Eduvation Blog

What’s Wrong with University?

Ken Steele’s reflections on Jeff Rybak’s new book, What’s Wrong with University and how to make it work for you anyway.  (ECW Press, 2007).


You may know Jeff Rybak as a young blogger for Maclean’s. He graduated just last year from the University of Toronto Scarborough, where he was the student union’s VP Academic, and editor of the campus “Anti-Calendar.” For this book, he draws heavily on first-hand experience counseling students at UTSC. Rybak is still a student – a law student at UofT – and has his own website.

In many ways, What’s Wrong with University is a perfect companion piece to Jim Côté and Anton Allahar’sIvory Tower Blues. Both published in 2007, Rybak’s book describes the crisis in modern Canadian universities from the student point of view, while Côté’s book outlines What’s Wrong with University from the perspective of faculty. Reading the two books together provides a nuanced understanding of those different perspectives – but what is most striking is just how much consensus there is between the two.

The “Universality of University”

Rybak and Côté are in complete agreement that a big part of the problem with modern universities is thateveryone thinks they should go. Higher education is “a gradually narrowing competition at a very specific kind of achievement,” and there should be no stigma for pursuing a job straight out of high school, or a more vocational form of career preparation. But too many students and their parents regard university as the “sole and exclusive path to success,” and professors as the gatekeepers of that path. The height of success in any discipline therefore becomes the job of professor itself – removed, abstracted, intellectualized, and hands-off.

The University Fetish

Rybak argues convincingly that our society has “fetishized” university. Like churchgoers who show up for Sunday service but fall asleep in the pews, many students somehow believe there is value in simply attending university, without doing or achieving anything: students buy textbooks and don’t read them; they sit in lectures and space out. Like church, university has become sacred in our society: it has “supreme authority to determine what’s going to happen in your present lifetime.” Naturally, “there’s something desperately important about everything to do with the institution that’s devoted to saving your soul.” These incredibly high stakes create immense pressure on students to succeed as undergraduates, and lead directly to student depression and suicide. “Your life is over if you can’t graduate from university.”

Eroding Job Market Value

Like Côté, Rybak observes that the modern job market seems to demand PSE degrees for entry-level white-collar jobs that would have been taken by high school graduates in the past. The undergraduate degree becomes a four-year moratorium, a “holding pen” for young people, until they’re old enough for the job market to absorb them in the same jobs they would have had anyway.

In fact, Rybak believes that undergrads generally aren’t worried about passing their “dumbed-down” courses. Canadian universities weed out students at the application stage: “If you were good enough to get in here, then you’re good enough to graduate.” Although Rybak doesn’t explicitly talk about high school grade inflation and policies of social promotion, he talks about their consequences. “An undergraduate degree, after four years of expensive education, proves that a student was good in high school and spent four more years exercising a reasonable degree of diligence and dedication.”

Rybak concludes that, “from a purely market-driven perspective, the value of PSE has taken a beating lately… The price tag for the education is shooting way up… the market value of that education in terms of earning potential is eroding.” Jim Côté proves the same points, with substantial economic and statistical evidence.

Very Different Reasons to be at University

Rybak’s time at the UTSC student union has convinced him that a great many university students are disappointed, but that “even the students who are most unhappy don’t agree with one another.” He identifies five different categories of student, who attend university for very different reasons:

  • Academic students – think university should be about “exploring areas of interest, personal growth, and intellectual inquiry.” These students believe in “pursuit of knowledge for its own sake,” and after years of grad school, these students often become professors. “Some think this is the only good reason to run a university, and that any other purpose is a dilution of this goal. Others think this is an outdated idea and one that doesn’t have much place in modern education.”
  • Vocational students – attend university expecting to learn job skills, and career-relevant training. They may be pursuing careers in the professions (engineering, medicine, law, business) or may simply approach Philosophy or Literature as training for a professor’s job. They may not be driven by curiosity, but they are still driven to learn the material.
  • Certification students – are at university merely to attain the “certification of basic competency” that used to be a high school diploma. Accreditation is “absolutely not the same” as education; these students don’t need to learn anything in order to achieve their objectives at university.
  • Good citizens – are politically active students, more motivated by student government, politics, or charitable activity than their classroom studies. These students cannot fathom the apathy of students who just want to learn at university.
  • Holding-pen students – never questioned university as the inevitable next step after high school, or are simply afraid to step out into the real world. But if you have no innate motivation to learn, observes Rybak, “you are at a bit of a disadvantage at any institution of higher learning.”

These five types of university student (which bear a striking resemblance to Côté’s five motivational categories) all come to university expecting to get what they want from the same institution. Inevitably, “we’ve all been ill-served by a system that throws us together in the same blender with the vague expectation things will just sort themselves out.”

Bad Reasons to go to University

Rybak insists as vehemently as Côté that “people who don’t know what they want out of university shouldn’t be there.” To students who think they don’t have a choice, Rybak asserts that they do. To those who just want time to figure out their life, Rybak says get a minimum wage job for a year or two: “time to figure out your life should be cheap.” To those who think the undergraduate experience is about gaining life skills, Rybak says, “Life skills are learned anywhere. They’re called life skills because you learn them by living, not by being at university.” University “bears little resemblance to real life as it exists anywhere else.”

The Careerist Conspiracy

The problem with emphasizing the career benefits of a university education, says Rybak, is that students receive “the not-so-subtle message… that education for its own sake is rather frivolous.” But provincial governments like to emphasize salary gains, rather than acknowledge the social good of education, because “a focus on the social good implies a public obligation to fund it. A focus on the personal gain implies every reason in the world to load the cost on the individual.”

The Evils of Student Loans

A consequence of rising tuition is that more and more students incur crushing debt, equivalent to a small mortgage, before they even embark on their careers. Rybak regards tuition as “a pay-in-advance form of taxation,” but observes, “if the government was so certain that education would translate into greater income, it could simply tax that income in the future.” Government doesn’t, he observes, because in many cases the income gain fails to materialize.

Rybak spends considerable space questioning the fact that in Canada, minors can’t sign binding contracts, except for the explicit exception of student loans. Students may be too young to drink, smoke, vote, or get a credit card – “but you can get a debt that will last into your thirties.” Maybe this is because an investment in education can never be a bad decision (although Rybak argues persuasively that it can be). More likely, it’s because “education can’t be repossessed.” But Rybak believes that the knowledge that a student will graduate with significant debt means they are less likely to travel the world, take risks or challenge thestatus quo. It also means they are more likely to take career-oriented programs, and may ultimately spell the end of liberal arts education.

Competing for Your Spot on the Grade Curve

Rybak, like Côté, emphasizes that grade inflation poses a risk to a university’s academic reputation, that explains to prospective students that this is why administrators establish written or unwritten standards for grade distributions. But this means “one of the ugly realities about education is that you are in competition with the students around you for your grades.” Humanities and social science undergraduates are often surprised by this concept, but math and science students see the grading curve in action.

Rybak emphasizes that taking “bird courses” to boost your GPA will only make the situation worse. Students who are in the course simply because it’s supposedly easy will find themselves competing with students who have strong academic or careerist motivation – and will actually get even worse results. “If you want higher grades, go to a weaker school!”

The System Creates Cynicism

Rybak agrees with Côté that students are increasingly disengaged – although Rybak calls it “cynicism,” and sees plenty of good reason. Academic students don’t see why they should learn a predetermined curriculum, when they want to pursue their interests. Vocational students don’t see why they should get involved with extracurriculars, or why they should pursue electives for “breadth.” Certification students are more concerned with passing the test than learning the material. Good citizens are frustrated by their narrow-minded colleagues. Holding-pen students are just looking for a good time.

Most students are disappointed by universities that hire more and more “teaching-stream” faculty, and resort to multiple-choice testing to cope with surging class sizes. Rybak says economies of scale have created a university system in which “students are processed more than educated.” The “hidden cost of multiple-choice exams” is that students get an oversimplified view of education: “There’s one right answer and four wrong ones, and the goal of education is to know the difference. Just like a game show.”

When university stops making sense to the majority of participants, they grow cynical. And when “playing by the rules makes no more sense than breaking the rules,” Rybak says students do what any other intelligent person would do – they cheat. Or they “circumvent the intent” and cheat themselves out of the substance of their education with “halfway cheating,” like the “gulp and vomit” approach to learning that Côté abhors.

A Glorious but Conflicted Institution

The crisis in Canadian universities, Rybak argues, is not just caused by skyrocketing tuition, ballooning class size, and the dumbing down of curriculum (although he acknowledges all of those issues too), but ultimately is inevitable in such a “glorious but conflicted institution.” Universities are trying to be all things to all people, to deliver “success” no matter what that means, to be accessible to the majority of the population when simultaneously an aging population is putting more stress on health care budgets.

And of course, universities are run by academics. “University is a pretty freaky place. Probably nothing else in the world runs like a modern university. Take any billion-dollar enterprise, put it in the hands of people who aren’t trained to be administrators, throw in a lot of generally left-wing ideals… factor in government regulations, accommodate some demands from industry, and you’ve got a modern university.”

Proposals for Reform

Just like Ivory Tower BluesWhat’s Wrong with University opens with the insistence that “this isn’t a book about institutional reform” – and yet ends with chapters called “proposals for reform” and “grassroots change.” Unlike Côté, Rybak is not particularly concerned with high school grade inflation or the distorting effects of professor evaluations. But Rybak definitely shares Côté’s concern with universal access to university, student disengagement, and the devaluation of university credentials in the workforce.

Rybak’s modest proposals to improve “What’s Wrong with University” include:

  • Creating greater differentiation between institutional goals, so that colleges, universities and institutes serve clear purposes, and students pursuing very different goals know where they will find their needs satisfied.
  • Standardizing credit transfers from college to university, so that Ontario colleges become more like BC University-Colleges or Quebec CEGEPs, a natural next step after high school, without stigma.
  • Settling on a consistent definition of the age of majority, so that students are not expected to sign irrevocable loan agreements when they are still too young to sign other legal contracts.
  • Considering a system of independent certification, like drivers’ testing, rather than requiring university credentials as proof of the process of education. A certification approach would solve the problem of foreign credentials, and would reduce the sense of consumer entitlement among undergraduates.
  • Creating a system that requires 1 or 2 years of mandatory civil service for all students after high school. This could eliminate the “holding pen” students who attend university in order to figure out what to do next, and would greatly enhance student and faculty engagement on campus.

In all, Rybak’s book is a lively take on university from the undergraduate student’s perspective, delivered as advice to prospective students. What’s Wrong with University probably reflects UTSC in particular more than Côté’s book reflects UWO, since Côté augments his personal experience with so much broader statistical evidence. Nonetheless, What’s Wrong with University is a thought-provoking read, useful for anyone interested in student services, liaison, or broader policy questions.

Please feel free to post your own thoughts and comments here!

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