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Undergrad classes, because of their sheer size, often involve little face time with a professor. (DEBORAH BAIC/Deborah Baic, Deborah Baic Photography, 2003)
Undergrad classes, because of their sheer size, often involve little face time with a professor. (DEBORAH BAIC/Deborah Baic, Deborah Baic Photography, 2003)

Jeffrey Simpson

Stop shortchanging undergrads, get profs back into the class Add to ...

This being convocation time, it's easy to take pot shots at universities. Some of the shots are deserved; some of them hit the wrong target; some are just cheap.

Universities are big consumers of public funds, although student fees have risen in most jurisdictions. If pot shots are to be taken at universities, some of those shots should be directed at the funders - that is, the governments.

In provincial politics, universities are of little interest to vote-seeking politicians. They are interested, it would seem, only in increasing access. They promise and brag about how many more spaces they have created, without worrying about what the people who occupy those spaces learn or receive as part of their education experience.

The largest number of those spaces is occupied by undergraduates who have been getting the shaft or, to put matters less crudely, have not been receiving fair value for their increasing fees.

They arrive at many campuses - this doesn't apply at smaller schools - and spend the first two years in monster classes of hundreds and hundreds of fellow students. They might actually interact with a teaching assistant in a seminar, but face-to-face time with a professor would be rare. It's a poor way to learn.

Some universities have chipped away at the class-size problem, but most efforts have been at its margins. Universities will argue, with justice, that governments demand they take more students but don't supply enough money to improve the quality of education.

The more fundamental problem, however, is that governments fundamentally don't care about the quality of undergraduate education, so they don't design policies to improve it.

University professors - there are obviously exceptions - teach fewer classes than, say, 20 years ago. Basic math tells anyone that if there are more students but professors teach less, class sizes will rise, government funding notwithstanding.

In most schools, and across the academic world, the professorial Holy Grail is research. Tenure and promotion, by and large, depend more on research and publications than teaching. (Again, there are scattered exceptions.) There are few sticks and carrots - or not enough of them - to get professors back in the classroom more frequently, which is the single best thing that might improve the quality of undergraduate education.

What can a government do? First, it needs to care about higher education and put a hard-assed minister in charge, backed by the premier. Then, it has to use government money to get change.

Today, most funding formulas are based on how many students a university takes in, not how a university structures itself to deliver quality education.

But what if the funding formula contained a series of financial incentives and penalties for those universities that, say, over five years, reduced their class sizes. Of course, universities will try to play games with the class-size data, but if the government money rewarded or penalized universities, and held them therefore accountable for serious reductions in class size, the good ones would respond. Change would certainly occur. It would be up to each university community to decide how.

Also, what if the government required university administrations to include in every collective bargaining agreement incentives and penalties for professors related to the amount of time they teach. Teach more, get more; teach less, get less; teach the same; get the same.

The biggest problem of public management today, and not just in higher education, is that public agencies lack systematic incentives to improve quality. Performance toward certain objectives that society has every right to demand for its tax dollars - a better undergraduate experience, better health-care delivery, better education results - is not adequately measured. Measurements are not compared and the financial results do not follow from those results.

Of course, if governments put incentives and penalties into the funding formula and collective bargaining agreements to get professors to change at least some of their habits, there would be a firestorm of opposition. That's why the minister would have to be a hard-ass.

Unless, however, governments use their money (our money) and power to drive systemic change, very little substantial will happen.

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