Don’t fear the education revolution

Posted on September 29, 2012 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – business
September 21, 2012.   By David Olive, Business Columnist

Education in Ontario is poised for an overdue revolution.

True, our oldest schools of higher education pre-date Confederation. No wonder that change at a university encounters all the difficulty of moving a cemetery, as a U of T president said long ago.

We decided in the Bill Davis era to take quality education to the people, rather than having the people schlep to the places of learning. Hence the proliferation of costly new universities often in relatively remote places, and a community college system. The latter, in the manner of all empire-building institutions, has lately sought to grow by poaching on universities with degree programs of their own. These empires are financed by the taxpayer, and promote jack-of-all-trades schools rather than centres of specialized excellence.

Hospitals, no less stubbornly resistant to change, have begun bending to government pressure to specialize, discarding the soup-to-nuts model of the traditional general hospital. This is resulting in higher-quality healthcare at a lower cost per patient. Schools, however — only now subjected to similar pressure — are fierce in resisting common-sense changes. Teachers and their unions balk at a proposed new three-year undergrad degree, in place of the current four years. So do school administrators contemplating the reduced headcount — and government subsidies — that would result.

Some students reject the proposal of all-year learning, since that would deprive them of summer months spent earning tuition. And teacher and students alike are skeptical of a proposed online university, fearing its impersonality.

But here’s the deal. Ontario is struggling with a record deficit. At the same time, it means to honour its pledge to create 60,000 new higher-education spaces. With its above-average quality and below-average tuitions, by world measures, Canada is increasing its market share of international students. We’ll need them, because even in these times of 7.3 per cent unemployment, employers are complaining of skills shortages, and that schools aren’t turning out the type of students they require.

We need those extra spaces to increase the student population so that best practices can applied across the entire system at a lower cost per student. What it comes down to is streamlining — easily mistaken as a euphemism for cutbacks, but in fact is no such thing.

We currently require students to dedicate 17 years to attaining a B.A. or B.Sc., and 22 years for a PhD, not including enriched pre-school, the whole lot state-subsidized. That’s why education and healthcare alone gobble up more than half of total provincial spending.

We haven’t seen today’s urgency for reform since the Davis years more than 40 years ago. This time, as stubbornly as it will be resisted by long-entrenched interests, a new wave reform will occur. As my Star colleague Martin Regg Cohn has pointed out, “With no cash windfall coming from Queen’s Park, the future is streamlining, onlining, salary freezes and efficiencies.”

Many of the special-interest advocates for students, faculty, and education administrators regard the coming reforms as a threat. They shouldn’t. Ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline by which every Ontario school of higher learning is to submit to Queen’s Park a plan for specializing its mandate — or streamlining — let’s look at the two biggest and most controversial of the proposed changes:

An undergrad degree in three instead of four years. The three-year undergrad is now the norm across Europe and in Australia, where student test-score performance is above the OECD average while the cost to the state is dropping on a per-student basis.

Some students fret that an Ontario three-year undergrad degree wouldn’t be recognized outside Ontario, even though extending undergrad programs to four years has been a fairly recent “innovation” of unproved efficacy in turning out smarter students.

A return to three-year undergrads would move students more quickly to two-year masters and three-year PhD programs, or the workforce. It would free up teachers and class and lab space. It would reduce students’ tuition expenses. And it would acquaint students sooner with the “real world” experience only the workplace can offer.

Who knows how many potential students are dissuaded by the expense and investment of time required to earn a four-year B.A.? Bill Gates and Galen Weston quit Harvard and Western University, respectively, each a few credits short of degree, to get on with the cofounding of Microsoft Corp. and transforming a then-ailing Loblaw Cos. into the best-run supermarket operation on the continent.

Online education. We romanticize class and lecture-hall time. This has never been a forum for specialized attention to individual students. Much that is imparted there is rote instruction that lends itself ideally to online learning. Online lectures are embellished with graphics and hyperlinks to addition information. And with discussion boards where, in the anonymity of cyberspace, students are more likely to engage in robust debates.

Ontario’s proposed new standalone online school holds less appeal for me than integrating online education into all colleges and universities. That process is already underway and should become more comprehensive. Online study doesn’t have to mean home study. Yes, the basics would be imparted efficiently online, but this would be accompanied by traditional classroom instruction. The latter would be more enriched than before, since the fundamentals would have been imparted online.

The standard objection to a three-year undergrad and, by inference, to online learning, was raised in the Star earlier this month by the head of a prominent group of university professors, who have their obvious interest to protect — namely, high-income tenured positions. It’s often in that fourth year, or in a particular class or lab, the faculty spokeswoman said, “when students get that ‘aha moment’ in their discipline, when they gain the skills to communicate and synthesize.”

My guess is that students disposed to “aha moments” in their graduating year will have them in third year as readily as fourth. And if they haven’t learned the problem-solving skills of synthesizing and communicating after 15 years of formal education, the epiphany is as likely to occur in the workplace as a 16th year in the walled garden of academe.

An element I would lobby to include in this sweeping reform is an R&D surtax on corporate profits to inject non-taxpayer funds into an education system on which the private sector relies for skills and innovative R&D breakthroughs. As the OECD pointed out in a June admonition, Canada’s productivity growth is notoriously laggard in part because Canadian industry’s commitment to R&D is just 1 per cent of GDP, compared with double that in the U.S. and 2.5 per cent in the fast-growing Pacific Rim economies. Student tuition should no longer be subsidizing corporate new-product development to the extent it does.

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