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Queen's University

Ottawa Citizen Opinion Piece

The ivory tower is showing cracks

May 6, 2012

There has been a great deal of discussion about universities lately, in the press, on air and in a welter of recent books offering critiques and proposed solutions, some of them quite radical, to our apparent ailments. Some of these are well-placed and thoughtful — the university, like every other public institution, should be subject to scrutiny and must be adaptable to the changing needs of the various communities it serves — while others are less well-informed.

The reality is that universities — like many public institutions — are in trouble across the country, and in many other places throughout the world. But part of that reality is that this is not new. We have been under stress of different kinds for at least three decades.

The federal government, given the constitutional limits on its role in education, prefers to leave core funding to the provinces, but has invested heavily in university research, with very positive outcomes in raising the quality and quantity of such research. It has had less success in translating some of that research into industry-adopted innovation, which is not the government’s fault.

There has, of course, never been sufficient funding from any government, federal or provincial, to support all the activities that universities wish to undertake, because the activities continue to expand by some sort of thermodynamic law. This happens in part because we hire very smart, creative and intellectually ambitious faculty who generate new research activities and, with them, cost centres.

The dearth of money is not the failing of governments, many of which (Ontario in particular, which recently protected the sector from the worst of cuts inflicted elsewhere) have tried to make post-secondary education a priority: it reflects both global economic circumstances and, over the longer run, the wishes of electorates. Quite simply, the Canadian public has generally placed a higher premium on health care and kindergarten to Grade 12 education than it has on post-secondary education, which still smacks of elitism to some. They are thus reluctant to put up with tax increases sufficiently large to guarantee that the quality of what their children receive once inside the ivory tower maintains a reasonable consistency and high level: as long as it doesn’t cost them too much and the piece of paper is produced at the end, what happens during the process hardly figures as a worry.

Students are more sensitive to the quality issue, since they have to live through the experience. But they have found their contribution to their own education by way of tuition and fees has been steadily rising as a proportion of overall cost, and they are extremely resistant, especially in the face of uncertain job prospects, to pay more, especially for a bachelor’s degree in a non-professional program.

In Ontario, where the Drummond report recently devoted a whole chapter to universities and colleges, the winds of reform have been stirring and the watchword is accountability. There’s no question that the current system, built in the 1960s for a much smaller participation rate and a much more modest engagement in research, is not sustainable in the long run. We cannot continue to absorb ever-increasing numbers of students, maintain or increase educational quality (which no one has yet agreed on a way to measure), and participate in a national innovation agenda, all on funding that continues to lag behind the actual cost of doing business.

Again, however, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, nor rush to solutions for which the demand is not clear. Recent data show, for instance, that the idea of moving to three-year degree programs is not popular among students, many of whom believe that this would devalue their qualification. This resistance might be mitigated with adequate funding in place to support those wishing to pursue second credentials such as college certifications or professional masters programs.

It should also be said that the perception of universities as immovable and impenetrable medieval fortresses is not an accurate one. There are certainly forces on every campus that will resist any change (this is true in the corporate and government worlds, too); and it is undeniable that change occurs more slowly than in a small startup business. But equally there are those who will challenge pedagogical practices even within their own departments, who will take risks, and who will experiment. I think of the recent reinvention of Queen’s University’s huge first-year psychology course using a combination of technology, real-time lectures, and peer-to-peer coaching from senior undergraduates. There is also a willingness to plan and adapt: Queen’s senate unanimously adopted an academic plan for the university which has the potential to bring in far-reaching change.

The point is this: there is room for change, some of it transformative, even radical, in how universities go about their business. Administrations are working with their senates on academic reform, and with employee groups and governing boards on fiscal controls and reduction of costs (including pension plans, a significant risk to most public sector budgets). They are committed to working with their governments to advance the shared interest of the public good. This will require vision, patience, dialogue, collaboration, and open-mindedness on all sides. But universities will inevitably adapt and modify, as they have for the past 800 years, because they will have to do so to survive. The trick will be to do so without destroying all the good things they have achieved for Canadians, and the world, over the last half century.

Daniel Woolf is the principal and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University in Kingston and a professor in its Department of History.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000