A startling rate of failure

Crise sociale - printemps 2012 - comprendre la crise

Henry Aubin: A startling rate of failure

Nearly one in three higher education students in Quebec leaves academic life without getting a diploma

Everyone deplores the dropout rate among Quebec’s high-school students. No one talks about the dropout rate among Quebec’s university students.
Guess which one is worse.
Here are the most recent figures, courtesy of Quebec’s education ministry (http://tinyurl.com/76wgbkw).
In 2009, 17.1 per cent of all 19-year-old Quebecers had no high-school diploma and were not in school – the highest rate of any province.
The same year, 32.4 per cent of university students who ended their undergraduate studies did so without having obtained a diploma. (The rate has been at roughly this level since the late 1990s. Before that it was higher.)
In sum, the dropout rate among undergraduates is almost double what it is among high-schoolers.
Pierre Fortin, one of Quebec’s best-known economists, uses a different method from the ministry to calculate the rate yet he comes up with an almost identical number: 32.7 per cent. That’s more than twice as high as the figure the Université du Québec à Montréal professor assigns for the rest of Canada, 14.8 per cent.
That’s startling.
This widely ignored information is relevant to the acute debate Quebec society is having over how universities are run – that is, not just what they charge for tuition but also whether or not they’re operating efficiently.
It costs taxpayers a lot to send each student to class – $11,100 per year (as distinct from the students’ own $2,168 tuition and several hundred dollars in extra fees). So many under-motivated students suggests that many universities’ admissions policies need review.
Here’s another sign of enrolment bloat. Fortin’s research shows that 37 per cent of people age 18 to 20 in the rest of Canada are in university. In Quebec, it’s 46 per cent.
According to the organization that represents university heads, CREPUQ, Concordia is the Montreal school with the highest dropout rate. UQÀM is hard on its heels. Université de Montréal is substantially better, though still worse than the Canadian average. McGill is the only Quebec university that graduates a greater share of its students than the national average.
Note that the three schools with the worst dropout rates have also been the most busily expanding their premises in recent years. (The U de M’s planned new Outremont campus would cost taxpayers well over $1 billion.) Part of the rationale for building bigger “plants” is that more space is needed to accommodate big enrolment. Tighter screening might therefore save public money not only by reducing the number of those $11,100-per-student subsidies but also by lessening the pressure for extra-large real-estate projects (which is not to say some new buildings aren’t necessary).
Overly generous admissions policies can also carry a pedagogical cost. Professors often complain they can’t tailor their teaching to the keen students, since that would mean bewildering the unmotivated ones.
The student associations that have organized the boycott of classes are all for finding and ending wasteful university operations (and passing on the savings to students by lowering tuition). Yet it’s safe to say that reining in enrolment is hardly what they have in mind.
That’s because the academic disciplines from which the boycott draws most of its participants, according to the boycotters’ website (tinyurl.com/7hk59pr), are the same disciplines that, according to CREPUQ (tinyurl.com/8yzzvoa), have the highest dropout rates. These typically include geography, fine arts, education, literature, sociology, anthropology and political science.
The disciplines with the least motivated students are thus also the disciplines with the most motivated boycotters – individuals willing to sacrifice a full semester to a cause (and, who knows, maybe another semester, too). Interesting.
None of this is to suggest that universities’ admissions policies should become highly restrictive. But financial realism means it’s time to rethink society’s constant message to young people that a university education is virtually imperative for “success” – social status and high income.
There happens to be a drastic shortage of skilled tradespeople across Canada – a shortage that, because of the demographic crunch, will grow more desperate. That’s why both the feds and Quebec in recent weeks have made it easier to import foreign workers.
Quebec does not need a lot more sociology majors. It needs more radiology technicians, nurses and other socially useful workers. Such careers need the respect they richly deserve.

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