No quick fix for universities

By admin, November 15, 2011 2:22 pm
Published On Mon Nov 14 2011
One effect of the decline in per  student funding in Ontario has been a soaring  student-to-faculty ratio.  (Oct. 24, 2007) One effect of the decline in per student funding in Ontario has been a soaring student-to-faculty ratio. (Oct. 24, 2007)

Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star

Constance Adamson

Among Ontario’s thousands of professors and academic librarians, there are scholars who specialize in irony.

We are grateful for their expertise; at times like these, their guidance is sorely needed. For it is certainly a sublime irony that, after decades of sounding the alarm bell over declining quality at our universities, university faculty are now being singled out as the cause of this decline.

A small coterie of columnists and pundits are convinced that professors are to blame for a disappointing undergraduate experience. They claim we spend too little time teaching. We focus too much on research, they say. As a result, class sizes are getting bigger, universities are turning to part-time faculty to teach, and students can’t engage with their instructors.

The critics are right about the consequences, but wrong about the cause. We need to get serious about the reasons why quality is threatened at our universities. Like most things, it comes down to money. The amount of per-student funding provided to universities by the government of Ontario has declined by 25 per cent since 1990, adjusted for inflation. Since 2001, enrolment has increased by 60 per cent. Think about what that means: universities are trying to accommodate significantly more students while receiving significantly less funding for each of those students. It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize this is a bad equation for the quality of higher education in Ontario.

The decline in per-student funding has had a variety of negative effects. Universities have simply been unable to hire enough full-time professors to meet the rise in student demand. Our student-to-faculty ratio is now 27-to-1, the worst in Canada. In 1990, it was 18-to-1. So let’s be clear: the problem is not that faculty are not teaching enough. It’s that they cannot possibly teach enough to compensate for the acute shortage of faculty in the university system. We simply need more professors.

True, research does take up a lot of time for most full-time faculty in the university system. But this is a matter of survival. Ontario’s underfunded universities have become exceptionally good at chasing dollars. It just so happens that a lot of new dollars — particularly those from the federal government — are for research. The government of Ontario has also emphasized research and commercialization through their funding policies. No surprise then that the entire reward and career advancement structure at our universities has become research focused. Many professors would like to spend more time teaching, but find the current system filled with too many disincentives.

To address this problem, critics offer the bromide of “teaching-only” professors or “teaching only” institutions. This, they claim, will allow us to teach more students without making additional public investments. Giving faculty the option to focus on teaching is not necessarily a bad idea. But let’s be clear: teaching-focused professors should not be seen as a way to deliver university education on the cheap. To be successful, our universities must always be adequately funded. And we have to recognize that scholarship is an important part of being a professor, and an important part of a university education.

Scholarship — which I define as the creation of new knowledge, the critical analysis of existing knowledge, and the communication of these insights — is central to the university. The teaching and scholarship equation is not zero-sum. Teaching is scholarship, and the two are inextricably linked. The critics will point to research that says being a good researcher does not make you a good teacher. This misses the point. You simply cannot have university-level teaching without the kind of intellectual inquiry that scholars are trained to do. If you remove scholarship from the professoriate or from our universities, you are no longer giving students the education they expect.

The critics of Ontario’s professors and academic librarians need to get real about what ails our university system. Right now, they’re only advocating for a system that offers more teaching. Meanwhile, faculty are talking about what they have always been talking about: a system that does more and better teaching. Surely our students deserve nothing less.

Constance Adamson is president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

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