Thursday, April 03, 2014

Does the University of Toronto really care about undergraduate education?

My university, the University of Toronto (Toronto, Canada), is huge. We have 60,000 undergraduates making it one of the biggest universities in North America. You'd think that undergraduate education should be a very high priority.

The university publishes an online "newspaper" called the Bulletin every Tuesday and Thursday. It's basically a PR ploy to advertise everything that's great about the University of Toronto. There was a time in the past when the Bulletin had editorials that were critical of university practice and policies but I haven't seen anything like that in years.

The latest issue has a link to an article by the President of the University, Meric Gertler. The title of the article is: Job Ready: U of T is developing new programs to help students succeed after graduation. I want to discuss two things in that article. The first is whether the university really is committed to the goals of undergraduate education (this post). The second is What does "liberal arts education" mean in the 21st century?.

Gertler begins by asking whether the goal of a university education is "education" or "job training" and he concludes that universities have been doing both for two centuries. He says,
The debate reflects the accelerating pace of change across all industries, an increasingly globalized and competitive economy, and the lingering effects of the global recession. Governments tend to tie the value of public spending – especially on education – to its effect on economic growth and job creation. And students (and their families) are concerned, understandably, about whether their investments in a university education will pay off in a rewarding career.

U of T takes these concerns very seriously, not least because we are accountable for our use of the public funding we receive.
Statements like that make me nervous even though I appreciate the importance of political reality. It may be true that governments expect universities to concentrate on economic growth but it doesn't necessarily follow that the leaders of the university community have to agree. If you think critically about the situation, you'll appreciate that there's a case to be made for education for it's own sake and not for the sake of government priorities.

We are academics, not politicians. If we believe in universities we should defend them, no matter what the government says.

Gertler goes on to say,
In response, we have invested substantial resources in strengthening undergraduate education. The result is a flourishing culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, and curricula designed to ensure graduates have the core competencies that a university education is uniquely suited to impart: the abilities to think critically and creatively, to communicate clearly, to solve complex problems and to collaborate effectively. These competencies, in addition to the knowledge our students gain in their chosen disciplines, will help prepare them for a lifetime of success.
I'm not sure what he means by "a flourishing culture of innovation and entrepreneurship." In fact, I'm really puzzled by the use of this buzzword "entrepreneurship." What exactly does it mean and why is it so valuable?

In any case, I don't see any evidence of this "flourishing culture" among the undergraduates that I encounter. Perhaps he's referring to the massive amount of university resources devoted to the Rotmann School of Management?

Let's look at the "core competencies" that the university is supposedly committed to.
  1. ability to think critically
  2. ability to think creatively
  3. ability to communicate clearly
  4. ability to solve complex problems
  5. ability to collaborate effectively
We could quibble about the relative importance of each of these items but I think we can all agree that if undergraduates master these core competencies they will have been well-educated.

Here's the problem. The President of the University of Toronto says that "we have invested substantial resources in strengthening undergraduate education" and implies that we are successful in teaching those core competencies. I've been here 35 years and I see no evidence that the university has strengthened undergraduate education. If anything, it's worse that it was a few decades ago.

I also don't see any evidence that we are actually teaching undergraduates to think critically or achieve any of the other core competencies. Not even close.

Let's pull our head out of the sand and admit that we are not teaching critical thinking or any of the other core competencies. Instead, we are mounting massive "memorize and regurgitate" courses that are the exact opposite form of "education." We're doing this in my own department and we're doing it in all of the other departments that I'm familiar with.

I doesn't do anyone any good to pretend that we are doing something we aren't doing. It's time to have a university-wide debate about whether we really should be emphasizing critical thinking or whether we should drop the pretense and just get on with generating income by graduating as many students as possible.

And if we have that debate, let's make sure that the last people we put in charge of organizing it are those who got us to where we are today. We have an opportunity to think creatively about improving undergraduate education. It's pretty clear that the administrators in charge of this university have not done that.1

1. If the university were run like a business, they would be fired.


  1. Larry,

    Your University produces 99% morons and possibly 1 % thinkers... but they disappear very quickly... Your university is not teaching critical thinking... what you hoped for.... It is a money making machine, which I'm sure you don't like... Bye, bye science.... I ask a doctor I,f he knows anything hormonal interactions and he tells me his is an MD....

  2. The MD is the graduate of U of T and used to be intelligent.... Now he is a "money first who cares about patients money making machine....

  3. "there's a case to be made for education for it's own sake and not for the sake of government priorities."

    I agree. Anyone who enrolled in university "for education for it's own sake" would make an excellent employee after graduation.

    Imagine an applicant saying in an interview that he/she went to university to learn as much as possible about a wide range of subjects. He/she would demonstrate, with just that statement, that he or she would make a valuable contribution to any company or organization smart enough to hire him/her.

    Is it too utopian to imagine getting a comprehensive education and then deciding what you want to do after you graduate?

  4. It would take too long to do so here, but it may be useful to compare Gertler's 2014 message to Prichard's message from 1999:

    Prichard's emphasis is on "an educated citizenry."

  5. I don't know about the UofT, but in general it costs a lot more to go to University now than 30 years ago in real dollars. Making education more affordable would be a useful step in keeping it from becoming job training.