Nova Scotia

Humanities declines show university enrolment should be cut, professor says

Rather than fret about the substantial decline in the number of students taking some arts courses at Maritime universities, one public policy expert argues schools should instead cut enrolment across the board.

Ken Coates says university enrolment should be scaled back because degrees 'oversold'

Enrolment in general arts and humanities programs in the Maritime provinces is down about 40 per cent over the past decade, but not everyone sees this as a bad thing. (CBC)

Rather than fret about the substantial decline in the number of students taking some arts courses at Maritime universities, one public policy expert argues schools should instead cut enrolment across the board.

Ken Coates, who teaches at the University of Saskatchewan and is Canada research chair in regional innovation, would like to see total enrolment cut by 30 per cent.

"When you flood the market with thousands upon thousands of degree-holding individuals, whose background looks pretty much the same, you have a serious problem," he said. 

Enrolment in the humanities — courses such as English, history and philosophy — has declined by about 45 per cent in the past decade in the Maritimes.

Coates says it's a trend across the country and he believes part of the problem is a bachelor of arts is perceived as a "default degree" on campuses, rather than a way to learn more about the world. 

BAs don't 'carry the same weight' 

"We've oversold the value of a university degree as a market entry, as opposed to an education," he told CBC. "We're finding from employers that the credential doesn't carry the same weight and substance as it used to because the universities are basically driven by a bums-in-chair mentality."

Coates also says it's time to overhaul the current model where funding is tied to the number of students, a revamp that would benefit arts courses in particular by helping ensure smaller class sizes and personalized learning. 

Regional innovation expert Ken Coates says universities should look at cutting enrolment by 30 per cent. (CBC)

Limiting enrolment would mean only the most motivated and hard-working students end up with degrees, he says.

"To essentially say we will fund programs that we believe are essential to our university and our province," he said. "Do we need as many humanity programs across the Maritimes and across Canada? Probably not. We don't need as many biology programs in the Maritimes and across Canada."

Defining the best and brightest

But that type of overhaul doesn't bode well with Randi Warne, the head of the cultural studies department at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. 

She says limited enrolment based on a desire for "good quality" students could run the risk of keeping people out of university who might face obstacles due to socio-economic background and other factors.

Another risk, she says, is that a program's value might be dismissed if it isn't perceived as economically necessary. For instance, she says it could lead to programs such as indigenous or women's studies being marginalized.

"Who is the best and brightest?" she said. "What good is women's studies to get you a job? If anything it could be seen as an impediment because there's prejudice."

Warne says one challenge facing university educators is students who enter with a shaky foundation of knowledge out of high school

"I have students who honestly don't know the difference between a noun and a verb. They don't know anything about any timeline at all [of history]," she said.

Warne says the value of university education has long been that it creates the possibility of revolutionary thought and opens up students to new perspectives, something that can't always be measured in economic terms. 

"If you don't define the purpose of education as finding people jobs, then having a lot of education for people might be seen in a different kind of light."


Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to


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