Editorial,Globe and Mail, October 10, 2011
Canada has made a big bet on undergraduate education as the path to prosperity. We've opened our campuses and our wallets to produce one of the most educated populations in the world.
But the best educated? Look into classrooms, and it's a troubling sight. Classes of 500 students or more taught by an emerging cohort of indentured PhDs who carry a growing share of the teaching “burden” but have little hope of long-term employment. Professors who get “relief” from teaching obligations to pursue research. Classes and courses of study that prize particular academic disciplines rather than make the connections among disciplines that are so crucial to learning.
For students, it's unacceptable; for taxpayers and families who spend tens of billions of dollars each year, it's unsustainable.
The reformist wave that is transforming health-care delivery in Canada must now reach undergraduate education at our publicly funded universities.
Many university leaders know it. Addressing a conference of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in March, Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University, said universities have lost their “foundational narrative thread.”
“We all feel and know that the character of the undergraduate experience has deteriorated in our lifetimes, especially so in the last decades,” he said.
There's hard evidence to support the anecdotal concern. The ratio of full-time students to full-time faculty in Ontario increased to 25 from 17 in the years between 1988 and 2008. More collective agreements establish a standard teaching load of two courses per semester, down from three a generation ago. Despite this, faculty incomes have outpaced both inflation and government grants per student.
We are getting less for more. Teaching is getting short shrift; more students are graduating, but not enough are leaving school with the skills they need for success in the real world.
It's time for a Canadian renaissance in undergraduate education. And it will take both timid governments and hidebound universities to get the job done.
They should actually spell out what an undergraduate education is good for. Here's one definition: It ought to produce critical thinkers, scientifically and culturally literate people who can assess evidence, connect the dots and communicate with clarity – the key skills, that, in a fast-changing economy, prepare people for the jobs that haven't been invented yet.