Nathan Lachowsky figures his first-year university experience was like that of most undergraduates. A science major at the University of Guelph, Mr. Lachowsky says his main courses were held in large lecture halls with 100 students or more. "It was very typical," says Mr. Lachowsky, now in his fourth year and a member of student government. But there was one important difference: a special first-year seminar class he took during his second term. The small group let him look at issues more deeply and allowed him to get to know his instructor and fellow students. "It changed my perception of who I was as a student and what I could do," he remembers.
At a time when campuses across the country are struggling with government cutbacks and falling investment income, such intimate teaching formats are an easy target for the chopping block.
Guelph, like many other universities, has strived to improve the quality of undergraduate learning in recent years. And like others, it has been forced to take some drastic actions since the economy cratered, cutting majors and classes with low enrolments, questioning the role of subject minors and putting its highly popular first-year seminars ìon hold.î
At the same time, the university is going through a kind of campus-wide period of soul searching, with faculty and students such as Mr. Lachowsky, to discover how to deliver a meaningful and new kind of undergraduate education with increasingly limited resources. The process has not been without its controversies: The university scrapped its womenís studies program based on dwindling student numbers and union leaders have accused the administration of exaggerating financial hardship to gain concessions at the bargaining table. In response, university leaders say they are making the kinds of tough choices required in difficult times. In the process they are optimistic they can develop a new model for teaching that will improve learning and offer more first-year students the kind of small-group experience Mr. Lachowsky enjoyed. "We are trying to create a new typical," he says.
University of Guelph president Alastair Summerlee is a major force behind the changes. Dr. Summerlee, who teaches two seminar courses each winter, including the one Mr. Lachowsky took, has long been an advocate for flipping the traditional undergraduate teaching model on its head, devoting more teaching resources to new students who are making the transition to university. "How do you turn around the idea that in your first year you have big classes and in the final year you have small ones?" he asks. "It is a big challenge."
That's especially true in an environment where cost cuts are the order of the day. The meltdown of global financial markets of the past year hit university budgets on a number of fronts. Stock market losses have reduced the money they are earning on their endowment funds (investment income they rely on to pay for scholarships and bursaries and special faculty appointments). Investment losses also mean many schools are facing large increases in their contributions to faculty and staff pension funds in the coming years. Adding to the financial turmoil is the decline in operating grants due to a failure of many provinces to keep pace with costs. This has led universities to scramble to find millions in savings to balance campus budgets.
Ken Steele of Academica Group, a consultant in higher education, has been keeping a tally of the numbers. So far this year, he estimates Canadian universities have announced roughly $246 million in budget deficits or anticipated shortfalls. When losses at endowments and pension funds are added in, he figures that total losses to the university system are running close to $2.5 billion. Those losses are unlikely to be covered by governments struggling with rising deficits. "Some of that is a paper loss, so it could be made up if stocks rebound," Mr. Steele notes. "Budget deficits are a bigger problem."
The result has been a steady diet of cost-saving measures on Canadian campuses: layoffs, buyouts and hiring freezes, the cancellation of programs, reduced course offerings and larger classes. The University of Calgary warned recently that as many as 200 campus jobs could be lost. Meanwhile Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., proposed that staff and faculty take unpaid days off in December, and several schools have implemented across-the-board budget cuts over several years. When the cost-saving measures are completed over the next two to three years, many schools will see 10% or more cut from their operating budgets. At Guelph, the university is facing what Dr. Summerlee describes as a ìmiserable budgetî situation. The university could see its annual pension contributions rise from $20 million to as high as $100 million if conditions do not improve. It also must find $45 million in savings by 2012 to get itself out of the red.
It is against this backdrop, some would say because of it, that the discussion about changing undergraduate education is taking place. "The question is, how do we make this an opportunity to do the kinds of changes in the undergraduate curriculum that are really vital?" Dr. Summerlee wonders.
For the past four years, Guelph has searched for ways to do just that. The first-year seminars, which began as a pilot project, expanded to 40 offerings but still only had room for a small portion of all undergraduates. Only those who got up at dawn to register managed to get in. Guelph provost Maureen Mancuso says the financial crisis has prompted what she calls a "healthy conversation," on campus about the universityís priorities and strengths and what it is graduates should know. "Those conversations don't naturally flow and they have been helped by tough times," she says.
As well as small-group instruction, the reforms are focusing on what the university calls "experiential learning," or opportunities for students to reinforce their classroom knowledge by doing. A new first-year course that is a requirement for most commerce students is an early attempt to shift the focus of instruction for a large group of undergraduates away from the traditional lecture format in favour of small groups and hands-on learning. Under this model, all 600 undergrads will meet for a once-a-week megalecture. This large lecture format will free up other faculty to conduct smaller seminars each week. Students will also be required to work in small groups using a web-based simulation program. In addition to this one course, faculty in the commerce program are considering major program changes, such as altering the length of courses so that not all will last an entire term. They are also rethinking how credits are given.
Dr. Mancuso expects other departments will soon follow with similar experiments. The bachelor of arts courses could be organized around themes and taught from an interdisciplinary perspective, she suggests. "Undergraduate education delivered differently five years from now, that is my hope," she says.
But, will the changes save money?
Dr. Mancuso says the savings will require some tough decisions about where to direct resources, and where to take them away. In some cases, class sizes may increase, she says, but replacing some lecture time with different types of learning could also reduce costs. Right now 30% of the universityís courses serve 70% of the students, she points out.
For students such as fourth-year science major Mr. Lachowsky, the changes will come long after he graduates. But as a member of student government, he has started a new campus-wide council of students aimed at including undergraduates in discussions about reforms, rather than waiting to react when decisions are made. "If the university is changing, itís important we have the students involved," he says.