Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Importance of Undergraduates

Jeffrey Simpson raises an important and controversial issue this morning. At Canadian universities, he writes, undergraduates are at the bottom of the totem pole:

They arrive at many campuses – this doesn’t apply at smaller schools – and spend the first two years in monster classes of hundreds and hundreds of fellow students. They might actually interact with a teaching assistant in a seminar, but face-to-face time with a professor would be rare. It’s a poor way to learn.

As the father of three sons -- two who have graduated, and  another -- God between us and all harm -- who will be heading to university in September, I know that the picture Simpson paints is accurate. Our two older sons  have received funding by serving as teaching assistants. I am grateful  that door has been open to them.

Simpson surely does not begrudge graduate students their ability to pay for their education. Nonetheless, his contention that

In most schools, and across the academic world, the professorial Holy Grail is research. Tenure and promotion, by and large, depend more on research and publications than teaching. (Again, there are scattered exceptions.) There are few sticks and carrots – or not enough of them – to get professors back in the classroom more frequently, which is the single best thing that might improve the quality of undergraduate education

is absolutely true. The people who generate a major portion of university funding "get the shaft."

The prime purpose of university is not the prime purpose of the faculty. That is not to say that there are not superb teachers on university faculties. Any of us who have been lucky enough to spend time in that world have encountered them. The problem is that the incentive system on campuses does not prioritize teaching. Governments should readjust funding formulae to focus efforts on undergraduate education.

Not only in education, writes Simpson, other areas of public policy, it's time to re-conceptualize the delivery of public services:

The biggest problem of public management today, and not just in higher education, is that public agencies lack systematic incentives to improve quality. Performance toward certain objectives that society has every right to demand for its tax dollars – a better undergraduate experience, better health-care delivery, better education results – is not adequately measured. Measurements are not compared and the financial results do not follow from those results.

 I rarely agree with  Mr. Simpson. But, as New Democrats and Liberals meet this weekend, restructuring the incentives which drive public policy should be at the top of their agendas.


The Mound of Sound said...

My better half went back to UBC for a degree in environmental sustainability, a mixed arts/science programme of the geography faculty. Her experience seems to have been markedly at odds with the situation depicted by Jeff Simpson - smallish class size, innovative curricula, few TA's and mainly very engaged professors readily accessible to students. She does describe her faculty as an unusual enclave within such a massive university which, I suppose, may account for the differences. They're nested in this small, rundown building in which confines they're somewhat isolated from the megaschool that surrounds them.

Owen Gray said...

Our second son just received his Master's degree in English from Trent University. He sent us a video awhile ago of a band he is in. It is composed of three English professors and three graduate students.

Trent is small and a lot different than McGill and Concordia -- where my wife and I were undergraduates -- and the University of North Carolina, where I did my graduate work.

There are, Simpson wrote, exceptions. I know I always enjoyed sitting in a seminar more than I did sitting in an auditorium with 500 students.

Sixth Estate said...

I think the situation is probably more mixed than the analysis lets on, too.

But the existence of large classes and small armies of TAs and contract term-appointed instructors isn't simply because professors don't like teaching. Plenty of university administrations have no problem whatsoever scheduling massive classes and offloading as much work as possible to term instructors and TAs that they can pay at a fraction of the expense of a salaried tenured or tenure-track professor.

Owen Gray said...

That certainly seems to be true. Our second son considered pursuing a PhD.

But he says that tenure is hard to come by. Universities prefer to hire adjunct professors, and he could spend the rest of his life as an itinerant scholar.

Our eldest son has finished everything except his dissertation. He's hoping -- and praying -- that he'll find a permanent place to land.