One hurdle to this approach is faculty reluctance. Today’s academics were mainly groomed in systems that rewarded them with status and payment for research while, until recently, neglecting to reward (or train for) teaching.
“The idea that all universities should be the same, that all professors should be researchers, is a wonderful concept, but the reality is we can’t afford it as a country,” says Dr. Coates, the Campus Confidential author. “What’s wrong with a place that takes enormous pride in being the best possible teaching environment? Have a school that is famous for up-skilling its students – if you had a child who was getting 68s in high school but seemed keen on learning, wouldn’t you want them to go there?”
Allowing for unique missions for individual universities is an unsettling concept for those who worry about creating a two-tiered system of top schools for the smartest (and likely the richest) and No-Frills U for the rest.
But there could be countervailing advantages: For instance, unique schools could adopt unique admission requirements to target the most suitable students, moving away from putting nearly all the weight on high-school transcripts. This year, the University of British Columbia became the first mainstream university in Canada to require all applicants to submit personal essays and list extracurricular activities, to find better-rounded students.
The most sought-after schools already can demand the highest averages from their students. A more finely tuned admission process might reward other strengths.
More controversially, in a diversified system, tuition levels could be used as a tool to produce different results. For his part, Mount Allison’s Dr. Campbell argues that the fees should be deregulated altogether. “We have a kind of tuition phobia in this country,” he says. “If you look at the cost pressures on universities and the condition of the public purse, something has to give.”
But there could be a more subtle approach – for instance, to encourage students to enroll in sectors that are higher social priorities. That model is used in Estonia, where students in engineering get free tuition, while those who want to take arts have to pay.
“Our system is based on a deification of individual choice,” Dr. Coates says. “People get to go where they want to go. We aren’t shaping the process.”
But if universities are going to set unique missions – and in some cases perhaps even charge more for them – those claims have to be backed up. The fact that universities are funded based on the number of students they accept, not the calibre of graduates they produce, acts as a disincentive for outcome-based learning.
In a specialized system, should students not have more personal choice in how they acquire their degree? Curriculum, as it stands, is largely arbitrary – students graduate when they have attended a set number of lecture hours and acquired a designated number of credits over a required number of years, with marginal variation across programs and institutions. The flexibility to move between disciplines, schools or between colleges and universities is limited – the institutions, after all, want their students to stay put.
But a rigid curriculum structure is an outdated notion, says Dr. Weingarten of the Higher Education Quality Council – especially considering that classes can now be conducted online. In a study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, for instance, students who took an eight-week statistics course online ended up with a better grasp of the material than those who attended 15 weeks of classroom lectures.
Certainly, in a swiftly changing job market, it makes sense to allow students to tailor their degrees. At a minimum, they want the assurance that their degree has not failed to prepare them for a modern economy. Governments, employers and society are on the same page: wanting evidence that their investment in education is returning value.
Says Dr. Weingarten: “It’s reasonable for the student to say, ‘Look, I gave you $6,000 a year for four years, what did you do for me – other than teach me a bunch of facts and figures?’ And it’s reasonable for an employer to say, ‘Do you actually have the skills that we are looking for?’ And frankly, it is also reasonable for a government to say, ‘We are putting several billion dollars a year in public postsecondary education. We want students to fuel the social fabric of our community, to fuel the economy – are they graduating with the skill sets we know are important?’