Universities for the 21st century
It's time for universities to face the challenges of mass education
"A university degree is the new Grade 12" has been said cynically for quite a few years. It's always been treated as a tasteless taunt. But what if it's true?
Universities have always assumed that their role is to deal with the select; this is integral to faculty members' concept of the "true" university. But whereas in 1960 less than five percent of Canadian youth went to university, close to 40 percent now do so. Selective entry is for most universities a thing of the past, and there is no chance of its return. Wide access is a political imperative: credentials are mandatory in our transformed economy, and parents' aspirations have skyrocketed.
Yet faculty members everywhere have the sense that their institution has gone wrong. How many times have you heard someone say, "Other universities can take in more able students; we have to make do with what we get"?
Scrub that thought. Most Canadian universities are in the business of mass education, and their students are just like yours. Mass university education is here to stay, with all its benefits and challenges. But we need to stare those challenges straight in the eye.
First, we have to accept that in an era of mass university education, most university students will be as varied as those in your local Grade 12 classes. Some deserve multiple scholarships, and some never open a book unless so instructed. (The results of the latest National Survey of Student Engagement show that 25 percent of North American first-year university students, and 20 percent of fourth years, had not read a single unassigned book for pleasure, enrichment or interest during the previous year.)
Lapsing into cynicism won't help, nor will objecting to the support programs, study skills workshops, and writing and math help centres. These supports are precisely what are needed in a mass university era. Rather than a symptom of plummeting standards, they are the necessary steps towards maintaining those standards, and not something to be ashamed of. Taking substantial fees from students who have little chance of success without such support and shunting them directly to probation and dismissal is wasteful and immoral.
Similarly, universities have to continue their efforts to professionalize teaching. Many professors have never taken one course, or read one book, on effective teaching. Perhaps that worked when the typical student was gifted and just needed steering to the best readings. It certainly does not wash at a time when faculty routinely decry students' difficulties in the classroom.
On the flip side, mass university education implies that new programs are needed for students who do come to university well prepared and eager to learn. Mary Woodard's essay in the Globe and Mail (Sept. 7, 2006) nailed this point. She had just gained a GPA of 4.0 and was appalled by the fact, since she hadn't worked hard to get it. "When the mediocre is accepted as excellent," she wrote, "discouragement is the only appropriate response." This is one inevitable consequence of a mass university system that doesn't realize that it is a mass university system, and as a result moves everyone in a convoy.
Once we admit to the facts, we can also see that university equivalents of the International Baccalaureate are essential to maintain the motivation of serious students. This means offering them, from their first day, the option of special-stream programs that expect a lot of them, that challenge them, that bring out their best.
There are other major implications of mass university education. A recent report from the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission of university graduates, five years after graduation, puts a spotlight on liberal arts degrees. Many reading the report will conclude that, for some, university was an exercise in futility.
A liberal education can be one of the great glories of our civilization, developing mental muscles, building high-level skills, and permanently enriching life. But it is not for everyone, and certainly not for those looking for the easiest ride.
When a degree is as common as yesterday's Grade 12, the BA and BSc will not magically open employers' doors. Those who have truly benefited from their studies will glide on to the professional programs they need for a career. But those who have simply gone through the motions to gain a credential will stay on the road to nowhere.
Much has been gained by university expansion. Many historically under-represented groups are making their presence felt on campuses, and we now have precisely the accessible university system that many demanded. But we must capitalize on the promise and meet the challenges. This requires new approaches to teaching and learning, support programs, the needs of the gifted and the curriculum. We can bemoan the academic abilities and interests of some of our students or we can reorient the undergraduate experience to make university more interesting, beneficial and successful.
In sum, we can choose to wallow or we can choose to create 21st-century universities.
Clive Keen is director of life-long learning and enrolment management at the University of Prince Edward Island. Ken Coates is dean of arts at the University of Waterloo.