‘Re-Imagining’ the role of university

Are universities’ role changing?

–Justin Smirlies

Debating the role and quality of universities in the current teaching world, three professors from major North American institutions participated in a panel discussion at the 11:00 a.m. slot of the Re-Imagine conference at Wilfrid Laurier University on Oct. 20. Laurier president Max Blouw moderated the discussion as each speaker gave a short presentation and then took questions from the audience of various university professors and education professionals

Ian Clark, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, spoke first about some of the topics that have been circulating online about education. One of those topics, that many argue to be more effective, is the implementation of teaching-orientated universities.

“A teaching-orientated university is where faculty teach eight one semester courses in a year instead of four in what we call a ‘traditional’ university,” explained Clark, adding that WLU would be considered a ‘traditional’ institution. “The cost per student is about 50 per cent less in a teaching orientated university than it is in a traditional university.”

“Education can be geared towards some kind of combination of training and enlightenment, I don’t see this as either or,” said William Tierney, professor and director at the Center for Higher Education Policy analysis at the University of Southern California.

“But I do think that we need to be clearer about learning outcomes and what specific institutions tend to do.”

Questioning the state of professors who are avid researchers, Tierney added, “There’s no research that shows that those who are active researchers are better teachers for undergraduates for those who do not.”

Tierney ultimately claimed that university education does need to be put under consideration and that reforms may need to be explored.

Colin Wightman, associate dean of the College of Management and Technology at Walden University, offered insight into the financial characteristics of university education and argued that a larger operating grant from the government eventually results in cheaper operating costs for the university. Canadian universities, for the time being, have the luxury

Going global

–Justin Fauteux

With the recent report released by the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), prophesying a decline in Canada’s post-secondary education (PSE) system, negative rhetoric has developed around Canada’s universities.

But how do Canada’s PSE strengths and weaknesses stack up with the rest of the world?

That was the question Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada set-out to answer in his opening keynote at Thursday’s Re-Imagine Conference.

“Canada’s universities are regarded as excellent educational experiences,” said Davidson. “We’re seen as affordable and accessible and we’re seen as safe, welcoming environments to learn in.”

Davidson also acknowledged the recent negative rhetoric surrounding a university degree.

“There have been some shots taken in the media about whether or not a university degree is still worth it and let me tell you, the value of the university degree is still large,” he said. “On average, a university graduate can expect to earn over the length of a career, $1.3 million more than someone who has just high school and a million dollars more than someone with a college degree and that’s StatsCan data, we’re not making this stuff up …. Obviously, people who study theology may not make that much, but they don’t go into theology to be millionaires.”

Davidson chalked a large part of the current concerns about the value of university degrees to the uncertain economic times. He went on to compare the situation facing Canada’s universities to the one facing PSE institutions in the United States.

“The situation in California, where it was a 15 per cent cut and overall the university system in California is trying teach the same level of enrolment with nine per cent less resources,” he said. “So we talk about constraints here but they are squeezed in the States.”

Davidson then placed Canadian universities in a global context by discussing the situation in emerging economies such as India, China and Brazil. According to Davidson, in China university enrolment has increased by two million in the past two years; while in India 1,400 new universities have been constructed; in Brazil there are already twice as many PhDs produced as in Canada.

However, according to Davidson, Canada’s PSE institutions can use this emerging global context to their advantage.

“There are opportunities for us to bring more international students to Canada, to engage more collaboratively in research with emerging economies, and that we’re going to need to accelerate our embrace of the global environment,” he said. “Taken together, the international students in Canada represent a $6.5 billion contribution to Canada’s economy. Bigger than the export of coal, bigger than the export of lumber. It means real jobs and real prosperity for Canadians.”

Facing the challenges of the modern student

–Elizabeth Bate

Laurier’s Re-Imagine Conference played host to a session titled re-considering the student experience, on Oct. 20.

The panel, facilitated by dean of Laurier Brantford Bruce Arai, spoke to a packed Senate and Board Chamber at one of the conference’s three afternoon sessions about getting students to be more engaged in their learning and post-secondary education (PSE) experience.

Speakers included Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) president and Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union vice president of university affairs Sean Madden, dean of students at Seneca College Chris McGrath and Wilfrid Laurier University’s vice-president of student affairs, David ‘Daddy Mac’ McMurray.

Madden opened the discussion by asserting the PSE student demographic has changed greatly in recent years.

As well as there being more students in the PSE system, incoming students are younger than they ever have been and are at a lower level of preparedness for the challenges they will face, he said. Students are also facing more challenges and have to work harder for their education than in the past.

“Working has become a huge priority for students,” he said.

“There are roughly double the amount of students working since 1976 and on average [they’re working] three or four more hours per week.”

Madden said the extra hours students must put in at jobs outside of school affect their level of engagement within the school community.

Focusing on ways to get students more engaged in their PSE experience, McMurray said the development of students must not be by chance, but must be intentional on the part of faculty.

“How intentional and educationally purposeful [faculty] are in meeting both the educational and personal needs of their students is an influential predictor of … how successful they will be,” he said.

Ideas for engaging students included using new technology and electronic media in classrooms and students’ activities, as well as changing learning environments to meet students where they are, as opposed to traditional models, which require students to adjust to fit the environment.

McGrath said he thought institutions could be self-serving, only perceiving student engagement as that which is within the classroom or the university community, not including outside volunteer or work activities.

“I think we need to open ourselves up to a more fluid definition of what [engagement] means,” McGrath said.

He continued to say that we need to “allocate resources … to make sure that we are reaching as many students as we can in the places where they’re at. We can build it, but we’re going to be waiting for them to get here.”

Finding balance in research and teaching

–Mike Radivoi

After a brief intermission for lunch, the Re-Imagine conference reconvened at Wilfrid Laurier Univeristy to discuss the integration of research and teaching in universities.

The three panelists included Angela Crawley of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars, Eileen Wood, a psychology professor at WLU and Maurice Yeates from the Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity at Ryerson University.

Speaking first, Crawley discussed the importance of properly recognizing and integrating post doctoral scholars into university communities as well as the need to adequately prepare these individuals for both academic and non-academic careers.

“Institutions have an obligation to train the post-docs that they have. They would like to have additional teaching opportunities,” said Crawley. “They would like to actually be respected and recognized by their universities and integrated in university activities, instead of being a literally forgotten population on campus.”

Crawley maintained this can be achieved by improvements in the mentoring of supervisors, integrating post-doctoral research in classrooms, post-doc participation on university councils, proper career planning for post-docs, as well as working towards fixing pay gaps. In short, she stated that universities need to define what it means to be a postdoctoral student.

Wood next, reflecting on her own work experience, discussed how research and teaching are inextricably connected, and that separating them from one another is detrimental for both professors and students alike.

“If anyone went to Ikea and got a box without instructions, we would not be happy. There’s nothing wrong with our students. They come wonderfully equipped. But we have to help guide them,” she explained.

To finish, Wood emphasized that one of the greatest solutions for professors is not logistical, but philosophical.
She said above all professors should display a passion for what they are teaching in order to sow passion amongst students.

Yeates argued that “discovery” has become too much the basis for university ranking and that this is to the detriment of all other areas of scholarly work, especially communication and teaching.

Yeates believes that one way this issue can be mitigated is by integrating modern technologies such as social media into the way professors teach and communicate with their students.

“We could reward professors by giving special grants to them one-by-one to change their courses and adapt to these kinds of technologies, if they haven’t already done it,” said Yeates.

The university’s uncertain future

–Lindsay Purchase

Wilfrid Laurier University’s “Re-Imagine” Conference wrapped up on Oct. 20 with a presentation by keynote speaker Bill Tierney, a professor at the University of Southern California (USC).

Tierney spoke of some of the challenges in education today, and what should be expected going into the future.

One of the main pillars of Tierney’s presentation was the need for an increase in the quantity of students attending post-secondary institutions. In California alone, he claimed, “We need to increase … by about 100,000 students a year, every year for the next decade, if we are going to meet workforce projections.”
However, this is a prediction which must be met within the changing framework of education. According to Tierney, the internationalization and corporatization of education has led to vast transformations in the system.

The number of students going abroad for school, he said, is anticipated to climb from two million today to eight million by 2020. This figure is not limited to students taking semesters abroad, but also includes schools which open partner institutions in other countries. Tierney attributed this, “Not only because of globalization, but also because of technology.”

Also on the rise is the number of students attending for-profit institutions. While Tierney acknowledged that for-profits “have a role to play,” he was concerned about the enormous debt load associated with these institutions, as well as the quality of education provided.

While the convenience of attending for-profits can be a draw, issues arise when they operate “more like a business, and less like an educational organization.”
In addition, as new ways to attain post-secondary education continue to rise, it becomes more difficult to create and maintain measurable standards.

Tierney questioned, “How do we know, simply because someone has a degree, that that person is qualified?”

“Simply saying yes, my students have learned a lot, is no longer sufficient,” he said. “We need to be better with quality assurance of institutions.”

Tierney concluded, “I think these are good challenges. I don’t agree with all the things that have happened, but I think we need to think about how we can move forward forcefully rather than trying to say what existed is what it should be.”

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