Learning to educate
While the face of Laurier has altered dramatically in the last century, the ever-changing world it exists in has played a large role in defining where the university is today. Lectures now incorporate slideshows, videos and recorded interviews as the classroom becomes increasingly high-tech. The campus overflows with students as obtaining a university degree becomes the norm among today’s youth. As the role of academics and the university continue to change, looking back on old traditions, successes and failures in building that community out of Waterloo will contribute to paving Laurier’s identity in the future.
Reflecting on a campus he graduated from with a modest population of less than 6,000 students in 1995 to over 12,000 undergraduate students today, Matthew Smith expressed, “Everyone always talks about this feeling of a small community… and I feel it now just as I felt it when I was an undergrad.”
Smith, now a professor of biology at Laurier, has had the opportunity to see some of the most dramatic booms in student growth at the university. The question of what impact this increase will have on the classroom is not entirely certain, particularly in maintaining the working relationships that develop between students and professors as they were in decades past.
“It’s becoming a little bit more difficult because classes are continuing to get bigger,” Smith admitted, “but I still feel like by the end of the course, for a lot of the students, I know them pretty well.”
Although the feeling of community has been maintained at Laurier, the numbers do speak to a new identity the school is assuming.
“We sort of switched our brand; I think we call ourselves a kind of comprehensive mid-sized university now,” explained Peter Eglin, professor of sociology at Laurier since 1976.
The change in identity that comes with growth was echoed by associate professor David Docherty, who in citing his perception of the school as a student in the 1980s to a faculty member today, noted that while Laurier found its bearings as a public and substantial academic institution, it had to forsake some of the small school characteristics.
“I think that one of the downsides that as we’ve gotten larger, although we’ve gotten more programs, we segregated some of our faculties a little,” said Docherty, specifically pointing to the faculty of music. The faculty has developed an impressive reputation in the music community since its early days in Macdonald House, yet as the stronghold of today’s Aird Building it remains overlooked by most students.
As the physical environment of the school, from the number of students to the number of buildings, expanded, the programs offered have been developed and redeveloped to fit the changing landscape.
“In the early ‘80s, you would very rarely have a student who is a double major in say, history and political science,” Docherty noted regarding the current trend of collaborating complementary programs.
Smith attributed the mixture of programs and majors to a trend in new methods professors now practice in terms of performing research. “I think more and more these days on the research side of things you have to collaborate,” he said.
The obvious effects of the changing world with a greater focus on global concerns has evolved, created and killed specific academic fields at Laurier.
“We’re thinking a lot more globally now as an institution but also in terms of the programs we offer,” Docherty projected.
The globalization of programs is apparent in the languages department, which has seen the loss of German as a major but the rise of Arabic language classes.
Defining and shifting the focus of other more seemingly consistent programs has also occurred both for establishing a specialization of a department and making the program more marketable.
Eglin considers marketability and subsequently the university’s increasingly more business-like model as a driving factor in the changes that occur within programs.
“In sociology, eight or maybe 10 years ago, we started to develop this idea that we had a particular kind of brand, and for us it was focused on social equity and equity and social justice,” he exemplified.
While the undergraduate program has expanded and developed to draw in potential students from a pool larger than ever before, the addition of master’s and doctorate programs have added new priorities to the academic environment.
“I think that’s a good thing and we’ve been able to do that without sacrificing the quality of the undergraduate education,” commented Smith.
The increased interest in research and graduate studies has brought a beneficial dynamic to each department.
“The fact that you have research assistants that we’ve never had before or teaching assistants that weren’t fourth-year undergraduates who were limited in what they could do… has been a favourable thing,” said Eglin.
Laurier’s history reflects the classic notion of education, in which the greatest challenge faced by a student was their academic work. However, external pressures now require students to be far more than just students, adding greater challenges to their academic responsibilities.
“When I began in 1976, it was unusual to have students who worked during the academic year at all,” compared Eglin. “Now you see a large proportion of students working 10, 15, 20 hours a week.”
Docherty echoed the growth of this trend, as students sometimes take lighter course loads to accommodate work and entertain the desire for post-graduate education.
“Students are hugely indebted, much more than they ever were and the pressure to acquire a graduate degree, a master’s degree, is higher,” explained Eglin.
With post-secondary education becoming more frequently considered as necessary in being successful in today’s job market, students are willing to incur the cost of school despite uncertainties in funding the endeavour.
A Bachelor’s degree is only the beginning
“One of things we’re seeing a lot more of that we’ve never seen in the 1980s and even in the 1990s is that we have students graduating with a BA and going off to college for a year,” said Docherty, speaking to a greater need for continuing education.
More professional programs are being offered in order to accommodate the rising demand for post-grad. Alongside the new programs are expectations to gain skills in preparation for the diverse career paths one may take. Looking to attract prospective students, schools need to develop innovative programs to interest their desire for not just a breadth of knowledge but specific expertise.
Docherty gathered, “Now students realize they will probably have seven or eight different careers or jobs over the course of their career and as a result they’re more focused on gaining transferable skills.”
However, he went on to add, “We’re well positioned on a number fronts to tackle some of these challenges because of past experience and because of the way we’ve dealt with growth.”
A new model for education
The growth in student population, increasing demand for transferable skills, and the decline in funding has driven the university to assume what Eglin called “the corporate model,” veering away from the traditional ideology of an institution for promoting research and academic inquiry.
“You have a sense that the universities are competing against each other with the province for very limited resources,” said Docherty.
Eglin echoed this problem with the decline in public funding. “It used to be federal governments would fund 70 [or] 80 per cent of the cost of university, now it’s around 30.”
This culture of competition not only exists for government funds, but increasingly towards prospective students to fill more seats in the classroom that provide more tuition revenue and funding opportunities with the reputation of a booming institution.
“Universities and colleges are almost competing for the same cache of students,” Docherty explained, citing Ryerson University as an example, having previously been a polytechnic institute.
While Laurier had taken the route of many universities in expanding their campus and in turn programs, the land-locked Waterloo campus has brought on new initiatives. “We’ve done multi-campus issues really well,” said Docherty, “It’s hard to argue that Brantford has not been a success, either for the city of Brantford, for the students of Brantford or for the university.”
Looking to the future, Docherty explained that Laurier, like all universities, will be faced with the concerns of funding and financing debt while managing current budget pressures. However, he went on to add, “We’re well positioned on a number fronts to tackle some of these challenges because of past experience and because of the way we’ve dealt with growth.”