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.