Interview With Dr. Ken Coates

*Editor’s Note: I was fortunate to be able to talk to Dr. Ken Coates a couple of months ago; however, we just couldn’t salvage the poor sound quality.  Because we just couldn’t bring ourselves to throw out an interview that we thought would really help our readers, we decided to post it as text instead.  Read on to find out what one of Canada’s foremost academics feels is the greatest problem(s) with post-secondary education in Canada today.

If you’re into the new age style “political show” where people with opposing points of view yell back and forth at each other than this installment of The More Money for Beer and Textbooks Podcast really isn’t for you.  In Dr. Ken Coates (Canadian History, not MD) I seem to finally have found someone who is as radical a thinker about education as I am.  I personally wouldn’t go this far, but some are even calling it a “bro-mance”.  Hey, what can I say, when a couple of good ole’ prairie boys bond over grade inflation and the insanity of prioritizing self-esteem there is little that can stand in the way.

The Random Ramblings of a High School Teacher

If you want to skip ahead to when the wise man comes on to talk I completely understand, but back by popular demand this week are my random ramblings about whatever I’ve been reading lately.  On the docket this week was the interesting piece that Rob Carrick penned for the Globe and Mail (with some quotes thrown in from yours truly) talking about the decision on whether or not to go away for school.  Is the price of independence higher than $12,000 a year?

The Doctor Will See You Now

If you can make it through that initial stretch without your ears bleeding, Dr. Coates comes on to throw down the gauntlet for today’s Canadian students.  If you’re not familiar with Dr. Coates, his resume reads like someone who is pretty damn important.  He is currently a Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan.  Before that he runs as the Dean of Arts at Waterloo, and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan.  I like to think that my career is on a similar trajectory considering we both started out studying history at the University of Manitoba (he’s only about 173 published works ahead of me at this point).

Book Smarts and Street Smarts

I didn’t ask Dr. Coates to be on the podcast because of his academic chops though.  To be honest, as impressive as that resume is, I’ve met several academic elites from across Canada with a similar CV (curricular vitae for you folks who don’t need Latin to feel important) who are completely ignorant to the world around them.  Many people in Dr. Coates position couldn’t care less about lowly undergraduates (also known as “those that fund graduate programs”), yet I first became aware of his work when I read a piece he co-authored for Maclean’s that was essentially trashing the whole idea of the “Million Dollar Promise” that we hear university presidents making in the media.  From there, I found out he had a book titled,Campus Confidential – 100 startling things you don’t know about Canadian Universities”.  After reading through the book I was blown away.  Many things I knew anecdotally to likely be true were confirmed by these two refreshingly honest people who had spent their lifetimes in many of Canada’s universities.  It’s a great read to say the least, and I would certainly recommend it for any young person in their first few years of school – or those still in high school.  To be honest it would make a great companion book to the one that spawned this podcast!

Keep an eye out for Dr. Coates upcoming book tentatively titled, “What to Consider When You’re Considering University”. 

During the podcast you’ll hear us chat about stuff like:

  • What’s in the book that’s so valuable to today’s Canadian students
  • Why so many students are failing in universities across Canada today
  • Why the make-up of the current student body is suspect
  • How things look from the faculties’ POV when it comes to university students (spoiler alert: one prof describes a talk he gave as “hitting golf balls into a fog”… love it)
  • Despite the slick marketing, all undergraduate experiences across Canada are very similar
  • Grade inflation and the terrible direction many public schools are heading in
  • What you can do to better prepare for university

Thanks as always for tuning in and make sure and give us a little feedback through email, the comments section, or on iTunes!


Kyle: All right. … So today on the More Money for Beer and Textbooks podcast, we have Dr. Ken Coates, from the University of Saskatchewan. He is currently the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan. He got his PhD in Canadian History from UBC, and received his Masters’ degree from my alma mater, at the University of Manitoba.

Since then, Dr. Coates has held a range of positions within the world of academia, including the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo. And he also was the Dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan. Dr. Coates has written extensively on Canada’s past, including looks at various, different histories of the indigenous peoples, Canada’s north, and many other topics.

But all that Ivory Tower, academia stuff is not really why I wanted to bug Dr. Coates today. I’m looking, instead, for some comments from the book he co-authored with Bill Morrison, entitled, “Campus Confidential: 100 Startling Things You Don’t Know About Canadian Universities”.

 So, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us, Dr. Coates.

Ken: Delighted to be here.

Kyle: When I was reading this book, I found there is so much great stuff in it. We probably won’t get to it all in the podcast today; maybe I’ll bug you again, if you can fit me in at another time.

But, where I’d first seen Dr. Coates was in Maclean’s magazine. He and his co-author had written an article entitled “The Million-Dollar Promise”. It explored this weird stereotype that Canadians have about university, and how it’s not really fitting in the modern context.

He wrote about that that in the book, and then there’s a CIBC study that came out this week, I’m not sure if Dr. Coates had a chance to look at it, but it sort of supported his thesis, exactly what he was talking about.

So, anyway, why do you think Canadians are so slow to catch on to this, right now, Dr. Coates?

Ken: Well, partly because they’re reflecting the experience of the parents. What happens is the idea of a million dollars of additional income over the course of your career, basically, regardless of what university degree you earned, is an artifact of the 1970s and 1980s.

So when I went to university, just to give you a bit of a contrast, I graduated in 1978, way before most of your listeners were even thought of. And, at that time, I remember my fourth year, not one time did we discuss worries about our careers.

The questions we asked were, “Do I want to work for government, or the private sector? Do I want to work in the north? Do I want to work in the south? Small town? Big town?” etc., etc. So, I guarantee you, now, that when you talk to a bunch of fourth-year students, one of the number one topics is whether they’re going to get a job. Or, if there’s going to be a job, what’s going to happen?

So the parents of the current generation of young people, basically went through a university system that was much smaller than it is now, both in absolute numbers, and also in the percentage of the overall population. It was a booming and expanding economy through much of that time period. And so, when you graduated from the university, you said, “Well, what kind of job do you want?”

Now the reality is dramatically different. So, if you graduate, right now, with a degree in Mining and Engineering, you actually will get a job with a starting salary probably of $90,000-plus. If you get a degree in Accounting, you’ll start with a starting salary of $75,000-plus.

If you only bring to the marketplace a degree in Film Studies, or even a degree in Biology, it’s not just the Arts disciplines that are problematic, here, you’re probably going to start selling coffee, somewhere, or working at a very entry-level job.

And what really drives me crazy is that universities continue to promote this generic idea . . .

Kyle: I agree completely.

Ken: . . . if you go to university, you’ll get a million dollars more. Well, that’s simply misleading. I feel that university is being misleading. If, instead, you said, “The average Canadian graduate of a university, covering all programs, and all professional fields, will earn a million dollars more than your average high school graduate or college graduate. However, there is a huge fluctuation, depending on your field of study, and please take that into account when setting your expectations.”

That’s not what they say. And I find it really upsetting, really upsetting that we mislead people.

Kyle:  And that’s basically what the CIBC study said – I don’t know if you had a chance to check it out, Dr. Coates, but basically they’re saying exactly the same thing that I’ve been writing about for two years, and what I’ve been telling my students as a high school teacher, and what you wrote in the book. And that’s quite simply, well, let’s take that history degree that you and I share. If you bring that to the table, you’re really not that much further ahead, than you would be straight out of high school.

In fact, there’s sort of some semi-correlated evidence that shows that that might actually make you harder to employ, in certain areas of Canada.

Ken: Well, it is harder to employ you, in large part, because of higher expectations. So I have seen that study, which basically makes a very obvious point. Are you, personally, surprised that somebody with an accounting degree has better career prospects than your colleagues who got a Bachelor of History? Of course, you’re not surprised. One’s a professional field with an accredited designation. The other is a wonderful education, if, in fact, the students actually applied themselves. And we’ll talk about that perhaps a bit later on.

Kyle:  Yes, right.

Ken: So, the degree, itself, and the history degree doesn’t convey an automatic career orientation, doesn’t guarantee you any particular kind of opportunity. So I guess, that shouldn’t surprise us; we shouldn’t be in one way, upset about it.

But another study just came out today; it said that incoming university students expect their starting salary to be about $50,000 a year. And that’s the second study I’ve seen in a couple of years that has repeated the same information.

And part of me wants to scream at the university students, saying, “Are you out of your minds!?! Have you paid any attention, at all, to how the world’s economy is changing? Have you not seen the disappearance of big portions of the middle class?

Ken:  “Have you not understood what outsourcing has done to manufacturing jobs? Do you now see the downsizing on governments, and the creation of a hyper-specialized economy?”

Kyle:  I agree.

Ken: And so, I don’t mind a student going to university, thinking, “I want to study history; I love it, and I’m going to build my career after that time.” I love those kinds of students. But a kid who’s sitting there in second year, with his baseball cap on backwards, in the back row, watching video games, thinking they’re going to get $50,000 a year, just because they survived university, they’re out of their minds.

Kyle: I can say with a fair degree of certainty that all those unpleasant realities, both the middle class, and outsourcing, and that sort of stuff, I can say with 100% certainty that the vast majority of students not only have not considered those things, but have never actually heard of those things.

Because, as a high school teacher, I can, again, speak with a fair degree of experience in saying that, we don’t even introduce students to those topics. And never mind introducing students; I would say that, if I had to put a percentage on it, over 80% of teachers, themselves, are not aware of these topics.

So I can’t even put all the blame on these 18-year-old kids, when, as a public education system employee, sometimes I feel like a canary in a coal mine, just saying, “Have you guys seen this? Have you guys seen this?” And they’re just like, “No, university, university is the ticket to future wealth. I don’t care what your statistics say.”

Have you ever run into this? Do you ever go to public high schools and talk to groups of high school teachers, at all?

Ken: I’ve been talking to high school students for 20 years, now. Once I got my PhD, and started teaching as a faculty member, I would volunteer to go to high schools and talk to students. So I’ve done it many, many times; I love to do it. Young people, 17, 18 years old, are full of vim and vigor, lots of passion, and, of course, it’s obvious for our future, and I’m going to need someone to pay for my medical care when I’m older.

Kyle: Yes.

Ken: So I’m very concerned about young people and their role, and what have you. I think, quite frankly, there are a couple of things happening. One is, a massive over-selling of universities by governments. President Obama, we hear a lot of President Obama of the United States up in Canada, constantly talking about a university degree is a road to the middle class.

In Ontario, former Premier, Dalton McGuinty, was constantly talking about the need to expand universities, and grow the university system, because we were in a knowledge economy and there were lots of jobs for people as graduates, with university graduate degrees. And you think about that, “On what basis are you misleading these people?”

Secondly, parents are terrible about this stuff.

Kyle:  Yes, I agree.

Ken:  They want the best for their kids. The definition of “the best” in modern, Canadian society is “you will not work with your hands”.

Kyle: Yes.

Ken:  And “you will not work out of doors.”

Kyle: Yes, isn’t that crazy?

Ken:   It’s insane. There are wonderful jobs that involve working with your hands, wonderful, financially rewarding careers for people who work in the trades, and other kinds of fields. The idea, basically, that has come around is that every office job is kind of like a Google job, where they have cafeterias, and free food, and ping pong tables, and video games you can play, and blah, blah, blah.

And the evidence shows that this is particularly true among the children of New Canadians, the parents of New Canadians. These New Canadian families are super-hyper about getting their kids into white-collar work, oftentimes because they’ve had difficult times, themselves. They’ve been in refugee camps; they’ve been in civil wars; they grew up in poverty.

And they come to Canada, here, and it isn’t just being in Canada and living in one of the greatest countries on the planet, it’s making sure that the kids capitalize in that that represents. And a university degree has become the icon of Canadian prosperity.

And it’s very, very frustrating, to see so many young people, and their parents, fixated on the idea that their whole lives are failures if they don’t get a university degree. I’ve heard that so many times, it just about brings tears to my eyes. Because as you look and them and think, at any society at any time, only a small percentage of the high school graduating population is capable of getting a university degree. It’s hard work, demanding work. It is there for the intellectually curious. You cannot just assume that because you want one, you get one.

Kyle:  Yes, I run into this all the time, as a high school teacher. And when you even bring up the trades – I constantly make the sales pitch of this trade, this trade, this trade, they all make more money than I do as a teacher with two degrees.

Ken:   Yes.

Kyle:  And they still just look at you with glazed-over eyes. And they’re like, “No, but you’re obviously much smarter than the people in the trades are, because you have two degrees.”

Ken:  Yes.

Kyle:  And you try to explain to them that that’s just not correct. That university programs were never meant to be career boosters. Historically and in a modern context, they were never supposed to be where you go to achieve a bigger paycheck, necessarily. It just sort of happened that way for a couple of generations, and now the market is sort of re-correcting itself. But it’s so difficult. I don’t know, maybe we should switch gears, a little bit, because I know that you and I are sort of in line on our thoughts on this.

Anyway, I was talking to Rob Carrick from the Globe and Mail this week, and we’re both of the opinion that this idea that you have to go away to university, or to college, in order to gain your independence, and that you should do so at any economic cost, is sort of insane.

And this whole idea that if you live at home for a couple of years to keep your bank account healthy, rather than going away to school you’re somehow failing, or you’re never going to grow up, and it’s going to intellectually stunt you. Or that you need to go to the school that has the best program. And I loved the part of your book that talked about, to be honest, the local home-town school is probably, for most students, especially undergraduates, going to give you the same education as that fancy university across Canada.

Ken:  Well, it’s interesting, you know. In Canada, that’s substantially true, that our undergraduate degrees are actually very, roughly even. If you went to UBC, or University of Toronto, or McGill, you get a higher prestige, but you have massive classrooms, and you have very crowded institutions. You never get to see your professors very often.

If you go to a small school, University of New Brunswick at St. John, or Windsor, you have much smaller classes, generally. You get to know your professors; you see them in the cafeteria. So there are off-setting benefits from both places.

What’s interesting, though, is that there are real costs with staying at home; there are benefits, as well. The financial benefits are really clear, but there are real costs.

University is not just about getting through your classes; university is about the whole experience. It’s about getting to meet other people; it’s about engaging in social life, and all that kind of stuff.

If you look at the experience of, say, students at MountAllison, where very few of the students are from the home community, or St. Francis Xavier, or Arcadia, Bishops University. These students have a very, very different experience of university than ones who go to York, for example. Or ones at the University of Saskatchewan, who come mostly out of the Saskatoon area, or fairly close, thereto.

And so, I guess what we want to try to do all the time is make sure that the students are thinking really carefully about who they are, and what they want from life, and what they want out of their academic career. That you just challenge them with that idea.

You know, don’t just assume that staying home and saving money is the best thing for you. At least think about this other alternative. And it’s kind of interesting watching, because I’ve known over the years, I’ve advised many parents, and many high school graduates about what they should do. I always tell them to think about going away, and to look at the finances of it, see is they needed scholarships or bursaries, just see if they can make these kinds of things happen for them.

And probably 75% to 80% of them are really glad they did it, and 25% are disappointed. And they come home after a semester, or a year, and finish off their degree closer to home.

So a lot of this, the other part of this, that I think, hope you don’t get too offended by it, is students at 17 or 18 are at very different levels of preparation and maturity. The joke in the university community is often that, for a young man, 18 is the new 15. That the young men coming to university are just sort of having trouble catching up with the women, who are more motivated, actually coming out often with higher grades from high school, and are really, really engaged in the university environment. And young men, as a group, tend not to be as connected.

Ken: So what we’re really trying to do is to sort of make sure that students understand that there’s a range of options, and that they relate to their own circumstance. You know, where they are, at what stage in their lives.

For an awful lot of young people, the high school experience is very draining emotionally; it’s very difficult, and intense. And if they go to university and find themselves in that same circle of friends, and in contact and sharing classes with the same group, it can be just a perpetuation of a very unhappy time.

So we want to make sure that students think of the range of possibilities.

Kyle:  No, that’s definitely a good point, and something to consider. I guess I sort of have a unique perspective on it, because I never had the opportunity, as a rural student, to even consider living at home. I guess I just assumed that, even if you were living in the same city that you went to school in, that you would have those same opportunities to expand your horizons. And maybe get into trouble, and all those other good things that 18-year-olds do at universities.

But, you raised a good point. I guess my thing is that the Canadian media seems very attuned to the rise in tuition prices, and yet, I think, severely under-reported is the rise in university living costs, whether it’s residence, or close-to-campus housing. And these costs have risen significantly in the last 20 years, for students who want to go away to school. Have you noticed that, at all?

Ken:   I’m really glad you brought it up, because, in fact, we get all this preoccupation with tuition fees. And, quite frankly, that’s extremely misleading.

Kyle: I agree.

Ken:  If you look at the tax savings associated with going to university, and I’ll give you one example, then we’ll come back to your point about living costs, which is absolutely bang on. My daughter, right now, does ballet. It costs me $3,000 a year for her to do that; she takes seven different classes. So it costs me a lot of money for her to be in ballet. It would be much cheaper if she went to university, because if she went to university, her tuition fee would be tax-deductible, by me. So the $6,000 charge, by the time you look at this, thinking, “Okay, I’m going to get 40% of that back.

Kyle: Yes.

Ken: And she’d also get a monthly allocation of $800, which I can then, or $400, which I can then deduct off, as well. And by the time you realize that I’m paying her tuition fee with money I put in a registered educational savings plan, the net cost of my daughter’s going to university is pretty darn close to zero.

Kyle:  Not only that, but since you live in Saskatchewan, and I know it’s similar in Manitoba, after your daughter graduates, if she chooses to work around home, they’re going to give her back a percentage of her tuition on her tax bill, for the next X number of years. In Manitoba, it’s six years; I don’t know about in Saskatchewan.

Ken: Yes, well, it’s student loans they give back in Saskatchewan.

Kyle:  Okay.

Ken:   So, I kind of hope she doesn’t have to take out any student loans.

Kyle:  Yes, yes.

Ken:  But, so the tuition sure the cost has gone up over the number of years. The cost related to inflation has gone up a lot the last little while, without much justification, by the way. One of the things that I’ve always been astonished that people haven’t picked up on in our book, is they make the case that undergraduate students actually pay basically 100% of the cost of their education.

Kyle:  Yes.

Ken:  That, we always have this idea that, “Oh, they’re paying close to half; or they’re paying 40%, or 60%.” The reality is, if you look at the tuition fee contributions to the budget, it’s almost equal to the amount that the university spent on undergraduate education.

Kyle: So, Dr. Coates, another issue you looked at in your book, that I thought, as a high school teacher, was quite interesting to me. Something I deal with every day is the good, Canadian tradition of grade inflation, and the idea that high school teachers are doing their students a solid by boosting their marks, or getting them into university. And then, all of a sudden, we have this really weird gap between grade 12 and university, that develops very suddenly, and students are dealing with stress over having their grades drop like 25%.

And you even went so far as to recommend, well, the two of you did, anyway, that universities are soon going to have to adapt entrance standards tests. So where do you see this ultimately ending up, because grades can only inflate so far, right? I know some of the Southern Ontario schools, they’re looking at entrance of like 92% now, which is sort of statistically ridiculous.

Ken:  I think it’s absolutely ridiculous because those numbers mean nothing.

Kyle: Exactly.

Ken: When you get your whole university cohort crunched down into a 10% range, or a 7 or 8% range, it means nothing, at all. High school grades are still a good indicator of general success. So that the higher the grades, the better you are. But how many times are kids in your high school told that if they have an average lower than 75%, their chance of failing is about 85%? And that’s actually a solid number, from a number of different institutions.

So, we send people off to university with 70% in a whole bunch of different places. Almost half of all Canada’s universities are effectively open-entry. So, yes, you can’t get into the Engineering program at U of T without a really high average, but boy, if you want to get into a General Biology, or Arts program, at Brandon University, basically, if you graduated from high school and are 19 years of age, you can get in.

So the problem with grade inflation is really serious. I think it fits with the general, societal pattern, of trying really hard to make the young people feel good about themselves, that we’re afraid to give them tough love. We’re afraid to tell them they’re not really wonderful and great.

In elementary school – I have five children, so I’ve been through this over a number of years, ranging in age from 33 to 12 years old. And I’ve talked with teachers, and principals, and stuff, for a very, very long time.

The number one thing that is driving teachers crazy is parental anger, that if they give the kids a lousy grade, the parents don’t pull up and say, “What did Johnny do wrong?” They pull up and say, “How dare you give Johnny that grade! He’s much smarter than that.” And so the frustration that teachers feel, because they’re not being backed up by parents.

So you fall into this pattern where you don’t fail anybody. And, in Alberta, you can’t give somebody zero on an assignment, same with Ontario. You’re just going to find some way of making sure that people feel good about themselves.

And there’s a huge amount of research that shows that self-esteem is actually an extremely poor predictor of academic or career success. And yet, our school system has a predisposition to think that building self-esteem is really valuable. And I really wish that we’d get off that one, entirely.

Kyle: I was going to just ask you if you mind if I quote you with that one, at some of my Teacher’s Professional Development Meetings that I’m forced to attend yearly.

Ken:  I would hope you would do this. And I would hope you’d challenge us to go and show the evidence, because the evidence is overwhelming.

Kyle: I couldn’t agree more.

Ken:  Self-esteem does not relate. And it’s kind of interesting look at these two examples. Maybe as a teacher you’ll get a chance to use, from time to time. Go and stand on the sidelines, when a coach is coaching his football team. I guarantee you, the coach, isn’t sitting there and saying, “My, Mr. Quarterback, that was a good throw. You missed by ten yards, but I hope you really tried hard, and we’re going to really give credit for the fact that you made a good effort.”

Or go to a ballet class, and listen to a ballet teacher talk to the students about, “Yes, you moved your leg as far as you can. Don’t worry about pushing it any further.” I mean, that’s nonsense.

In the arts field, and in the sporting field, we push young people like crazy. We drive them; we encourage them; we stress them out. We put them in difficult circumstances. They fail, and they fail, and they fail, again, and we push them, and we push them, and we push them.

And then they go to school and we say, “We want you to feel good about yourself.” It actually is a recipe for failure. It does not build character. It does not build motivation. And in fact, it builds in students a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

I feel sorry for young people. They come to university, having been told many times by their parents, and by their teachers, that they’re really wonderful; they’re very smart; they’re 80%; they’re this and that. And then they crash and burn. And watching those young people crash and burn is an absolute tragedy. Thirty percent of the students who go to first year university don’t continue. There’s something wrong with that.

Kyle: Yes, that’s a sobering statistic. I can’t believe, actually, it’s interesting you brought up that analogy. Because I have used that exact analogy many times before, and now I sort of shy away from using football analogies, given the Blue Bombers, and our record that you might appreciate as a Manitoba, now Saskatchewan guy, and the Labor Day Classic isn’t that good. So I sometimes stay away from associating anything with the Blue Bombers.

But as a sports coach, in general, as part of my extra-curricular, I do quite a bit of sports coaching. I think it’s so interesting that, in a field where measuring your performance is so public and so easy to understand as the scoreboard, we have so carefully refined the teaching methods that we use to increase performance, and they’re measured all the time. And you can see the idea, like you say, of repetition, and the ideas of striving for excellence, and of rewards based upon merit, and all these different things. It’s as simple as, “If you don’t come to practice, you don’t get to play.”

Ken:  Yes.

Kyle:  And yet, the application of those same theories to learning math, which, like you were saying, you need to compete in today’s knowledge-based economy, we just refuse to apply those same things.

It’s just a complete disconnect for me as a high school teacher. And I better watch how far I go with this, just because I might get my hand slapped. But it is, to me, absolutely unbelievable what we teach to the people who will be teaching our children in that regard.

Ken:  I think we’re letting the students down in two ways. Number one, we’re letting them down in terms of their transition to university, or college, or polytech, whatever they happen to go.

And number two, we’re letting them down for life, because the reality is, when you get out into the workforce, it is effort, motivation, ability, talent, commitment, enthusiasm, that will carry the day. It is not just because you want something.

And we end up with a whole bunch of young people who are told this idea that you can be all you can be. That is absolute stuff of nonsense. I wanted to be a professional baseball player; I love baseball almost as much as I love life, itself. And the reality is that I’m not good enough.

Kyle:   Right.

Ken:  And I discovered that I could take my desire to be good in baseball and convert it into my love for history.

Kyle: Right.

Ken:  And I work just as hard at history as I did in baseball, but actually it turned out that I actually could be pretty good at history. But the idea that I can do everything you want to be. There is something fundamentally wrong with that concept, and yet we keep telling young people, “You can grow up to be this, and you can grow up to be that.” The reality is you can work damn hard to do the things you want to do, find out what your skill is, push yourself as far as you possibly can, and you’ll figure out where your level of success is.

It might be high school football; it might be CFL; it might be NFL; it might be Olympics. Who knows what it is. But the same things apply in life as apply in sports.

Kyle: Yes, well anyway, maybe I’ll play this podcast for a few of my teaching colleagues who sort of have some different ideas about that, but I’ve been arguing this point for years.

Furthermore, you make the point in your book that if we claim that we have competing top priorities of refusing to screen kids, and yet reaching for standards of excellence, no matter what, those are mutually exclusive priorities. They cannot both be advanced at the same time.

Ken:  Oh, that’s absolutely true all you end up with is artificial screening.

Kyle: Right.

Ken:  So, if you look at the enrollment of people in French Immersion programs, overwhelmingly middle class, overwhelmingly parents from professional backgrounds with university degrees.

Kyle:  Yes.

Ken:  Finding a way to separate their kids…

Kyle:  That’s right.

Ken: … from the rest of the student population. In British Columbia, and increasingly in Ontario, private schools, where you, again, separate the kids from the other kids who are there, we’re going to see an increasing move toward online education. The largest school in British Columbia, now, is an online high school. And basically, a lot of it is parents who don’t want their kids hanging around school anymore.

Kyle: Interesting.

Ken:  So they keep their kids at home, and they train them in that way. And so, parents will find a way to string their kids; kids will find a way to string themselves. You have AP programs, IB programs, etc., etc., So we’re going to create these things, where rather than being up-front about it, and saying, “There are kids who in grade 10, you know are going to be wonderful trades people,” and you can give them some wonderful training that will set them up for life. “No, we’re going to pretend they’re all going to university.” And I think there’s a fundamental problem with that.

Kyle: Oh, I agree. Unfortunately, I can tell you with a fair amount of certainty that we’re in the minority on that one.

Ken: Well, and the interesting thing is, give it 20 years.

Kyle: Yes.

Ken: Because in 20 years, you’re going to see one of two things happen. The best high school system in the country, right now, is in Alberta; it is very creative and very flexible. And they started creating a whole series of Target High Schools.

Kyle: Yes.

Ken: Kids can go if they want trade; they can want sports; they can want music; they can want history, social science. They can want the sciences, mathematics. They can pick a high school that specializes on what they really want to be good at, right?

And the reason they did that, was because the Alberta Government was open to private schools, and the high school system, the school boards in Alberta said, “Either we adapt, or we’ll lose or best students, and the most influential parents are going to pull themselves out of the public school system. And they’re going to put their resources, their money, and their time into the private system.” So Alberta made a huge, wonderful adaptation, and full credit to them.

If you look at, more generally, the other option is going to be basically the emergence of private schools. Every time there’s a strike in British Columbia, and the teachers up in BC are quite notorious for long strikes, and for threatening strikes on a regular basis. Every time there’s a strike, you see a surge in private education. And then when the kids go into the private schools and go, “Oh, my, that’s very different from what we were getting in the public school system,” you get more people advocating it and supporting it.

Kyle:  Yes, that’s sort of a dangerous trend. Or, maybe it’s a good trend, in that, eventually, the momentum will shift things so much that the public sector will have no choice but to adapt. And it can’t happen soon enough for myself, personally, but I tend to be a little more pessimistic. It’s going to take a while for teachers’ unions to come around to that way of thinking, I believe.

Ken:  It isn’t all the teachers’ fault. A lot of it is the politicians, and school boards, and the parents. And if you can actually get them on board, and create a 21st century school system, we’ll do fine. Otherwise, you’ll have mediocrity staring in your face, and I’ll tell you, that’s no joy.

Kyle:No, no, I’m sure, especially from a university professor’s point of view. So, maybe in that same vein, in reading your book, you talked about the reality of today’s university student, and the time crunch that they’re involved in.

And basically the whole idea of going to university because you love learning, or to expand your horizons, and that you do a little bit of extra reading, or do any reading at all, in between your classes, has sort of been kicked to the curb. It now seems to be more of just a push to get a credential and do the least amount of work possible, so that you can, maybe, expand your social life, or expand your part-time job. Or pad your resume with volunteer activities, so that you have maybe an inside track.

But the whole idea of going to university, and the point of university to be to get smarter, I think has long ago disappeared. And you seem to agree with that.

Ken:  Well, I do and don’t, and so, here’s a number. In 1970, about 10% of Canadian high school students went to university.

Kyle: Right.

Ken:  Okay, now the number is closer to 30 to 35%, depending on where you are in the country. And the interesting thing is, I think the top 15 to 20% of students are every bit as engaged and curious, and interested in the world …

Kyle:  Interesting.

Ken:  … as they always were, right? So here’s the way I describe it in the modern university. You have 100 students who come in. Of that 100, 15 to 20 are the ones who you really want to have there. They’re smart; they’re engaged; they’re hard-working; they’re motivated. They love the university environment.

Twenty-five to 35%, at the bottom, depends on the institution you’re at, actually they’re remedial students. They actually don’t write very well, perhaps had English as a second language is not very strong. They have the very poor math skills. And basically, you’re using university to catch up on the deficiencies of high school.

In the middle, you have this good group of people, very large group of people, many as much as 60%, who are smart enough. They’re not very motivated, and they’re not curious, at all. And basically, they’re trying to pick a degree that will get them through their program. So they’re not picking in favor of history over German.

Kyle: Right.

Ken:  They’re basically saying, “I got 85% in German, and I got 65% in history, so I’m going to take a German degree.”

Kyle:  Right.

Ken: I remember around UBC, a long time ago, watching some students actually pick their degree based on how close the classes were together. You know, if they took a certain degree, they had to walk between buildings and with the other degree, they were all in the same building.

So, the issue here, I think, is the fact that universities have this huge range of students. The faculty members teach to the top 15%. The faculty members are really upset about the fact that they have to work so hard with the bottom 30%. Right?

And the ones in the middle, basically, they’re just filler. We call them “the swarm” in the next book we’re writing. We call these “the swarm”, and they’re just people who go to university because everybody goes to university.

Kyle: Yes, yes.

Ken: There’s a wonderful cartoon in the United States that says along the lines that the easier it gets to have a degree, the dumber you look for not having one. And, okay, “Well, I may as well go, because everybody’s going.”

And then you get there, and I’ll tell you, one of my friends was giving a lecture one time at University of New Brunswick at St. John. And the students looked so bored, and they weren’t participating. A couple of students in the back were flipping through their books and talking to each other. At the end, they said, “Oh, how did that go?” And he said, “It was like hitting golf balls into a fog.” You know, you have absolutely no idea if anything lands.

Kyle: That’s great.

Ken: And I think that’s actually a pretty good description. So, you’ll know this from your own classes, that if you sit there in a type of class of a 150 students, most of the time the professors will tell you that they have 10 or 20 students at the front who are kind of motivated. They’re the ones who ask the questions; they look interested; when you say, “Read this book,” they write it down. They think it might actually be a positive suggestion.

And then, in the back, you have the people who sit back there; they come in late; they leave early. You know that 50% of all the computers that are set up on university desks are actually on Facebook, or on email, or watching a video game, or something.

So, what a horrible environment. It’s an increasingly unattractive environment to teach in, because all the students get a chance to pass judgment on whether the professor is any good.

My wife is a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and every year that she goes through the Teacher Evaluation Form, she gets very good reports.

Kyle: How’s her rate of cooperating?

Ken:Oh, she’s about 4.8, or 4.6, something like that.

Kyle: Oh, great, great.

Ken: So she does really well. But the interesting thing is, every year she sits there and says, “You know, there are some students who only come to less than half of the classes. I don’t care what they think about the class.”

Kyle: Good point.

Ken: “Because I don’t think very much of them. So why are they allowed to rate me, when they didn’t do the readings, their assignments were late; they didn’t come to class.” You should be allowed as a professor automatic disqualification of a third of the students in their evaluations, or something like that. But it is unfair to evaluate a professor on the basis of the opinions of students who aren’t connected and engaged.

Kyle: Oh, no, Faculties of Education would disagree. It’s your responsibility as the professor to make an engaging lesson that will pull these students in and differentiate your instruction.

Ken:  Yes, with great respect for my colleagues in Faculty of Education…

Kyle:  I’m being a little bit Devil’s Advocate, obviously.

Ken:  I understand. I know, I could hear it in your voice, but I tell you, that is a fundamental flaw in the system. We are afraid to tell students that “I do not care what you think. You must know that World War I is before World War II. And that is not an optional question, and it is not something you had an interpretation about. You have to get the facts down.”

And because of the kind of wussiness we’re getting in professors who are worried about their evaluations, so they back off on the readings. Again, I use my wife as an example, every year the students just come really hard on her, because they say she gives too much reading.

In one of her classes, a third year class, she requires the students to do a one-page article summary every week, for 13 weeks. And it meant that the students read the material, had to evaluate the material, got comfortable with the material. They did much better final exams as a result, and they almost all complained about it. “Oh, way too much reading. Way more reading than other classes. Don’t take this class if you don’t want to do too much work,” etc., etc.

And the amount of reading that she was doing was probably about a third of what I would have assigned to students 15 years ago.

Kyle:  That’s an interesting comparison point. Speaking of students’ attention spans, though, we should probably wrap the podcast up, here. So, before we take off, so what was your next book that you’re writing, “The Swarm”?

Ken:   No, that’s what we call that huge group of people who just sort of follow each other through university.

Kyle: Yes, yes.

Ken: We’ve written a book with a tentative working title of “Things To Consider Before You Consider University.”

Kyle: That’s great.

Ken: And what we’ve done is written a book that basically says, “Okay, you’re right at the end of high school, what are the range of options?” And a part of this is about “You can go to college; you can go to polytechs; you can go to university; volunteer; start a business; get a job. And a whole bunch of travel in the world.” We want to let people know that part of it – “Here’s all the things you should think about.”

The other part is that, probably the first third of the book, is we say, essentially, “You have to understand yourself.” And so we have a couple of places where we say, “Here’s a little test.” So just to leave your listeners with something to think about. Part of the test, we actually say is, “All right, Number One, how many books do you read, just for fun? Do you read nonfiction, or fiction? Do you read the newspaper on a regular basis? Do you read magazines? Maclean’s Magazines? Saturday Night Magazines? Walrus?” All that kind of stuff, right?

And we go through a series of things that essentially are tests of whether the students are curious about the world. And we know our classes, that you can actually use a word, deliberately use a work that nobody understands. You can stop five minutes later and say, “Okay, what does that word mean?” And they say, “Oh, we don’t know.” “So, why didn’t you ask?” “Oh, it doesn’t matter. If we need to know, we’ll look it up sometime.”

Kyle: Yes.

Ken: So, the whole idea of the book, “Things To Consider Before You Consider University,” is to make sure that young people know, you have to be honest about yourself. If you are not curious about the world, do not go to university. If you do not like learning, and aren’t interested in learning, do not go to university. There are 100 other places you can go and 1,000 other things you can do, that will be far more satisfactory.

Kyle:  And cheaper.

Ken: You might discover, when you’re 25, you want to come back to university, because at that point, you are curious.

Kyle:  Right.

Ken:  But I’ll tell you, we are wasting money, and time, and undermining lives. I’ll end with this one thought, if you don’t mind. When we have 30%, and some universities is much higher than that, and some are lower, of our students who do not continue on after their first year, if we have that high dropout rate, that actually scars young people.

They’ve been told they’re great; their parents told them they can be whoever they want to be; they come to university, wanting to be a doctor, a lawyer, this or that. When they fail out, it is actually really damaging. And universities don’t think about that very much. They basically say, “Well, we set the bar, and you weren’t over it, so out you go.”

I have, as a Dean, sat down with a number of students, hundreds of them over the years, and having to give them a Dean’s letter that says they have to withdraw from university. And I’ll tell you, it is a scarring experience.

And the biggest problem is, with some of those students, what I really tell them is, “You should never have come in the first place. You just aren’t interested. You don’t have the basic skills.” And I think we’re being dishonest when we just tell everybody, “You can go, because everybody needs a degree.”

Kyle:  That’s a great point. And I’m hoping that that book will become a companion book to “More Money for Beer and Textbooks”.

Ken: That would be neat.

Kyle: So that’s “Things To Consider Before You Consider University,” tentatively titles, right now.

Ken: Yes.

Kyle: So, thanks, again, for your time today, Dr. Coates.

Ken: You’re more than welcome.

Kyle: More beers, more cheers. That’s it; that’s all, guys.

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9 years ago

Interesting interview – I will keep an eye out for the book when it comes out. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to find out how the other options work. I went to University because my grades were all in the 90s in High School, and that was therefore what you did. The degree got me looked at for my job, when they were hiring, but otherwise doesn’t impact it. My job really doesn’t require anything that I didn’t know coming out of high school. If you’ve been taught to think and how to go about picking up… Read more »

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