Universities are sitting ducks for reform

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions – According to one 2008 survey, Canadian faculty were the highest-paid among 15 countries studied.
Published on Tuesday, Apr. 13, 2010.   Margaret Wente

What is the most pressing problem facing Canadian universities today?

If you ask the professoriate, the answer is likely to be: massive underfunding, combined with creeping corporatization and growing threats to academic independence.

If you ask Dalton McGuinty, Ontario’s Premier, the answer is: poor accountability, and not enough bang for the buck. Last week, he fired a warning shot, saying he plans to have “honest conversations” in the coming months about what universities and colleges can expect in return for the extra money they’re getting to educate another 30,000 students. Translation: You folks are in the service business.

The trouble is that universities aren’t set up for that. The principal job of today’s university and college system is not to push forward the frontiers of knowledge, but to efficiently deliver mass undergraduate education to 30 or 40 per cent of the population.

Universities now do this job in the most expensive way possible, argues Ian D. Clark, whose recent book, Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario, should be a wake-up call to everyone in academia. That’s because universities are still based on the research model of higher education, which adheres to the view that students should be taught only by faculty members who are “actively engaged in original research.” Nearly every university, no matter how small and obscure, aspires to this model. At many universities, professors are required to spend no more than 40 per cent of their time teaching. That often means just two courses per term, in a two-term academic year that totals eight months.

Yet the benefits of all this research are often remarkably obscure. What the market really needs is a lot less marginal research, and better ways to deliver utility courses such as Introduction to Thermodynamics. Ultimately, this means a two-tier university system, with a few elite research-intensive universities, and more teaching-centred ones. (The colleges are more efficient.)

As you might expect, all of this is anathema to the powerful faculty unions, which are among the biggest barriers to reform. They like things pretty much the way they are (if only there were more funding). So far, academic leaders haven’t had the power or the will to push for productivity improvements, and they haven’t got any help from spineless provincial governments (including Mr. McGuinty’s). Given the dire straits of public finances throughout North America, the coming showdown is inevitable.

Prof. Clark, who’s on the faculty of the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto, rightly thinks taxpayers are not going to be on the unions’ side. Academic salaries are far higher than most people’s, and have been rising faster. Professors also have good pensions and job security. In the 2006-7 year at the University of Toronto (the latest for which Statscan figures are available), the median salary for a full professor without senior administrative duties was $144,059; for an assistant professor it was $88,330. According to one 2008 survey, Canadian faculty were the highest-paid among 15 countries studied.

A brutal restructuring of U.S. higher education has begun. Every employee in California’s state university system has taken what amounts to a 10 per cent pay cut. Canadian universities will probably escape more lightly. But as the research model becomes more unaffordable, the future will look far different. Tenure will become much rarer and teaching loads will increasingly be handled by non-PhDs trained to handle a particular group of courses. Natural sciences will fare better than the humanities because, as U.S. commentator Walter Russell Mead remarks, taxpayers are not going to subsidize research in critical literary theory much longer. Faculty unions will kick up a fuss about academic independence. But their members don’t work for themselves. They work for us.

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