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Gwyn Morgan

If universities were in business, they'd be out of business Add to ...

Frosh-week frivolities have ended and some 40,000 new university students across the country have experienced their first weeks of classes. Unfortunately for many, those classes have brought frustration and disillusionment. Poorly prepared professors stand before huge classes delivering basic material readily available elsewhere. Many professors show up only occasionally, sending harried, low-paid graduate students to teach so they can concentrate on their personal research. Assignments can be poorly thought out, often bearing little resemblance to material covered in class.

In 1991, the Smith Commission on Canadian University Education determined that: "In general … while a truly terrible teacher with average research ability will not be promoted, the same terrible teacher with excellent … research to his or her credit, will be. Many students graduate having accumulated whatever number of courses is required, but lacking a coherent body of knowledge or any inkling as to how one sort of information might relate to others." Nineteen years later, little has changed.

How could it be that students, parents and taxpayers think the primary mission of universities is to provide the skills and knowledge needed to gain employment and become productive members of society, while the hiring, compensation and promotion of faculty members is based almost entirely upon their published papers? Many of the most-distinguished and highest-paid professors consider teaching lowly undergraduate students an unfortunate imposition on their research time. International university rankings, such as those published by Times Higher Education, reinforce the problem by weighting research as more than twice as important as teaching.

Early in my career, I realized that no organization could be successful without alignment of mission, accountabilities and rewards. Private-sector organizations that fail to accomplish alignment go out of business because they can't compete with those that do. But public-sector monopolies such as universities don't go out of business, no matter how poorly they perform. Often, the reaction of universities to widespread student dissatisfaction is to blame insufficient financing, rather than their own dysfunction.

It's astounding that the classroom experiences reported by the new students of 2010 mirror what I encountered more than 40 years ago in first-year engineering. Sure, there were a few committed and passionate professors who brought course material alive, but more than half of my teachers added no value. I stopped going to their classes and dedicated my time to learning from textbooks and reviewing friends' notes.

Today's students have many more alternatives than textbooks and borrowed notes. There is no reason, for example, why all written course material can't be delivered via the Internet. The most intriguing option is to eliminate formal lectures altogether. Sites such as University of Oxford on iTunes, Open Culture, Academic Earth, MIT OpenCourseWare and Cool McGill offer high-quality lectures from leading academics.

For the first time in history, there is real and superior competition to university lecturers. But instead of fundamentally rethinking their sclerotic classroom paradigm, the knee-jerk reaction of university bureaucracies is to force attendance, using in-class quizzes that count toward course grades. These coercive measures further alienate students, demonstrating once again that fee-paying students are thought of as pawns rather than customers.

The formal lecture process needs to be tossed out. What role would faculty then play? Research universities have long justified the cost of hiring leading-edge teachers on the theory that they would transfer their passion and knowledge to students. What if formal lectures were eliminated altogether, in favour of informal, smaller group discussions with those talented scholars? Think of how much richer the teaching and learning experience could be.

Monopolies don't change until a competitive alternative comes along. Online learning offers a far superior formal teaching product. What it can't deliver is teacher-student interaction. This is the competitive response that will make university life better for both faculty and students. Given that the education system is vital to Canada's future, the payoff would be enormous.

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