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Margin Notes

A few uncomfortable truths

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | FEB 02 2009

In her typical no-holds-barred style, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente again took on Canada’s university sector, a fairly regular target of her scorn. The Saturday column (“Higher education? Aim lower”) takes a number of her usual pot shots, including her observation that universities “are vast credentialing factories” and that “every kid who’s smarter than a turnip is expected to go.”

Meantime, she says, professors “spend shockingly little time in the classroom,” forsaking teaching for research. She adds, unhelpfully, “The benefit to mankind of all that research (much of which is read by virtually no one) is not for me to judge.”

However, she does make a few points that hit closer to the mark. It’s true that there is far more prestige for professors in research, not teaching. Most universities acknowledge that fact and are starting at least to attempt to include good teaching in promotion decisions, but there is still a long way to go.

Her observations of the York strike will also ring true for many faculty:

Under increasing financial pressure, universities like York have replaced expensive tenured professors with cheap contract labour – graduate students or itinerant PhDs. In the United States, tenured and tenure-track teachers now make up just 35 per cent of the teaching work force, and Canada is headed in the same direction.

Universities are indeed under increasing financial pressure as they feel compelled to accept greater and greater numbers of students. And there is anecdotal evidence that universities are resorting to more part-time, non-tenure-track sessional teachers, although what percentage of faculty they represent is unknown. A recent article in University Affairs, quoting the Canadian Association of University Teachers, says part-time instructors make up as much as 40 percent of the teaching staff (although exact numbers are hard to come by).

(The most recent issue of Academe online, published by the American Association of University Professors, focuses on contingent faculty.)

On another point, online universities, she’s both hit and miss. She praises interactive online degrees as the future of universities. Online teaching has a definite role to play in meeting student demand, and many professors are enthusiastically embracing the use of some very good online teaching resources.

But I doubt the University of Phoenix is the model Canadian universities want to emulate. According to a news report in the New York Times, this online university pits higher profits against academic quality, and one of the ways it does this is by relying on cheap part-time instructors.

Memorial University professor Dale Kirby makes a similar point in his blog that “amidst her usual tried-and-tested barrage of insults,” Ms. Wente manages “to hit on some of the biggest problems facing our universities at present.”

Addendum, Feb. 2, 3:10 p.m.: Another faculty blogger, Craig Monk at the University of Lethbridge, also comments on Ms. Wente’s piece in his latest blog post.

On an unrelated note: due to a glitch in our system, I had been receiving comments to my Margin Notes blog but wasn’t being alerted to them, so they weren’t being posted. To those who tried to post a comment, please note that the comments are now there with the corresponding blog post. And for those of you who haven’t posted a comment, now is a good time! (Click on the comment function below.)

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. David Greenwood / February 4, 2009 at 21:00

    Yes, Margaret was often wide of the mark, but a rare valid point. Personally I take exception to her use of that old worn out stereotype that university professors are overpaid and underworked – the so-called high salaries don’t start ’til most of us are in our late 30s or later. Having come out of strike action at BU in fall, local commentary in Brandon trotted out this comment, and it struck a nerve. I can’t comment on whether faculty at large universities deserve this label (I suspect not, if the long hours put in by friends and colleagues are any measure), but I know that profs at BU and other small universities axcross Canada teach, teach, teach and teach. We work very hard and our students respect us for it. AND we do research. I pick up the point too about the creeping sessionalisation of Canadian universities. I moved to Canada from a tenured faculty position in Australia, in part to escape the corporatization of universities, including the ‘for profit’ offering of programs to international students and the creeping use of more and more sessionals. My former department’s teaching is now almost all done by sessionals. This does not equal quality teaching nor foster a research culture. Is some business type approach helpful? I’d say yes. But never at the expense of the students or the faculty.