we are using in our schools, because the current system has developed more as a result of an attempt to keep students in school than as a means of maintaining standards that promote excellence. This discussion requires knowledge of the history of grading practices in Canada. The Canadian university system emerged out of the British system in which no more than 5% of students were awarded As, and another 30% given Bs. Accordingly, only one third would be judged to be above average. An additional 30-40% would be judged as average. This is a statistical fact of life when large numbers of people are involved. Currently, at least twice this percentage is receiving As and Bs in Canadian high schools and universities. Not coincidentally, a recent survey of first-year students found that 70% rate themselves as above average, a statistical impossibility.

The grades of Ontario high school graduates began to increase with the end of standardized exams in the late 60s. By the early 80s, 40% of those applying to universities had A averages. Currently, more than 60% do so, and more than 10% are armed with A+ averages. With very few exceptions, universities like Western, McGill, and Queen’s now accept only those with A averages. The designation of Ontario Scholar begun in the 1960s is now meaningless.

Likewise, universities have given increasingly higher grades over the same time period. Between the mid-70s and mid-90s, grades increased from just under 50% As and Bs to over 50% for first-year courses, and then appear to have steadily rose to current rates of about 60-80% As and Bs, depending on the university and the year level of the course. These estimates are from institutional figures, which are rarely released to the public. Self-reported grades from the National Survey of Student Engagement put these estimates for As and Bs at 80-90%.

Canadian high schools and universities need to get a grip on the grade inflation problem, and I recommend the European Credit Transfer System as a point of reference. This system was originally set up to coordinate student exchange programmes among institutions in some thirty countries. Now in use by thousands of universities, it allows participating universities in each country to convert grades to a common, non-inflated standard. In this sensible system, As are awarded for outstanding performances (about 10% of cases), Bs are given for performances that are very good with few errors (about 25%), Cs go to good work that is generally sound with notable errors, and Ds or less are awarded to work with significant shortcomings. In this system, students have more to strive for, excellence is rewarded, and those who need to improve are given appropriate feedback.

Academic disengagement is likely to exacerbate a second aspect of this crisis – underemployment. Some underemployment is structural in the sense that there are simply not enough jobs for our university graduates. In the 1900s, according to Statistics Canada, our universities produced some 1.2 million grads, but only about 600,000 jobs were created during that decade that required that level of credential. Currently, we have about one million students in the system. If the job creation pace of the 1990s remains the same, we will have several hundred thousand grads each year pursuing fewer than 100,000 job openings. This could increase the structural underemployment rate from the 50% level found in the 1980s and 1900s to about 75%. While these university graduates are less likely to be unemployed, it is because they take jobs requiring lower levels of education, leaving the hapless high school and community college graduate in an even worse predicament than was the case before so many began taking the university route to compete for entry-level positions. This predicament is referred to as the “downward cascading effect” of credential over-production.

At the same time, some underemployment is personal, rather than structural, created by students who drift through secondary and universities with little required of them, and who therefore have learned little that would qualify them as “highly skilled” in the job market. These graduates have not acquired the type of human capital skills that are believed to stimulate economic productivity and growth. In fact, almost one in five university graduates now works in a low-skilled job. In the end, the more graduates we produce with a history of academic disengagement, the less they will benefit personally and financially, and the less likely they will contribute to the national economy beyond what a high-school graduate would add. Meanwhile, the liberal arts programmes that are increasingly bloated by academically disengaged students will continue to decline in quality, and their promise of expanding bright minds will continue to fade. If Canada is to stand by its claim of being a world leader in higher education, and if it hopes to maintain its global competitiveness, reforms are needed in both our secondary schools and universities. 


Higher Education Perspectives. ISSN: 1710-1530