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IN MY OPINION

University differentiation should not mean ‘two-tiered’

Quality vs. quantity.

By MAUREEN MANCUSO | December 5, 2011

The effectiveness of university education in Ontario has been much in the news lately – especially the cost-effectiveness of the overall learning experience. The latest salvo comes from Academic Reform, a new book written by former administrators Ian Clark and Richard Van Loon and former education bureaucrat David Trick (University Affairs ran an excerpt, Time to consider a new type of university, in the December issue). Their proposal is to create from scratch a number of new “teaching-oriented” universities, where the distractions and costs of research activities would be eliminated, to allow a focus on undergraduate teaching and provide – so they claim – significant cost savings.

It’s a seductive argument, but only if you accept the premise that learning in universities isn’t undermined when decoupled from the basic acts of inquiry and discovery that fuel university research. Students come to university to learn skills of critical thinking and innovation, and every student deserves to be taught by faculty who are at the leading edge of knowledge in their fields – that is, engaged in research.

While the book begins with the usual concern over the quality of education being provided to Ontario students, it focuses almost entirely on one solution: reducing class size. No one believes larger classes are better; but I am dubious of the authors’ apparent belief that reducing class size is in itself the magic key to improved quality.

Beyond that and some naïve enthusiasm for pervasive standardized testing, it becomes clear that the real focus of this book is not quality, but rather quantity, especially the quantity of university spaces in the Greater Toronto Area, where demand growth is concentrated. This is a real problem, but it’s hardly the primary problem facing Ontario universities. Yet in its narrow attention to this one problem, the book reveals itself to be an economist’s answer – cost-effectiveness through economies of scale – to an educator’s question: how to maintain and enhance the undergraduate learning experience.

If I sound dismissive, it’s because the authors of this book didn’t do their research. If their concern was truly for quality, they would have acquainted themselves with the actual initiatives currently underway at universities to realign, redefine and even reimagine undergraduate learning.

The authors advocate creating a two-tier system of university education; they assume entirely on faith (in conflict with the evidence from other jurisdictions) that this scheme will not result in a low-tier/high-tier quality distinction in the education delivered, as well as the economic clout of the degrees conferred. How will students choose between a “teaching-only” and a “full-service” university? In the California system the authors seek to replicate, there is a vast difference between degrees from UC Berkeley and Cal State Fullerton.

Ontario universities are already unique institutions, each with distinct core missions. We should encourage such differentiation; a system full of cookie-cutter institutions that vary only in location and school colours serves no one. And yet the current incentives within the system encourage every university to chase every niche opportunity and try to be all things to all people.

Universities should be held more accountable for focusing on their own strengths. They should complement one another without having to be segregated into tiers of opportunity or activity. More importantly, rather than investing scarce resources on a new, parallel, separate-but-equal system based on only partly thought-through, quantity-dominated reasoning, we should make sure that we are not ignoring the actual efforts of existing universities to address issues of both quantity and quality.

No one would argue that Ontario’s universities are perfect. Although studies continue to show that students are generally pleased with the quality of their university education as well as the career advantages it confers upon them, we know we can do better. But we should make sure we fully under-stand and appropriately support the efforts of universities to improve teaching and learning before we divert attention and funding toward speculative ventures that require new bureaucracies and long-term commitments and affect only a small minority of students.

The solutions to a quality problem will be found in creative redesign of the learning experience and the natural experimentation that occurs when universities are encouraged to pursue their goals and are held accountable for performance and delivery – not through broad, bureaucratic strokes and systemic duplication.

Quality will be best improved when quality, not quantity, becomes and remains the primary measure of university education.

Maureen Mancuso is the provost and vice-president, academic, at the University of Guelph and a faculty member in the department of political science.

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  1. Ian D. Clark / December 13, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Comment on Maureen Mancuso’s Opinion on Academic Reform (part 3 of 3)

    Professor Mancuso fears that undergraduate learning in universities would be “undermined when decoupled from the basic acts of inquiry and discovery that fuel university research. Students come to university to learn skills of critical thinking and innovation, and every student deserves to be taught by faculty who are at the leading edge of knowledge in their fields – that is, engaged in research.”

    This fear should be assuaged by the evidence. There has been extensive research on the question of “Do faculty members have to be active researchers to be effective teachers?” As our book states (p. 19), “the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ Based on a meta-analysis of 58 studies of the relationship between teaching effectiveness and research productivity, Hattie and Marsh found the correlation between these phenomena to be zero. There are good and less good researchers, and good and less good teachers, and no correlation between them. The lack of correlation between teaching and research performance is found whether one looks at faculty members or institutional units. Hattie and Marsh concluded that ‘the common belief that research and teaching are inextricably entwined is an enduring myth.’”

    In any case, as our book notes (p. 20), “Those who object to the idea of new teaching-oriented universities or more teaching-oriented faculty in existing universities on the grounds of the teaching-research nexus have to acknowledge that most Ontario universities have long employed large numbers of part-time and temporary faculty whose job consists solely of teaching. Indeed, they do half or more of the teaching in the largest undergraduate faculties. Financial necessity has forced the universities to do exactly what some say should not be done – that is, in effect to create a whole class of teachers in their own institutions who have no research role and to have them teach an increasing proportion of courses. The majority of these instructors are employed on a course-by-course, part-time basis and have only a very limited stature and presence in the institutions beyond the classroom. The current reality of undergraduate teaching at Ontario’s universities undermines the case against a move to recognize and embrace a role for full-time faculty members whose dominant role is education.”

    In the real world of limited resources policy makers and university administrators have to address quality and quantity at the same time. This is what our book tries to do.

    Ian D Clark

    Professor

    School of Public Policy and Governance

    University of Toronto

    id.clark@utoronto.ca

    http://www.ian-clark.ca

  2. Ian D. Clark / December 13, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Comment on Maureen Mancuso’s Opinion on Academic Reform (part 2 of 3)

    Our book says (p. 162) “we will consider reform proposals in the context of the jurisdictions for which they are proposed and draw some conclusions about the lessons they can provide for Ontario. Notably, the solutions being adopted elsewhere are to some degree specific to the circumstances of each jurisdiction, and so many would not be right for Ontario.”

    On California, our book says (p. 225-6) “The California system was thus planned around rational differentiation of the type that we suggest should be considered in some measure in Ontario. The California experience indicates not only that such a system can work but that it can be excellent…. A major lesson for Ontario from California is just how feasible it is to create and maintain a system that has sharply defined and effective differentiation of four-year universities from research-intensive and primarily teaching institutions. Perhaps an equally important aspect of the lesson is the effectiveness of the associate degree and transfer systems in achieving broad access at a reasonable cost both to the system and to individual students. In view of the very low cost of tuition at two-year colleges, it is not surprising that a large proportion of California system students enter through the community colleges and the associate degrees.”

    The answer to Professor Mancuso’s question of how students would choose between the institutions we propose is they would do it the same way they currently choose between institutions in Ontario or elsewhere in Canada: apply to institutions to which they think they have a reasonable chance of being admitted and then accept the offer they find most attractive. Students who attend such fine undergraduate institutions as Mount Allison or Acadia or Mount Royal do not have to worry about the quality of their degrees and their success in gaining admission to graduate programs everywhere vindicates their choice. The huge benefit for students provided by systems such as California’s is that there are well articulated pathways for students with the interest and academic achievement to move from one part of the system to another.

    Professor Mancuso says that “a system full of cookie-cutter institutions that vary only in location and school colours serves no one.”

    Our book does not call for such a system and does not propose new regulatory distinctions among Ontario’s existing universities. For the new universities, it says (p. 139) “There is no reason to accept our model for teaching-oriented universities as the only one possible. A government that wants to find new ways to offer high-quality baccalaureate education might invite proposals from those who wish to take responsibility for building and operating a new not-for-profit university campus. A well-considered process for inviting and evaluating proposals would be in the public interest.”

  3. Ian D. Clark / December 13, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Comment on Maureen Mancuso’s Opinion on Academic Reform (part 1 of 3)

    It is hard to recognize our book in Professor Mancuso’s description of its contents.

    The complete table of contents, Introduction, and other material on 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 can be found at http://www.academicreform.ca.

    Professor Mancuso says “the real focus of this book is not quality, but rather quantity, especially the quantity of university spaces in the Greater Toronto Area” and that “in its narrow attention to this one problem, the book reveals itself to be an economist’s answer – cost-effectiveness through economies of scale – to an educator’s question: how to maintain and enhance the undergraduate learning experience.”

    True, our book takes account of basic principles of economics, including capturing economies of scale, but it also notes that metro Toronto’s mega campuses likely exhibit diseconomies of scale and proposes creating smaller universities. Our book has 28 proposals, 2 of which are on new teaching-oriented universities in the Greater Toronto Area. The other 26 proposals deal with: system planning, two-year academic credential, three-year baccalaureate, new formula for the operating grant for existing universities, teaching enhancement funding tied to multi-year agreements, tuition policy, negotiated target for university inflation, collective bargaining framework, information collection and dissemination, encouraging teaching improvement, strengthening quality assurance, and strengthening higher education expertise.

    Professor Mancuso says “If I sound dismissive, it’s because the authors of this book didn’t do their research. If their concern was truly for quality, they would have acquainted themselves with the actual initiatives currently underway at universities to realign, redefine and even reimagine undergraduate learning.”

    Our book says (p. 60) “In Ontario universities, there are many individuals and academic units doing remarkable things to improve undergraduate teaching through pedagogical training, technological support, curriculum design, course evaluation, and performance review” and then devotes the next 37 pages to reviewing the experiences in Ontario and elsewhere with various instruments of improvement.

    Professor Mancuso says “The authors advocate creating a two-tier system of university education; they assume entirely on faith (in conflict with the evidence from other jurisdictions) that this scheme will not result in a low-tier/high-tier quality distinction in the education delivered, as well as the economic clout of the degrees conferred. How will students choose between a “teaching-only” and a “full-service” university? In the California system the authors seek to replicate, there is a vast difference between degrees from UC Berkeley and Cal State Fullerton.”

  4. Tenured Radical / June 11, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    “It is hard to recognize our book in Professor Mancuso’s description of its contents. ”

    Not at all: I recognized it right away, and agree with her core indictment. You didn’t do your homework. How disappointing (but alas, not surprising) that longtime administrators should fail so badly to really grasp the distinctive mission of the university. Even more striking is your bizarre faith in a shoddy meta-analysis of already-shoddy research on the connection between teaching and research. Again, if you really, deeply understood the distinctive character of the university as an institution, this meta-analysis would not impress you at all.

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