On Campus

Men on campus: Minority? Yes. Disadvantaged? No.

What is going to happen to all these men, without post-secondary educations, in the oil and gas, mining, and construction industries when the boom slows down?

Paris Meilleur, executive director of the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations, posted a spirited response to my recent article “The New Minority: Why some universities are talking about affirmative action — for men” on her blog. She is (justifiably in my opinion) irked at the phrase “the new, disadvantaged minority” in relation to men at university.

It’s common knowledge among university types that women are the majority on university campuses (60:40 nationally). But what there is much disagreement about is whether that is a problem. My article discusses how some schools in the U.S. apparently believe that men are “disadvantaged” enough to justify affirmative action policies. But the question remains: just what barriers are preventing men from going to university? Do these barriers constitute some kind of discrimination against men? And (shh… I know I’m not supposed to ask this) does it really matter if there are more women than men on campus?

I suggest in my article that as long as men are still making more money in the work force, it makes sense that women are choosing to go to university in droves. They need that competitive edge.

On the other hand, there are a number of reasons why we should be concerned about the “pink ghetto” on campus. Despite her outrage that we are even talking about affirmative action for men, Meilleur brings up an important point. What is going to happen to all these men in the oil and gas, mining, and construction industries, who have chosen not to pursue higher education, when the boom slows down? This is a particularly important question in these “interesting times” (ahem… the New Yorker taught me today that the first rule of a recession is not to talk about the recession).

Meilleur’ main point is that talking (and writing, I assume) about affirmative action programs is not useful. Rather, we should be talking about the other implications of this less than popular discussion. She writes: “Let’s talk about the broader social implications of a generation of young and middle-aged men leaving their communities and families to make money. … What the heck is happening in P-12 education? Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about supporting boys in elementary and high school without making the girls feel guilty for their success.”

She’s right. In Canada, we’ve been slower than our southern neighbours in discussing the female university student phenomenon and we’ve resisted the temptation to make it into a crisis that it’s not. But it’s time to bring the dialogue to the next level, decide if and how the system is falling short for men, and propose some changes.

Last year, StatsCan put out its projections for enrolment at Canadian universities. The numbers were sobering: due to a demographic downturn expected to hit nationally in 2012 and that is already affecting some provinces, universities are soon going to have problems filling their seats. StatsCan put forward three possible scenarios for the future: participation rates stay the same and enrolment follows demographic trends (the gloomiest of the projections), participation rates continue to grow at a similar rate, and participation rates of men reach that of women (the most positive projection). I spoke to the StatsCan researcher who explained why they chose to include a projection dependant on upping the participation rate of men. He said that the male/female divide was becoming a common topic of discussion among university policy types and he thought the information would be helpful.

My source over at the Millennium Scholarship Foundation had an enlightening perspective on the possibility of focusing on men to alleviate the enrolment bust, as implied by Stats Can. He thought it wiser to target the groups that are truly disadvantaged and underrepresented at universities and hoped that men (especially men in those groups) would follow. These groups include Aboriginal Canadians, first generation students (young people whose parents did not attend university), and low-income students. Meilleur also mentions these themes.

The issue is a difficult and unpopular one. Gender issues in general are topics I tend to feel uncomfortable writing about. But although Meilleur seems equally uncomfortable labeling this topic as a “feminist” issue, she chooses to end her post with a quote about feminism anyways. And so will I.

“It’s important to remember that feminism is no longer a group of organizations or leaders. It’s the expectations that parents have for their daughters, and their sons, too. It’s the way we talk about and treat one another. It’s who makes the money and who makes the compromises and who makes the dinner. It’s a state of mind. It’s the way we live now.” ~Anna Quindlen

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