University leaders can add but they don’t like subtracting

Posted on November 14, 2018 in Education Delivery System – Opinion
Nov 14, 2018.   Michael Carroll, Waterloo Region Record

The provincial government’s decision to suspend funding for three new satellite campuses has drawn mixed reviews. The sponsoring universities have been politely negative, and have vowed to keep trying. Others, like Record columnist Luisa D’Amato have been supportive, mainly because they argue there already are too many universities in southwestern Ontario. There is a middle position, however. The decision was a good one, but not because more university capacity in the Greater Toronto Area isn’t a good idea. On the contrary, it is.

More GTA campuses would almost certainly make it easier for students, especially second-generation students, in fast-growing metropolitan areas to attend university. The problem, as always, is that academics and academic administrators can add but they can’t subtract.

A recent report by Alex Usher of Higher Education Associates makes the point that the enormous amount of money that the province has poured into universities over the past several decades was largely a response to an increase in the undergraduate population, but universities did not use that money to benefit primarily undergraduates. Rather, universities poured that money disproportionately into research.

There’s no mystery about why. It has long been central to academic culture (in Canada generally and in the United States) that research is associated with more professional prestige than undergraduate teaching. Research, of course, is valuable, but if an overweening emphasis on research drives an expansion of costly graduate programs (with their associated infrastructure and research professorships with stratospheric salaries) and produces a culture where a great many full-time faculty do as much as they can to run away from undergraduate teaching, the net result is a system that is both costly and dysfunctional.

University leaders, of course, routinely say that “research is central to teaching.” And yet the fact is that over half of all undergraduate students are now being taught by sessionals. Some sessionals do maintain an active research program, but a large number find that impossible as they scramble to put together some semblance of a livable income in a market where only precarious jobs are available. And yet, despite knowing full well that a great many sessionals don’t have the time to do research, and despite an increasing reliance on sessional labour, university leaders continue to say that research and teaching are intertwined — without showing any signs they are even minimally aware of the blatant inconsistency involved.

Perhaps the best example of how silly things have become involves my own university. Fifteen years ago, Laurier was a first-rate undergraduate university. Then the university leadership began a drive to turn Laurier into a comprehensive university, which by definition is a university with a broad range of graduate programs that award MAs and PhDs — and it’s been expensive.

But ask yourself: with the University of Waterloo already well-established in Waterloo (and literally just down the street from Laurier), did or does Ontario really need two comprehensive universities in one city? Of course not. Nor has the process ended. Although Laurier’s Milton proposal was supposedly a proposal to build a new university campus oriented around STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) programming, it was really, in my view, a dog’s breakfast of a proposal meant mainly to allow Laurier to expand into engineering.

So by all means, let’s continue to work toward more university capacity in the GTA — but only after we’ve taken a hard look at the money that might be saved by returning some universities (like Laurier) to a serious focus on undergraduate education.

Michael Carroll is a professor of sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University and formerly the dean of arts.

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