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A modest proposal to reform universities

Research vs. teaching institutions? Here’s a better idea.

by Jordan Paper


The debate over the relationship between research and teaching in the contemporary university exists within the larger framework of late 20th-century understandings. These understanding include the belief that everyone should have a “higher” education, rendering the concept meaningless; and that funding is based on the number of students, leading legislators to measure productivity quantitatively and universities to try to expand enrolment and avoid failing students. The 20th-century understandings also permit the encroachment of pedagogy into higher education, which unnaturally shifts the burden of learning from the student to the teacher and places priority on self-esteem over learning. Thus, the debate over research and teaching reflects the loss of meaning of “the university,” now far removed from its original concept.

Once upon a time, the university was a place where professors professed (“declared publicly”); they professed original understandings of ideas fundamental to the societies of their times; they professed through lectures because printing was late in developing in Europe – the lectures were in lieu of books which students could not afford. Now, it has been suggested that professors no longer profess what they have learned to be passed on to the next generation. Instead, they are to digest and regurgitate what others have learned and published, and pass that along through now counter-productive lectures. Those who advance knowledge and understanding are expected not to profess those understandings but rather to leave it to others to relate their findings to students.

Assuming that universities remain distinct from institutions designed to prepare students for various trades (which are best taught by experienced experts in those trades) and that their role is to prepare students for professions in the broadest sense, there are ways of doing so more economically, efficiently and successfully than at present. Thus, the need to separate research from teaching would no longer be considered a necessary expedient. In my own career, after attaining tenure, research and teaching became coterminous. I could offer upper-level courses in my changing fields of interest and, after several years of constant feedback from my students, the combined research-teaching led to one book after another.

The following suggestions are based on over a half-century of higher education teaching and carrying out research in various types of institutions in Canada and the United States, as well as 11 years as a full-time student in private and public universities in both the humanities and the social sciences in the mid-20th century.

Bring the universities out of the 14th and 19th centuries

Subject matter content and understanding should be divided into discreet units rather than classes. These units could be taught in a variety of ways and not locked into a three-hour per week format with students and teachers in the same room; the amount of time and type of meetings should vary as needed.

Lectures should be public, rather than for classes. They should present new understandings, to be tested through public presentation and critiques prior to being published – not lectures based on published material. Teachers should be assisting students in learning as needed, not in rigidly structured formats that do not recognize the advent of printing, let alone the ever-changing contemporary electronic alternate universe.

For example, introductory courses in the various disciplines and fields do not need lectures, let alone the giant classes in which they are usually taught. All course material could be made available online. Graduate students would offer non-required discussion sessions and labs, and be available for individual counseling. (Senior faculty are ideally wrapped up in their research and happy to share it, but often no longer good at presenting a basic-level digest of contemporary scholarship in their fields as compared to those who have recently passed their comprehensive examinations.) Undergraduate students would advance at their own pace, turn in essays and take periodically offered examinations when ready.

University teaching should be rationalized according to who does what best

Introductory courses should be taught by graduate students who have demonstrated general mastery of their subject – they are up-to-date on their fields, enthusiastic about general content and contemporary methodologies, and are closest in age to their students. Such teaching should be considered necessary apprenticeship, be supervised by their professors, be limited in amount, and be paid at apprenticeship rates.

Middle-level courses should be taught by junior faculty (assistant professors) who, it is assumed, have already demonstrated a modicum of meaningful, original research. Upper-level and graduate courses should be taught by senior faculty who have demonstrated continual contributions to their fields and from whom advanced undergraduate students can benefit. Contract faculty are not mentioned – the contracts benefit neither the instructor, for whom research and administration are not part of their job description, nor the institution, save for the financial aspect.

University admissions should be limited

Admission should be limited to those who can demonstrate through meaningful examinations and essays their readiness to benefit from the educational experience rather than from inflated secondary school grades. This would force high schools to prepare students for study at universities and colleges.
Potential students should have unlimited chances to demonstrate their readiness for university and should not be encouraged to enter universities directly from secondary schools. Universities should offer tutoring in basic skills to bring students up to the necessary levels in reading comprehension, scholarly writing, essential mathematical skills and elementary science, as many do now. Students who need these skills but are insufficiently motivated to utilize the tutoring will be forced to leave – students will actually be allowed to fail. It would be better for these individuals in the long run, as they can seek training more suited to their abilities and attitudes.

Of course, none of these suggestions are realistic. Universities are often behemoth institutions utterly bound by inertia. In Canada, all are controlled by legislatures that tend to have little sympathy for the original purpose of universities but see them instead as factories for turning out trained workers while keeping them out of the workforce for three to four years to lower the unemployment rate. Alas, I have been making these suggestions since personal computers have been available with little success.

Jordan Paper is professor emeritus, York University, and Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria.

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Comments on this Article

I utterly agree with the premise: that post-secondary ed continues to be delivered in a manner that ignores important technological developments (e.g.: the printing press -- good point!). Two things, however, don't get us much closer to positive transformation.

First is the resistance to the idea that universities are a business. Ouch, right? Take a look at the assets held by Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg ... they've been businesses engaged in investment, land ownership, patronage, etc., since Hector was a pup. What holds up the whole ivory tower is a bedrock of grimy dollar bills. So when we take the step of barring admission to those who are "unready" (I feel my hackles going up), then we'd best start printing up lay-off notices. In a shrinking demographic (such as we find across most of Canada right now), a model like this will lead only to shrinkage. That might be the *right* thing to do, but it's not going to be something that is welcomed by a lot of people.

Second is this: "Assuming that universities remain distinct from institutions designed to prepare students for various trades (which are best taught by experienced experts in those trades) and that their role is to prepare students for professions in the broadest sense." There are several universities in BC that include trades programming; some of the engineering/agricultural/sustainability programs have a goodly quantity of trades genes in their DNA; a goodly number of professional schools -- pharmacy, veterinary, health care, nutrition, for example -- have their roots in trades and vocations. Setting that aside, is it the role of uni's to prepare students for professions in the broadest sense? Into what "profession" does a political science grad go? A zoology BSc?

Whatever the mandate of PSE might be, it is not that of 14th century Europe -- so I concede that point happily. Replicating the teaching structures (both pedagogical and architectural) of monastic institutions is cute but not, I think, very appropriate -- again, I concede. The modern university derives its structure and practices more from modern concerns than we acknowledge, hence its focus on mass production, consistency of product quality (however much it may be lowered at least it's lowered evenly...), and brand recognition. Absent of recognition of these structures, we're just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Posted by John Belshaw, Dec 5, 2012 12:30 PM

I really enjoyed reading your article. I fully agree with your suggestions!

Thank you!

Gabrielle Saint-Yves, PhD
Chargée de cours
Université du Québec à Chicoutimi

Posted by Gabrielle Saint-Yves, Dec 3, 2012 7:25 PM

I'm kind of stunned at the support for these recommendations, when so many of its assumptions are silly.

One example: "Senior faculty are ideally wrapped up in their research and happy to share it, but often no longer good at presenting a basic-level digest of contemporary scholarship in their fields as compared to those who have recently passed their comprehensive examinations."

Um, why is this? I think, in fact, that the opposite is true. I think it is perhaps most difficult to teach a good introduction to a subject and the ability to do so only comes with long experience. I "still" teach intro classes every semester and my ability to do so only improves with my increased experience, not only in the classroom but in my own research, in which I am indeed "wrapped up." Further, new faculty often STINK at teaching intro classes and there are few things more disheartening than to hear a new prof stammer through her or his introductory courses.

And what does the age of a prof have to do with their ability to relate to students? Young faculty are closer in age to their students? So what! If that were important, why wouldn't it matter in upper level courses.

The idea that there is this nice correspondence between the stage of one's career and the level of courses one should teach is rather naive.

I would agree that new research needs to be presented in courses, and that one should teach from research; good luck getting that to happen in an era where "learning outcomes" and "audit culture" are going to be the norms. How do you dictate an outcome of learning something "new"? By definition it's impossible.

Posted by Charles Groben, Nov 29, 2012 3:29 PM

I'm all for renewing emphasis on teaching in universities but I fail to see how these proposals would address the larger problems facing universities today - namely the disconnect between program offerings and students' actual needs.

The bigger issue isn't about who should be doing what - whether the teaching or the research - it's more qualitiative and about whether what is being taught and researched is relevant or meaningful in the first place. The "experience" of higher ed. matters little when the degrees that are produced in the end are valued neither in society or the economy.

Posted by Dr.Doinglitte, Nov 29, 2012 1:06 PM

The suggestions are creative, to be sure, and they would certainly accomplish a pet goal of mine - to see us all thinking about moving more university students into technical and vocational education. But these suggestions fail on one crucial point: They separate students from what they should actually be learning, which is how to DO academic work. There is an inherent assumption in this article that matters of process (" reading comprehension, scholarly writing") are remedial and that the main task of university education is mastering content. This leaves students learning about subject rather than participating in it. The professors students need are those who guide them in the doing of their disciplines - in understanding method and learning how to do meaningful research. We can flip classrooms and post lectures online (or make them public), but until we teach students how to function within our subject matter, we are not moving beyond the 20th century (or the 15th for that matter).

Posted by William Badke, Nov 28, 2012 4:36 PM

Prof. Paper is suggesting that we return to what German universities arte now abandoning: open lectures anyone can attend, without exams or attendance or assignments, at which new insights are presented at a higher level (not merely verbal instruction at the elementary level, which apprentices, a.k.a. grad students, can and should do). The original lecture delivered PRIOR to publication is, by the way, one medieval model. European universities are now abandoning it due to the credentialling pressures introduced by the Bologna Process--unfortunately. A lot of things about the medieval university are just fine--as Oxford and Cambridge show.
Prof. Paper's lucid suggestions could easily include the use of MOOCs at the first-year level. Unfortunately, many universities will soon introduce larger numbers of teaching-only faculty members to get costs down--my own included. I'm glad I can retire soon, even though I don;t really want to.

Posted by Andrew Gow, Nov 28, 2012 4:01 PM

I would second these ideas. They offer a better way of putting strength where it matters most. Universities are not businesses for whom the basic need comes down to profit margins (more students anyone?). They have been forced in this model by governments who do not (want or able to) understand that universities and higher education are supposed to set the benchmarks by which society progresses over time. Nations (read: politicians and their voters) which ignore the values of independent scientific communication and study, and do not invest in them in a proper way, risk of becoming the ultimate Ford-nation (that is Ford as (ex-) mayor of Toronto) where ignorance is bliss. Inevitably, it will rot from the inside and leave nothing but an empty shell, held together with meaningless ads and shiny trinkets. Kudos to Dr. Paper for bringing these important issues to the forefront.

Posted by Pascal van Lieshout, Nov 28, 2012 3:40 PM

Professor Paper speaks the truth. To a large degree Oxford and Cambridge made the moves he suggests to get the universities out of their mediaeval or Victorian straight jackets. However, to try an implement such changes in our Canadian universities is rather difficult. An attempt to do something like this at Calgary was tried in the lat 1990s but the attempt failed as the necessary (a) freedom of the lecture, not connected with any examinations directly and (b) the tutorial arrangements in which each faculty member was responsibile for the entire program of roughly 15 students at the undergraduate level in their disciplinary area were opposed by faculty in some departments that enjoyed their then present rather limited teaching duties often only two courses of lectures per term.

Posted by Ian Winchester, Nov 28, 2012 3:35 PM

I really like the first part of this - everything before the "University teaching should be rationalized" heading. At that point, the article slips back into the very model it says should be abandoned, with set classes being taught (instead of students advancing at their own pace through discrete units taught in a variety of ways). And the bit at the end about limiting enrollment is in stark contrast to the much more reasonable proposal to offer public lectures.

I think that much of the current regimentation stems from the scarcity and cost of university education. make it widely available and affordable and people can access it in a much more relaxed manner. There's no reason why university can't accompany productive employment, instead of competing with it. This idea of taking four years to cram a bunch of stuff into one's head seems so.... 1950s.

Posted by Stephen Downes, Nov 28, 2012 3:29 PM

Brilliant and wonderful. New insight? Not really (to some of us)... but no less brilliant, because the author had the audacity to say it (again). I love teaching the "what if's", "maybe this is wrong", "this is bad", "how can we do this better?" Some of my best teaching has led me to my better publications.

Posted by Stefan Pugh, Nov 28, 2012 1:35 PM

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