THE BLOG
11/01/2011 09:11 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

The Greying of Canadian University Professors

Assuming continuing delayed retirements of older professors from the university system, it is likely that academic staff will be hired at a much slower rate over the next decade compared to the past decade unless the universities themselves become more proactive and creative in expanding their services to the community.

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The demographics of a healthy profession include a mix of younger and older workers. Younger workers often add mental and physical energy, fresh perspectives and new ideas to a professional community, whereas older workers commonly contribute a deep reservoir of knowledge and wisdom developed through years of experience. Both are essential to the success of a profession, but achieving the proper mix is not always straightforward.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) recently released the Almanac of Post-Secondary Education in Canada for 2011-2012, which contains data on the age distribution of full-time university teachers in all professions in the country for the 2008-2009 school year, the most recent year available. This data is plotted against the same information for the 1998-1999 academic year, from the Almanac published in 2002 by the CAUT, in the diagram below. The comparison provides some insights into concerns that many are expressing about the availability of university positions to younger academics in the coming years, given that many older Canadians (including university teachers) are living and working longer, as a result of improvements in health care, the end of mandatory retirement and the uncertain economic conditions of our times.

The diagram illustrates some interesting trends that occurred during the first decade of the new century. There was very little change in the proportion of professors younger than 50 years old vs. those older, over this 10-year period. In 1998-1999, 49.7 per cent of this work force was 50 years and older, whereas in 2008-2009, 48.3 per cent made up this age group. The age profile of the under 50-year-old group also stayed remarkably constant during this period, with about 31 per cent of university teachers composed of 40 to 49-year-olds during both 1998-1999 and 2008-2009.

Within the '50-plus' cadre, however, the age profile changed dramatically. In 1998-1999, the 50 to 59-year-old group was the predominant age of a university teacher in Canada, but many professors 60 to 64 years of age had retired and those 65 and older, with mandatory retirement still in place in most provinces and territories, made up only 1.7 per cent of the profession. The group that was 50 to 65 years old in 1998-1999 were born between 1933 and 1948, and hired largely during the late 1960s and 1970s in order to educate the 'baby boom' generation, which dramatically increased enrollments in Canada's universities at this time.

The age profile of university teachers older than age 50 was quite different in 2008-2009. The educators of the baby boomers were now over 60 and they made up a larger fraction of university academic staff than did their counterparts in 1998-1999 (18 per cent vs. 12 per cent), consistent with the trend of delayed retirement. But this was coupled with a reduction in the proportion of 50 to 59-year-old educators, from about 37 per cent of the workforce in 1998-1999 to about 30 per cent in 2008-2009, which was largely a consequence of hiring practices of the 1980s, when the last of the baby boomers passed through the university system. The result, as shown in the diagram above, was that the age profile of university educators was much 'flatter' in 2008-2009 than it was in 1998-1999. Essentially, we now have the age groups from 35 to 65-years-old represented more equally in the profession of university teaching than we did in the late 1990s.

Where does this leave a young academic wondering about the chances of entering the university teaching system in the next decade? The answer is that there will continue to be opportunities in university teaching and if one feels passionate about the profession, one should pursue it, no matter what the odds. But it is also important to understand the dynamics of employment opportunities in whatever profession one is pursuing. In the case of higher education, hiring of academic staff has been traditionally linked to the numbers of undergraduate students seeking degrees. Canadian universities awarded 124,861 bachelor's and other undergraduate degrees in 1998, and 171,882 of the same degrees in 2008, an increase of 38 per cent. Not coincidentally, the total number of full-time teachers employed in Canadian universities in 1998 (29,426) also increased by 38 per cent (to 40,593) by 2008. Projections by Statistics Canada suggest that the population of 20 to 24-year-olds in the country, the common age range of the university student seeking an undergraduate degree, will increase by only about one per cent between 2010 and 2016, and then decrease by about seven per cent by 2021. Assuming traditional rates of enrollment in university by young Canadians, and continuing delayed retirements of older professors from the university system, it is likely that academic staff will be hired at a much slower rate over the next decade compared to the past decade unless the universities themselves become more proactive and creative in expanding their services to the community.

What are some things universities should be doing in order to continue provide opportunities for young academics and benefit from the enthusiasm and new ideas that, traditionally, they have added to these institutions when they have been hired? Here are three suggestions: Firstly, universities could tailor and market courses and programs to the over 65-year-old population in Canadian society. Statistics Canada estimates that between 2015 and 2021, the number of Canadians over 65 years old will exceed the number less than 14 years old for the first time in history. Many of these older people will be retired, intellectually active and interested in learning more about the world. Years ago, the traditional liberal arts education was the 'bread-and-butter' of the university system, the goal being to provide a young person with a basic knowledge of literature, science, history and the fine arts, and the ability to think critically to solve problems. In more recent years the liberal arts education has been replaced largely by a more specialized curriculum in preparation for work in particular disciplines or professions. Universities could bring back the liberal arts education over the next decade, tailored to meet the needs and expectations of the older student. Perhaps new types of degrees need to be created for these programs to recognize their distinctive place in the university system.

Secondly, universities could place more emphasis on designing master's degree programs and hiring academic staff members to teach them. While the number of undergraduate degrees granted by Canadian universities increased by 38 per cent between 1998 and 2008, the number of master's degrees increased by an even more impressive 64 per cent over the same period. Because many students return to complete the Master's degree after working in industry for some time, there should be ongoing opportunities to expand these programs further in the years ahead.

And thirdly, international students remain an attractive option for expansion of university courses and degrees. With much fanfare, the world's population just passed the seven billion person mark. Much of the population growth is occurring in China, India and Africa, including among the 20 to 24-year-old age group of the traditional undergraduate university student. Canadian universities are among the best in the world and already a magnet for many international students. Rather than turn large numbers of young academics away from employment in Canadian universities over the next decade, it would be far better to expand student recruitment activities outside the country with the goal of increasing international student enrollments.