Wente’s university prescription is misguided

Before judging, please consider what professors actually do

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University of Guelph students (Andrew Tolson)

University of Guelph students (Andrew Tolson)

A lot is being written about universities these days and much of it paints a rather troubling picture. Some of the more popular arguments were put forward by Margaret Wente—who seems to write the same column about post-secondary education every few months—this weekend: the system is in crisis, it doesn’t sufficiently prepare students for the job market, the quality of teaching has continuously declined, and overpaid, lazy professors are sitting in their ivory towers denying that anything is wrong.

Universities are facing real and significant challenges, and I agree that anyone who thinks the only problem is underfunding is deluding themselves (that said, let’s not dismiss funding as an issue: across Canada, government funding as a proportion of university revenues has gone from 80.9 per cent in 1989 to 58.3 per cent in 2009. In Ontario, it is down 49.5 per cent! This trend poses myriad issues, including shifting the funding burden to students and creating incentives for universities to boost funding by adding more students.)

Yet critics of Wente’s ilk cloud the issues by presenting caricatures of what professors do and think. Further they misdiagnose the cause of certain problems. For example, Wente pins rising class sizes on the notion that teaching loads (how many classes faculty teach in a given year) are declining. She doesn’t present any evidence to support this assertion. Rather, the class size problem stems from the fact that big increases in university enrollments have outpaced faculty hiring. In Ontario, student-faculty ratios have grown by roughly 20 per cent in the last decade, according to statistics put out by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

Wente also repeats the old canard that professors spend little time on teaching duties and most of their time on research. While it is true that many of our career incentives (tenure, promotion, etc.) often emphasize our research productivity above other components of our work, the fact is teaching and administration consume most of our time during the school year.

A typical university professor has what is referred to as a 40/40/20 job description: 40 percent of our time should be devoted to teaching, 40 percent to research and 20 percent to administrative duties.

Especially troubling to Wente is that many regular full-time faculty members only teach two courses per semester. She complains that this results in very little classroom time, as if that were all that teaching at the university level was about. Most professors I know put in three or more hours of prep work for every one spent in the classroom. Add to that the time spent in “office hours” (face-to-face meetings with students), supervision of undergraduate honors projects or graduate level theses, readings, managing teaching assistants, time spent on course design and marking, marking, marking and the teaching component of our jobs easily exceeds 30 hours per week.

Administrative work includes sitting on committees that run and design various programs, determine course offerings, hire sessional instructors, or that relate to university-wide governance. In effect, administrative work is what ensures the university runs efficiently and the needs of students are being served. It also includes work external to our home institutions, such as partaking in peer review of other scholars’ research, organizing speakers or conferences, and sitting on boards of umbrella associations (like the Canadian Political Science Association).

During the normal September to April school year, many university professors work 40 to 50 hours a week before you even start to count time devoted to research.

It’s also worth noting that full-time undergrad students with a standard five-course load only spend 15 to 20 hours in the classroom themselves. That’s because much of their work involves doing assigned readings, conducting their own research, and preparing assignments. A focus on “classroom time” doesn’t convey much about the educational experience at the university level.

I spell all this out for two reasons. First, many people seem to have a false perception that academics rest on their laurels in cushy jobs that only require a few hours of work per week. While there are important privileges that come with working at a university – academic freedom at the top of the list, in my opinion—the caricature put forward by critics about what professors do couldn’t be further from the truth.

Second, the prescriptions for change advocated by Wente and others are directly tied to a highly problematic view of what universities should be about. One of these is the argument that research should be limited to a handful of universities while the others should just focus on teaching. Another is that courses should be designed to reflect the “job market” and students should be dissuaded from programs like the arts and humanities.

First, it’s worth noting that Canada already has many excellent, small universities where professors teach a greater number of classes and have a reduced emphasis on research. Implying Canadian universities are homogenous in this respect is mistaken right off the bat.

Second, and more importantly, the proposal that research should essentially be left to a handful of “elite” institutions ignores the fundamental connection between research and teaching. Students benefit immensely from being exposed to people doing innovative, original research, not only in the classroom but also in the form of mentorship on their own projects at the senior undergraduate and graduate levels.

The role of universities is more than just knowledge dissemination. It is also about knowledge creation. The proposal to limit research to a handful a universities risks turning all of the others into second-class educational factory farms. And as a solution to a major perceptual problem – the notion that universities are just funnelling an increasing number of students through a conveyer-belt approach to education – it almost seems designed to exacerbate the situation instead of making it better.

This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of things we can do better. The drive to massively increase university enrollment in Ontario has not been well justified. (A cynic might say it’s an easy way to boost university revenues without hurting public coffers). It has likely led to more students who aren’t well suited to university-level work. And it has detracted from those sectors of the economy that would benefit from more college-level training and programs in the trades. Rather than making major changes to how universities work that would ultimately diminish what they are, it’s clear in many ways a broader focus on post-secondary education and training is needed.

More flexibility and choice in post-secondary education —such as joint programs between universities and colleges —would also be beneficial, as Charles Pascal argues here.

Universities and those of us who work at them can also do more. First, we need to do a better job of explaining why what we do, both in terms of research and teaching, is relevant to the “real world.” This means a willingness to engage more in the media and other public forums, something that many academics have thus far apparently considered undesirable or have simply been uncomfortable doing.  It also means doing what we can to bust myths propagated by people like Wente.

Second, we need to think more carefully than we sometimes do about what we teach and how it relates to the needs of our students. I do occasionally think some of what is taught (and some of the research conducted) at universities is less relevant than it should be. But we often pay insufficient attention to the intrinsic and practical benefits of what we present to students.

The “liberal arts” have always been one of the larger components of university teaching. There’s little evidence that the disciplines that fall under that banner—English, history, philosophy—have somehow become more or less “practical” over time. Yet those with a university education have always gone on to perform better in the job market, overall, than those without.

Despite people like Wente who look down their noses on such pursuits, students in those fields tend to come out with a broader array of skills – analytical, communication and, yes, critical – that benefit them in the long run. The majority of psychology majors don’t end up as psychologists and political science majors seldom end up as politicians. But they make great entrepreneurs, project managers, communications professionals, policy analysts, civil servants, lawyers, and administrators. Evidence demonstrates they also make more engaged citizens.

Finally, we need to continue to try to better ourselves when it comes to teaching. Most universities now have teacher resource centres that offer support and training for faculty. Some universities—including my own—are introducing “teaching peer review,” meaning teaching will become more and more important to things like tenure and promotion. These practical tools can be used to further enhance the student experience.

We cannot pretend there are no pressing challenges facing the university system. Those of us who work at universities must avoid the temptation of relying on the status quo in the face of wrong-headed reform ideas instead of presenting our own. But to fight bad ideas we need to start by making sure people know what universities are for and what professors do.

At the end of her column Wente wrote, “Our students’ future is way too important to be entrusted to the academics.” I’d like to end here by saying our universities are far too important to be diminished by myths and bad ideas.

Emmett Macfarlane is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. You can follow him on Twitter @EmmMacfarlane.