What can fiscally constrained governments do to improve undergraduate education?
Anxiety about the quality of undergraduate education is much in the news. American studies like those described in the recent book, Academically Adrift, have suggested that, for many students, four years of university produces no measurable improvement in writing skills, critical thinking or complex reasoning. In Canada, class sizes keep increasing and contact hours with faculty keep decreasing even when student fees and per-student funding grow faster than general inflation.
Academic administrators and faculty associations regularly call on government to send more money. But most provincial governments have entered a period of protracted budget restraint.
Is there anything fiscally constrained governments can do to improve undergraduate education? Indeed, there is.
The first step is to acknowledge that we have a problem. Governments need to focus on student learning and commit to measuring and improving it. They need to project demand for postsecondary spaces – college, undergraduate, and graduate – over the next twenty years and develop affordable plans to meet this demand.
In our book, Academic Reform, we explore how governments could encourage institutions and faculty to devote more attention to undergraduate education without diminishing support for high-performing researchers. We suggest how to increase the proportion of students going to institutions that focus on undergraduate education.
Here are seven suggestions for providing high quality undergraduate education more cost-effectively.
Provinces that have not already done so could mandate the creation of a two-year academic credential offered at colleges, designed so that students who pass with high marks can go directly into third-year university.
Provinces could, where enrolment is projected to grow, create teaching-oriented undergraduate universities, rather than relying on the high-cost model of research universities where faculty are expected to do as much research as teaching.
Provinces could encourage universities to redesign and make more attractive the 3-year bachelor’s degree, which is becoming the standard across Europe.
Provinces could change their funding formulas to fund university teaching and research separately. This would allow governments wishing, for example, to generate 20 percent more teaching to do so without paying for 20 percent more scholarly publications. Provincial funding of the costs of research could be linked to performance measures such as success with federal granting councils.
Provinces could provide targeted funding for initiatives that Canadian universities associate with better teaching and learning. These include teaching support centres, learning technologies, curriculum reviews, student course evaluations and faculty performance reviews.
Provinces could commit to fund a target inflation rate in return for universities’ commitment to stop the deterioration in quality of undergraduate education as measured by average class sizes, share of courses taught by full-time faculty, and average instructional hours per course.
Finally, provinces could follow the lead of Australia and the U.K. in collecting and publishing better information on the use of full- and part-time faculty, student course satisfaction, and student success in finding employment that makes use of their education. And they could encourage all institutions to conduct, as some American universities are starting to do, standardized tests of what students actually learn during their undergraduate years.
Ottawa could support these efforts by maintaining a rigorously merit-based system of research grants and by fully funding the costs of federally supported research so that universities do not have to pay for research out of their teaching budgets.
In the end, of course, governments don’t do the teaching. Undergraduate learning depends on the ability and motivation of students and on the creativity and dedication of academic leaders and professors. But there are, indeed, many things that even fiscally constrained governments can do to help.
Ian D. Clark is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. He is co-author, with David Trick and Richard Van Loon, of Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario, published this month by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
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