By now, many of the 2015 high school graduates have begun their university studies. Some are attending research-oriented universities, such as Dalhousie, while others are attending teaching-oriented universities, such as Mount Allison.
Those who attend research universities will soon learn – if they have not already – that teaching first-year students is not highly valued. Many courses are scheduled in lecture halls with several hundred seats, and many instructors are inexperienced graduate students who receive slave wages for minimum work and who demonstrate minimum commitment.
Nevertheless, a few years ago a number of high-priced senior university administrators held a conference to examine undergraduate teaching, The Revitalization of Undergraduate Education Canada.
In the keynote address, Robert Campbell, the president of Mount Allison University, said that universities have “lost their way.”
“We all feel and know that the character of the undergraduate experience has deteriorated in our lifetime, especially so in the last decades. . . . And we know in our heart of hearts that this experience can and should be much better.”
In the closing address, Paul Davidson, the president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, admitted: “We are actively searching for new policy tools, new policy ideas . . . to ensure that Canadian universities are equipped to make the next generation of students the best educated and the best prepared to meet the challenges that this country is facing.”
This is a surprising admission, because senior administrators have been appointed, and are well-paid, to provide a good education for undergraduate students. But students are paying more and more in tuition fees and receiving less and less in the courses they need.
Canadian universities cost a lot of money.
In 2012/13, the cost was $33.2 billion. Provincial governments provided about 40 percent, students’ fees provided about 24 percent, and research grants and contracts provided about 16.6 percent.
At research-oriented universities, between 20 percent and 30 percent of first-year students fail to proceed to second year, and fewer than 60 percent graduate within six years. The statistics are only marginally better at teaching universities.
A policy initiative in the U.S. can help Canadian universities address this problem.
In 2008, the U.S. federal government passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which required all the post-secondary institutions that received federal funds to disclose the number and percentage of students who graduate within fixed periods of time.
This policy provided undergraduates with the information needed to select universities that are successful in graduating students, which put pressure on other institutions to improve their graduation rates.
In Canada, provincial governments, supported by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), could gather and publish similar data. Universities publish institutional statistics, but they often use different formats and different definitions so it is often impossible to compare between institutions.
In addition, university professors and graduate students receive far greater rewards for completing research projects and publishing articles in prestigious journals than for teaching first-year students.
For this reason, provincial governments, along with AUCC, should insist that all universities publish the type of data that U.S institutions are required to publish, using the same format and the same definitions.
Of course, much more needs to be done to revitalize undergraduate education, but all these other necessary steps require good, comparable data.
It is time for university administrators, professors, and graduate students to realize that teaching undergraduate students, particularly first-year students, must be improved. Our future depends on it.
Rodney A. Clifton is Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, and coauthor of What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.