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Book excerpt: Time to consider a new type of university

A new book argues for substantial reform to Ontario’s higher-education system, including the introduction of a rare breed of institution in Canada: the teaching-oriented university.

By IAN D. CLARK, DAVID TRICK + RICHARD VAN LOON | November 7, 2011

“By several measures, Ontario currently has a good higher education system,” say Ian Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon in their new book, Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario. The authors likely did not mean, with that particular declaration, to damn with faint praise, although they do foresee serious trouble ahead. “There is now,” they write, “sufficient evidence about worrisome trends in the quality of learning and in the cost-effectiveness of the undergraduate teaching model in Ontario to warrant substantial reform.”

The book, a sequel to Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario (published in 2009), sets out the contours of the reform that the authors see as necessary. It was generating buzz within academic circles even before its official launch and will no doubt prove to be controversial. Aiming their book at policy makers, the authors state firmly that “this is a policy problem – requiring comprehensive action by the government – and not just a pedagogical challenge to be addressed within the academy.” Because many of the province’s higher education challenges are shared by other jurisdictions in North America and other OECD countries, much of their analysis, they say, also should be relevant to higher education policy outside Ontario.

Their argument is that Ontario’s university sector, which is “entirely characterized by the highest cost model for undergraduate education, the research university model,” is financially unsustainable and needs to be broadened. The principal objective of reform, they state, should be to increase the time that most faculty members devote to undergraduate education and to increase the proportion of students and government resources going to institutions that focus on undergraduate education. In this exclusive excerpt, the authors outline one of the key aspects of this proposed reform, a new institutional model for Ontario: the undergraduate teaching-oriented university.

The case for new undergraduate universities in Ontario

by Ian D. Clark, David Trick, and Richard Van Loon

The best way to make teaching-oriented institutions an effective part of Ontario’s higher education system is to design them that way from the start. They should be a new class of institution with a distinctive mission, focused on teaching and learning at the university level, providing better value for government and students than the research university model, and with clear pathways for students who want to transfer from or to other institutions.

The new institutions should be called “universities.” The word “university” is universally recognized by Ontario students, their families and employers. Many will not accept anything that is perceived to be less. Every effort in Ontario to create a label that resides in between colleges and universities – such as “institute of technology,” “polytechnic university,” “university college” and the like – has failed to find acceptance and has led to requests for further changes.

The new institutions should nevertheless not be universities like the others. Each should be a baccalaureate university with a focus on student learning and a research culture focused on the scholarship of teaching and learning. This mission should not be a way station on the path to becoming a comprehensive university with the full panoply of graduate programs and research institutes. The student-focused mission we are proposing will be vital for decades to come. …

[S]keptics question whether Ontario is capable of creating teaching-oriented universities. Ontario governments across the political spectrum have had a long history of deferring to universities’ desire to set their own missions. Strong cultural norms drive universities and their faculty to value the research university over all other institutional forms. Government inattention and lack of willpower, say the skeptics, would quickly make it possible for teaching-oriented universities to become research universities, just like all the others.

The best barrier to this mission creep, in our view, would be for the legislature to enact a single umbrella statute under which new teaching-oriented universities could be created. This is based on a lesson from the history of Ontario’s colleges, which were created in 1965 under a single statute. It is also the approach used in both Alberta and British Columbia. A single umbrella statute means that the mission and mandate of a class of institutions is treated as a matter of province-wide policy rather than institutional ambition and local pride.

A corollary is that the government should not plan to create just one teaching-oriented university. The lesson of Ryerson’s incremental transition over four decades from an institute of technology to a PhD-granting university is that a class of institutions that has only one member eventually faces overwhelming pressure to become part of a larger class.

Another corollary is that we should be cautious about thinking that a satellite campus of a traditional university could operate with the same cost structure as a new teaching-oriented university. Even if the satellite campus is intended to be teaching-oriented, there is no effective barrier to mission creep. Faculty at the new satellite will form linkages with faculty at the main campus (through faculty associations, common disciplinary interests and other means), and the pressure will grow to expand the mission of the satellite to include more research and graduate studies and less undergraduate teaching. The normal processes of university governance and collective bargaining are unlikely to withstand this pressure.

The establishment of a new university may seem like a rare event, but it is worth recalling that Ontario has created five universities since 1990 – one from scratch and four from antecedent institutions. Creating a plan and a framework for establishing new universities would be an improvement on the current ad hoc approach. The government could, at the same time, adopt a policy that all new universities will be teaching-oriented universities until such time as there is a better balance between those institutions and traditional universities. …

If Ontario could create new universities to meet the growing demand for baccalaureate education, what might these institutions look like? There is no reason for them to be identical, and the opportunity to design a university from scratch will inspire much creativity from those who are eventually charged with this task. Here are some features that we would wish to see.

We would want the faculty to focus on students. The typical workload for a full-time faculty member might be 80 percent teaching, 10 percent research, and 10 percent service (compared with 40-40-20 at a traditional Ontario university). This workload is consistent with teaching eight one-semester courses per year. Classes are held 26 weeks per year, leaving the other 26 weeks for preparing courses, marking exams, conducting research, and vacation. By contrast, the most common teaching load for full-time faculty at Ontario’s traditional research universities is four one-semester courses a year – reflecting the heavy pressure that faculty face to be productive researchers.

Students at the new universities will benefit from this teaching load because class sizes will be smaller and students will have more direct contact with faculty. With higher teaching loads for full-time faculty, a new university could be financially viable with a typical class of about 45 students (with variations, of course) and with about 30 percent of classes being taught by part-time faculty. This role for part-time instructors is consistent with the need to connect students with specialized faculty who have real-world experience. The proportion is far lower than the norm at the largest faculties of some of Ontario’s traditional universities, where 50 percent or more of classes are taught by part-time faculty, including some of the largest first- and second-year classes.

The new university would offer programs that meet emerging economic needs. The programs would offer a mix of professional and general arts degrees, any of which would prepare graduates to proceed into the workplace immediately upon graduation or pursue graduate studies if they so choose.

New technologies would be integrated into the curriculum. We might expect every student to take at least one course per semester through e-learning or a hybrid of e-learning and in-class instruction. Students will gain direct experience in using information technologies to meet specified learning goals. By graduation, they will have demonstrated the ability to learn independently – preparing them for a world in which most learning takes place outside a classroom setting through independent research, reading and reflection.

The new universities should have a student-focused research mission. They should not seek to become comprehensive research universities or add to the number of universities seeking to train master’s and doctoral students. All of the new universities’ research should be focused on better preparing students for a world in which innovation – the ability to acquire new knowledge and apply it in novel ways – is the key to prosperity. Disciplinary research should be encouraged and supported where it includes a direct and integral contribution to the education of undergraduate students, but not otherwise. On an institution-wide basis, faculty should pursue research on how to improve undergraduate student learning. Every full-time faculty member should be encouraged to participate in research programs that will assess the effectiveness of new approaches to learning and student support and that will disseminate research findings to the broader academic community. …

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It is sometimes said that creating new universities will be too expensive. Our premise is that any Ontario government, like its predecessors for the past half-century, will wish to accommodate young people who apply to university and have the qualifications to benefit from attending. The number of students seeking to attend university will exceed the number that can reasonably be accommodated on existing campuses.

Every solution to this problem will have a cost. We should therefore ask: which of the various ways of accommodating student demand will provide a high-quality experience for students at the best value?

To answer this question, we compared the financial viability of two institutions: a new teaching-oriented university and a new campus of a traditional university. (The latter might be a satellite of a traditional university or a new traditional university.) We assume that each institution would have 10,000 undergraduate students when fully operational, distributed across programs in business, general arts, fine arts and technology.

We use a multi-year financial model that incorporates all of the operating costs that a university might normally have, and we build in allowances for start-up costs such as curriculum development, library acquisitions, and the recruitment of new faculty. We want the two institutions to compete for faculty on an equal basis, so we assume that salaries and benefits would be the same. We assume that each institution would receive normal government operating grants for its students and would charge students tuition of $5,300, the average for regulated undergraduate programs in Ontario, plus mandatory ancillary fees. We assume that there would be no revenue from fundraising, since start-up institutions have no alumni or donor base. The largest single difference between the two institutions is the teaching load of the full-time faculty: eight one-semester courses a year at the teaching-oriented university, compared with four one-semester courses a year at the traditional university. …

The main finding from our analysis is that, when these two institutions are at mature size, the operating cost per baccalaureate student at the teaching-oriented university is 31 percent lower than that at the traditional university: about $9,800 per student rather than $14,200. The second major finding is that, based on the revenue and expenditure assumptions we have specified, only the teaching-oriented university is financially viable.

If the teaching-oriented university in our model adopts our preferred strategy, it would balance its budget while offering students classes that are 44 percent smaller than the traditional university, giving students more contact with full-time faculty. It would offer lower tuition, saving students $2,000 over their four-year programs compared to the current average tuition at Ontario universities. Its construction costs would be 20 percent lower. It would not seek to educate graduate students, so the government could instead fund spaces for those students at any of the 20 traditional universities that aspire to expand their graduate enrolments. Its faculty would have research responsibilities that focus on improving undergraduate teaching, so they would make limited demands on the scarce pools of federal and provincial funding that are available for university research and overhead costs. Far from being too expensive, the teaching-oriented university would be a more affordable way to provide high-quality baccalaureate education for a growing number of students. …

The existing universities have many advocates. They have many accomplishments to their credit, and it is perfectly normal that they would want higher education dollars spent on their own needs rather than on new institutions. Governments need to take a broader view. There is every reason to expect the higher education system to grow larger in the future. It is not too late for Ontario to create teaching-oriented institutions that provide student-focused education that provides more options for a diverse student population at a cost that is more affordable than the traditional model. Just as the new universities and colleges created in the 1950s and 1960s proved to be a lasting legacy, so too could the creation of new institutions today alter the shape of higher education in Ontario for decades to come.

This is an edited and shortened version of the original text, excerpted from
Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario
by Ian D. Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press and scheduled for release in November 2011. Ian Clark is a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance and served nine years as president of the Council of Ontario Universities; David Trick is the former assistant deputy minister for postsecondary education in the Government of Ontario; and Richard Van Loon is a former president and vice-chancellor of Carleton University.

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