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Universities have ‘lost their way’ on undergraduate education

We can do better to improve the student experience, say senior administrators.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | JUN 13 2011

The gauntlet was thrown down early, in the opening keynote address by Robert Campbell. Speaking about undergraduate education in Canada, the Mount Allison University president said: “For many university presidents and senior administrators, their experience over the past decade has been a frustrating one.… In my view, the collective university membership has lost its way over this time.”

The venue for Dr. Campbell’s frank and pointed remarks was a workshop on “transforming Canadian university undergraduate education” held in Halifax in early March by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Sixty-five participants attended, including 13 university presidents, 25 vice-presidents, academic, or other senior administrators, and 15 student representatives.

In his address, Dr. Campbell listed a litany of public pressures and policies that have conspired to force universities to focus on the “high-end” outputs of research and graduate studies. At the same time, the university’s foundation – the quality and effectiveness of undergraduate education – has been undermined.

“We all feel and know that the character of the undergraduate experience has deteriorated in our lifetimes, especially so in the last decades. And we know in our heart of hearts that this experience can and should be much better,” he said.

Patrick Deane, president of McMaster University, echoed the views of many at the workshop by welcoming the AUCC initiative to examine the undergraduate experience. But he also struck a cautionary note: “We have a long history of moments like this where the consciousness briefly awakens and there is a discussion about undergraduate education, and then somehow it recedes again until the next time.”

Dr. Deane exhorted participants to “put everything” up for debate. “Dispiritingly, the focus is often on the quality of teaching. But we must alter the system in which the teaching occurs – not just the modality of learning, but the whole conception of the learning process,” he said. “I am greatly demoralized that we have failed to get outside of the established paradigms.”

Is the present situation a crisis? David Marshall, president of Mount Royal University, didn’t think so. But he did say that the current situation is not sustainable and that the system must change, or Canada’s universities “risk eroding our brand.”

In the roundtable discussions and presentations that followed over the two days, many participants identified an excessive focus on research as the culprit, while others noted a whole host of compounding factors, including faculty workload, the rewards structure, the increasing use of contract instructors, enrolment pressures, and funding and revenues that have not kept pace with costs. Participants also discussed and deliberated over what outcomes one should aim for in an undergraduate education and how to assess them, and the perceived barriers to change.

Many spoke of the need to foster innovation in teaching and course design. “Part of what is happening is that students are afraid to take risks, they are absolutely driven by the tyranny of marks,” said Ramona Lumpkin, president of Mount Saint Vincent University. Likewise, “we should give faculty ‘safe spaces’ to take risks” in their teaching practices, she said.

This was all music to the ears of Arshad Ahmad, a business professor at Concordia University and president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. He called the event “an important milestone” and said it left him inspired and encouraged.

“It is so important to hear, from president after president, that the core business of the university is to teach undergraduate students,” said Dr. Ahmad. His colleagues within the STLHE “are so happy to learn that this kind of language is being used and that people are getting serious,” he added. “These presidents have so many allies. This will resonate with a lot of people who want to support this narrative.”

Deanna Rogers, a student finishing up her degree in sociology and anthropology at Simon Fraser University, also called the workshop a great experience. “I find sometimes when you’re invited to an event as a student, it can be token. But I feel like what we had to say was really valued.”

Wrapping up the proceedings at the end of the two days, Ray Ivany, president of Acadia University, caught the mood by saying, “You could declare the last several days a success on a number of dimensions, simply by drawing the university community together around this theme at this time and the robust discussion we had.” But, he added, it’s not enough.

Paul Davidson, president of AUCC, encouraged participants “in your own roles at your own institutions, to think about how change can occur.” He noted that AUCC has formed a committee of 10 university presidents to work with members to craft a “new narrative” for the association for the next decade, and the deliberations of the undergrad workshop will feed into that.  As well, AUCC has a standing committee on educational issues and funding, so there is “a home institutionally within AUCC for these issues to keep moving forward,” he said.

At the workshop’s close, Mr. Davidson said, “This is not just about rhetoric. We are actively searching for new policy tools, new policy ideas … to ensure that Canadian universities are equipped to make the next generation of students the best educated and the best prepared to meet the challenges that this country is facing.”

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