Book Review: Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education by James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar

Book Info

Title: Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education
Author(s): James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar
Publisher: University of Toronto University Press Inc.
Publishing Date: 2011


In the book Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education, James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar (2011) express their concern with the uneasy state of liberal arts education in the broader context of the Canadian higher education system. They claim that due to the rise of pseudo-vocational training, the legacy of liberal arts education has been reduced to a system that offers BA-lite degrees to disengaged "customers", inflating the market with graduates who cannot effectively contribute to the economy, ultimately lowering educational standards and doing irreparable harm to the sanctity of learning as an end in itself. Cote and Allahar conclude that the days of a critical liberal arts education are over unless university stakeholders take immediate action.

Divided into three distinct parts, this book begins by critically examining the causes and effects of the rise of pseudo-vocationalism in modern Canadian universities. The authors then discuss issues associated with the institutional drift toward corporate training programs and end with some ways in which we can move forward as a more informed community into the second millennium of the university. This book is written primarily for university instructors, but it has significant implications for university administrators and policy makers. 

Commentary & Views

The authors suggest that university administrators have the power to change liberal education's grim future by standardizing grades and implementing other control measures that would ensure a minimum proficiency level, as long as they are willing to stop treating students as customers "who are always right". The system may be in crisis, but here the authors have provide practical suggestions for how administrators can cause effective change.

Overall, this book proposes useful ideas for how policy makers may become more engaged are intriguing and indicative of an emerging trend among administrators, who are evidently coming to similar conclusions. Recently, a new rhetoric has begun to shape academic administrative careers. The term  "alternative academic" or "alt-ac" has been used to describe academics who sometimes take on administrative roles or other roles within the university community. This trend is becoming popular and is in no doubt a response to credential inflation referenced in this book. With more PhD-qualified candidates, a staggering 18.6 percent of Canadian academics actually find careers as full-time professors, according to a 2015 University Affairs magazine survey. The rise of the alt-acs may cause what the authors have recommended: a mixing of stakeholders in the university forum. Ironically, Bowness suggests that for academics to make the transition into administrative or other university careers, they require more support in the form of professional skills workshops offered by professional schools. It would appear that you cannot have one without the other. While Cote and Allahar make a convincing argument for preserving our liberal arts education, there can be no question that career training programs and vocational schools provide an important service to our society today. 

My only criticism is that, while the authors invoke the metaphor of the arena where all university stakeholders may cross boundaries and engage in a broader discussion about our educational system in the real world, they are vague in their description of how this might happen. While they recommend administrators should also be teachers, it's important that faculty still have the same opportunities to participate in academic pursuits, such as research, teaching, attending conferences, publishing in journals, and pursuing master's and doctoral degrees.

I found this book to be excellent in that it might appeal to administrators on a philosophical level, reminding us that we are supposed to be stewards of Canada's educational system. Highly criticized for our lack of demonstrated results, the field of university administration certainly has its own challenges and connecting theory to practice, but what students of this discipline can agree on is that administrators should manifest the virtues of academic practice and seek truth and knowledge in all that they do. This has not been the case. In my opinion, administrators, policy makers, and students in educational leadership preparation programs should take the suggestions presented in this book and form a new agenda to reclaim the university as a community of scholars.

C. Valentine