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Perishable goods: Universities and measurement of educational quality

Posted on October 11, 2011 by

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Today’s post is a response to the Globe and Mail’s October 11 editorial, Canadian universities must reform or perish. The response from my PSE friends on Twitter was provocative (the tweets can be found here on Storify); those involved in the discussion seemed to agree that while the article highlighted real and pressing problems, the analysis was awry. The issues being addressed in this article — quality, sustainability, and accountability — are relevant and important, but it’s the assumed answers to these issues that are troubling. I want to take a look at what I think are some of the implications of the argument.

One issue is that the article seems to focus on universities primarily as places of undergraduate education, whereas they’re viewed by faculty members (and administrators) as research centres as well. Professors don’t engage only in teaching, since teaching is not generally the sole mission of universities.

The article suggests that universities should train professors in pedagogy, and place more value on teaching in the tenure process; I wouldn’t argue with that. The trouble lies in the suggestion that teaching and research should be split apart and funded separately. Along with teaching-only campuses, this segregation of funding and function would further entrench an existing hierarchy — because universities and faculty members operate in a larger “market”, wherein research is given more prestige and more monetary value than teaching.

I’d argue that it’s a problem to suggest that funding for teaching should be tied to training and assessment (i.e. performance-based funding). Proposing that we fund universities by the “performance” of professors requires a reliable means of measuring this performance, and student learning is assumed to be the outcome. But a reliable measurement of student learning is like the “Holy Grail” of education research at all levels. Tests developed in the United States have provided some limited answers, but all standardised tests are somewhat fallible due to the annoyingly individualistic experience of education; tests mostly fulfill a function within systems, rather than providing real knowledge of knowledge, as it were.

While it’s possible to create systemic criteria — such as Ontario’s University Undergraduate Degree Levels Expectations (UUDLEs), for example — these measure a set of pre-defined skills determined by design, which excludes a good deal of what students may experience as well as future effects that learning may have on them.

Philosophical and practical difficulties arise from relying on measurable data in education: how do we begin to ask what numbers could show “proof” for outcomes like “critical thinking”, “creativity”, “innovation”, and “knowledge” itself? Will these measurements of  “learning outcomes” take into account student “inputs”? How will they do this? After all, education is a two-way process and not all students have the same capacities, nor do they all contribute the same amount of work.

Another related issue is that the article posits multiple, potentially conflicting goals for university education. Should the role of the university be to train workers for the knowledge economy, or to “bring the values and practices of a liberal arts and science education to the masses” — or both at once? If liberal education is the goal, then hiring more research professors, whose salaries the article refers to as a problem, is the best way to expand the system—rather than splitting teaching from research as suggested. That segregation has meant that enrollments are often expanded on the backs of part-time and contract teaching faculty who can be paid less and provided fewer or no benefits. The Globe’s editorial highlights this phenomenon without linking it to the expansion of enrollments alongside the separation of research from teaching.

The critique of current professors’ performances and salaries fails to get at the heart of a decades-old problem, mainly through an over-emphasis on the present outcomes of those long-term processes. In essence this is an individualizing critique that assumes professors who don’t want to teach, rather than 40 years of postsecondary expansion and economic change, are primarily responsible for the declining quality of undergraduate education. Yet professors don’t create provincial policy, nor do they set the limits on tuition fees, or even determine the number of students in a course. Tenure-track and tenured faculty are also juggling increased research and administration loads as competition becomes more intense. All these things have a strong effect on the environment in which teaching and learning takes place. If and when the concept of “quality” is focused on professors’ classroom performance, and on teaching and research as easily separable, then a narrow analysis — and flawed solutions — are likely to result.

Melonie Fullick

About Melonie Fullick

Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.


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