Undergraduate universities that focus on teaching only would create cosier classes, cut salary costs and boost student satisfaction, argues Ian Clark, the former head of the Council of Ontario Universities.There are many problems with teaching-only universities and I'll get to some of the specifics in a minute. But first I'd like to explain the role of universities in modern societies.
Moreover, he says professors at these new universities should be required to teach twice as many courses as usual — a full 80 per cent of their time with 10 per cent left for research and 10 per cent for administration.
Clark and professor David Trick are co-authors of a controversial new book that calls for new teaching-oriented universities where profs would have much higher course-loads. Simply by doubling the number of courses a professor teaches each semester to four from two could cut the operating cost of educating a student to $9,800 from $14,300 at a campus of 10,000, Clark noted Tuesday at a conference sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Having profs teach more courses is one cost-saving tip rumoured to be part of economist Don Drummond’s report next week to Premier Dalton McGuinty.
The word "university" is derived from the Latin phrase universitas magistrorum et scholarium (community of teachers and scholars). Universities are places where scholarly activity is carried out.1 Students are attracted to places where scholarly activity is going on because that's where they can learn from the experts. It used to be that "higher education" meant just a Bachelors degree but now it includes higher degrees such as Masters and Ph.D. degrees. As a general rule, universities are now places where there's lots of research and lots of graduate students working towards Ph.D.s.
Universities are of great value to society because they are places where scholarly activity/research is rewarded. Society benefits because it can draw on this expertise in a variety of ways. Ian D. Clark is a perfect example.
The fact that students can get undergraduate degrees at a university is also of great benefit to society but it's a consequence of the fact that universities are places of scholarship, not a cause. High schools are places where you can get an education but they are not places that carry out sophisticated research. If you create institutes where you can continue your education in a environment like that in high school then you are creating glorified high schools. They may serve an important role in some ways but they are not universities. Call them something else, like "glorified high schools."
Clark has responded to his critics in many places but I want to concentrate on his response to a piece by Alan Slavin that appeared in University Affairs. Clark's response is here: Teaching-oriented universities and undergraduate participation in research. The main issue is whether undergraduate research is important and whether it would be possible in a teaching-only university.
We are proposing teaching-oriented, not teaching-only universities. Faculty are expected to be scholarly. They are expected to teach the equivalent of eight one-semester courses per year but classes are held only 26 weeks per year, leaving the other 26 weeks for preparing courses, marking exams, vacation and conducting research. The 80-10-10 allocation of time to teaching, research and service provides more than one month a year for research.This is complicated. Let me first say that in principle I agree with Clark that it doesn't really matter what field you're exposed to in your research project as long as you're learning to think critically. It seems obvious to me that you learn to think critically by working with a mentor who is very knowledgeable about the field and has plenty of experience in critical thinking. But the reality is quite different. The topic is important if you are planning to continue in your chosen field (e.g., music theory, civil engineering, psychology, physics).
We propose that the research be focused on teaching and learning and this can include disciplinary research where it includes a direct and integral contribution to the education of undergraduate students. Reflecting on my own research experience as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, which led to a co-authored publication entitled “A Study of the Energy Levels in Benzene and Some Fluorobenzenes by Photoelectron Spectroscopy,”2 I believe its lasting value was not a deeper understanding of fluorobenzenes but in helping me with research methodology, critical thinking, complex reasoning and written expression. If my experience is typical and the benefit that a student gains from research with a professor is not highly dependent on the subject of research, then students in any field of study should be able to benefit from working with professors engaged in research on teaching and learning.
Let's say you don't want to go to graduate school. Is it possible to take a lot of courses in, say, geology, then acquire extra critical thinking skills by doing a research project in a completely unrelated field like pedagogy? Is it even possible for professor in a teaching-only university to be enough of an expert on pedagogy teach critical thinking about the subject? No, not if they can only devote one month during the summer to scholarly activity. They will be part-time scholars at best.
Let's think about biochemistry teachers in such an environment. They will be teaching four courses a semester. The rule of thumb in our department is that each hour of lecture takes about a day of your time, especially in advanced courses. The extra time is for lecture preparation, course preparation (handouts etc.), meeting with students, and grading. (More time is required if you have a lab component.) If the courses involve two lectures per week, then our typical biochemistry professor will be spending about eight days a week teaching. Only Beatles can do this.
When you're teaching an advanced course (4th year), it takes a lot of effort to make sure you are up-to-date on the latest work. This is true even (especially) if you concentrate on basic principles and concepts. Our hypothetical professor in a teaching-only university will have to be an experts on a number of topics in biochemistry and it's really hard to see where one can find the time to keep up.
Perhaps Ian Clark has a naive notion that course material doesn't change from year to year so all you have to do is deliver the same lecture you gave five years ago. What kind of a university is that?
Isn't it obvious that our hypothetical biochemistry professor will have no time for scholarly work on pedagogical issues? And since they won't be experts in this field, how can they supervise an undergraduate thesis? And where in the world will they find the time during the school year?
Who is going to want such a job?
Many of our colleagues worry, like Professor Slavin, that the new universities would be perceived by students to be second-rate institutions. Part of their concern is that the teaching demands of four courses each term would make it difficult for the new universities to attract genuinely scholarly faculty. We think that a clear eyed look at the academic labour market should allay this concern.Nobody doubts that if the jobs are available then you will find people willing to fill them. And nobody except Ian Clark doubts that the best scholars will go to research intensive universities where you don't have to spend eight days a week teaching during most of the year.
In our book we examine the academic labour market in Ontario by comparing the number of assistant professors from 1971 to 2009 with the population aged 25-44, which is the age range into which almost all assistant professors fall. The increase in supply of PhDs has vastly outstripped the increase in demand for new full-time professors. The number of assistant professorships has grown, but the number of people who meet the minimum academic qualifications for these positions has grown faster. The ratio of people in Ontario aged 25-64 who hold an earned doctorate to the total population in that age range almost doubled in the period 1986 to 2006. For every full-time professorship that exists at an Ontario university, there are five PhDs in the population. Every year, about 2,100 new PhDs graduate from Ontario universities, about 80 percent of whom will remain in Canada after graduation. Another 1,400 PhDs immigrate to Ontario each year. Meanwhile, only about 800 full-time university faculty reach the normal retirement age - a figure that will rise to about 1,000 per year a decade from now. The supply of PhDs relative to the number of new academic positions assures that the new universities would have a deep pool of scholarly candidates to draw from.
As for perception ... does anyone seriously think that these teaching-only institutions will be viewed as being in the same league as the research intensive universities with strong graduate programs, medical school, and law schools? Gimme a break. We already have Ontario schools that concentrate mostly on undergraduate teaching. Can you name them?
The teaching-only institutes will be viewed as second-rate universities, as they should be. In terms of the primary role of a university, scholarly activity/research, they can't possibly compete. This may not be a bad thing but let's not ignore reality.
As for opportunities for graduates of the new universities to proceed to post-graduate studies, they should also be first rate. Given the attractiveness of new universities in the Greater Toronto Area with a much better faculty-to-student ratio, we would expect that one or more of the new universities would soon have entrance and grading standards that were more rigorous than those of most of Ontario’s existing universities. Their graduates, having had more opportunity to interact with faculty, including on research projects related to teaching and learning, would be attractive candidates for graduate schools. I cannot speak for all of University of Toronto but can assert with confidence that the admissions committee for the Master of Public Policy program would be impressed with a candidate from a teaching-oriented university who attained high marks in a rigorous economics and political science curriculum and had co-authored with a professor an article with a title such as “A Multivariate Analysis of Graduate School and Employment Success of Undergraduates Who Participate in Faculty Research.”Let's think about potential applicants for graduate school in biochemistry. We want those applicant to be up-to-speed on the latest ideas in the discipline. We want them to have a good idea about what aspect of biochemistry they want to pursue. We demand that they have reasonably sophisticated lab experience because nobody wants to spend $25,000 a year on someone who can't work in a lab. The student will need reliable letters of reference to support the application and those letters will have to address things like whether the students is suited to becoming a scientist. The students will be applying to major research universities all over the world so it's a pretty good idea to have a letter from someone with research credentials.
I can only speak for our department but a student from a teaching-only institute whose only experience is writing a report on "A Multivariate Analysis of Graduate School and Employment Success of Undergraduates Who Participate in Faculty Research" will not be likely to get taken on as a graduate student. I think it's even less likely that they will succeed in getting into Berkeley. Yale, or UNC Chapel Hill. They will be competing against students who have co-authored a paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and who have glowing letters from the heads of active research labs with an international reputation.
What if you're a high school student who thinks they may want to go to graduate school and become a scientist? Is it best to go to a university full of graduate students and active research labs so you can see what it's like or is it better to go to a teaching-only institute and wait for the surprise when (if) you get accepted to graduate school?
I don't know what planet Ian Clark is living on but it sure ain't this one.
1. Scholarly activity is often referred to as "research" but the two are not synonymous.