Why undergrads are getting a raw deal

Posted on July 2, 2008 in Education Debates, Governance Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – opinion – Why undergrads are getting a raw deal

Absolutely nothing gets the professoriate more irate, nor university administrators more defensive, than the assertion that undergraduate students are getting less than they deserve because, in part, professors don’t teach enough, or at least as much as they once did.

Say something like this in polite company, and soon the company will not be very polite. Spluttering will be mixed with considerable self-pity, to which will then be added cascades of numbers to “prove” the observation wrong.

Except that the observation remains defensible. Research has become the professoriate’s holy grail, the sine qua non of tenure, advancement, preferment, salary adjustments and prestige. The quest for research money, and the giving of it mainly by Ottawa, has driven university policy for some years now. There is little sign of anything changing.

With this in mind, turn to the latest Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada report, which analyzes the other part of why undergraduates are getting a raw deal: lack of government funding.

The argument is right but incomplete, as you would expect from an association with its own agenda. A few years ago, Canada began spending more on health care than on all levels of education. As the population ages, the trend lines will widen between health care and education. There isn’t a politician in the land who will say anything about this state of affairs. And there’s next to nothing about this competition for public resources in the AUCC report.

In recent years, budgets have increased in real terms for universities in some, but not all, provinces. In 2006-2007, the AUCC says provincial spending for universities had risen by $500 a student compared with 2001-2002 but stayed $6,000 less than at the start of the 1980s and $2,000 a student less than at the start of the 1990s. (Those were the nightmare years of deficits and debt, when governments routinely spent more than they took in.) In that period, 2001-2002 to 2006-2007, governments (after inflation) increased university funding by $1.7-billion, but they also demanded more space for students. Faculty hiring manifestly did not keep pace with the burgeoning student population, with the result that class sizes remained far too large at far too many universities. Getting those class sizes down hasn’t been much of a priority, either at universities or in governments.

Governments will campaign on reducing the class size of elementary and secondary schools by a few students, but when was the last time you heard a politician pledge to provide funding to reduce undergraduate class sizes? Governments worry about a shortage of doctors but not of professors. There are votes in health care, they reckon, but few in universities.

In most provinces (except Newfoundland, Quebec and Manitoba), student fees rose to compensate (in part) for declining government spending. In 2006, government sources paid for 66 per cent of teaching and unsponsored research, while fees accounted for 24 per cent, compared with 84 per cent and 10 per cent in 1980 (when the fees were too low).

The Chrétien government rode to the universities’ rescue with a series of excellent policies to finance research and create endowed chairs. Without these federal initiatives, which the Harper government has maintained, the universities would have been in even sorrier shape.

These policies wisely focused on research, the unstated inference being that provincial operating grants would support teaching, and the stated one being that improved research leads to better teaching. No nostrum is more passionately held in universities than this one, although, for young undergraduates, the mystery and challenge of advanced research lies some ways away.

Canadians believe, wrongly but in a self-satisfied fashion, that Americans will not spend as Canadians do on “public goods.” Americans, in fact, are often ahead of Canadians in environmental protection, urban transit, green technologies and financing public universities. The gap between per student spending for public universities in the U.S. and Canada remains large – $8,000 a year by the AUCC’s analysis.

In recent years, provinces have focused on increasing access. The undergraduate teaching experience keeps getting less attention, for which provincial funding is not entirely to blame.

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