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IN MY OPINION

Improve the wheel, don’t reinvent it

Canada’s universities should build on what they’ve already created.

By ROSEANN O’REILLY RUNTE | FEB 08 2010

Current times of fiscal restraint call for creativity, increased cooperation and flexibility. Rather than build new institutions and establish hierarchies which stifle innovation, it is time for Ontario and Canada to seek ways to support existing institutions, to encourage them to create viable networks and to share ideas and talents in pursuit of the highest quality education possible.

The recently published book, Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education, by Ian D. Clark, Greg Moran, Michael L. Skolnik and David Trick, offers research as well as commentary and conclusions. It sees underfunding of education as the root of most problems. The authors argue that Ontario’s model for providing undergraduate education, the research-university model, is no longer sustainable. Among the proposed solutions are greater differentiation among existing universities and creating new institutions – both liberal-arts teaching colleges and a distance-learning university.

Supporting excellence does not have to mean cutting some institutions and reducing their goals to support the ambitions of others. Access must signify access not only to education but also to excellence. Professors like Carleton University’s Patrice Smith, whose work in understanding how damaged nerves can repair themselves was recently highlighted on the front page of the Globe and Mail, must be able to rise to the top ranks of her profession without leaving for Toronto or Montreal. Moreover, creating new institutions will not save money when existing universities are prepared to take on the additional students.

Let us take up the challenge that the book puts forward for people to be more innovative. Let’s innovate while relying on the basic tenet of cooperation among universities. Instead of proposing a new distance-learning centre, for example, why not create a distance-learning network?

In most cases, distance learning is broadcast from a central location to sites containing receivers, be they teleconferencing units, computers or monitors. This is the colonial model of distance learning: the mother country transmits information to the colonies.

Instead, why not have a network in which all sites are equal and can both send and receive? If we took this model and installed a unit in each of Ontario’s 20 universities, then each could broadcast one course to the campuses of all the other 19 schools. If we started by concentrating on the smallest third- and fourth-year courses, we probably could double the class size from, say, 10 to 20 students. Each university would gain up to 19 new courses, expanding the curriculum and allowing faculty to dedicate more time to the pursuit of greater excellence in teaching and research. Students would have access to a wider variety of courses taught by some of the best professors in the country. Universities could afford to update and expand their equipment with savings realized.

The possibility, raised in the book, of a three-year undergraduate degree is problematic if one wants to ensure a certain level of communication, math and computing skills along with specialized knowledge. Instead, I propose that universities and colleges be given funds to develop a series of core courses that could be approved by faculty senates and offered to students at all of Canada’s universities and colleges for credit. Students who took these courses and received a suitable grade would be able to transfer the credits. This would ensure a level of mobility for students across the nation and would preserve the four-year degree.

We must avoid reducing our work to simplistic dichotomies between teaching and research, between liberal arts and social sciences and science. We cannot contemplate a “university-lite,” where teachers whose work is not illuminated by profound thinking and advanced research replace faculty whose teaching is. We should not look south of the border and attempt to import models that depend on high tuition fees for success.

If we want to create more scientists in the world, we should not create universities sans science. Technology and innovation can indeed enhance our work in the vital mission we share as we build a better future. All this is achievable through the existing system which has been built student by student, degree by degree, on a series of innovative concepts implemented by dedicated professionals: the faculty and administrators who preceded us.

Roseann O’Reilly Runte is president of Carleton University.

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