We're reaching the trifecta of a broken system in Ontario postsecondary education: rising costs, rising tuition, and lower productivity. Reports this week from the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) and the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) clearly indicate that the quality of education at Ontario universities is stagnating, primarily due to the systemic inefficient use of faculty resources and professor preparation before entering the classroom.
The traditional professor job description dictates a 40-40-20 per cent split between teaching, research, and service/administrative work. It's not a hard-and-fast rule though; some professors devote more time to research one year rather than another, or spend more time doing administrative work.
HECQO's report found that the average teaching load in 2012 was 2.8 courses, or 1.4 courses per term. These numbers are significantly reduced from a few decades earlier – in 1988, the norm was about 6 courses per year. These numbers are less than half than they were 25 years ago.
The most surprising finding from the HECQO report was the amount of research output. Since faculty are teaching less, most people assume they must be researching more. However, the report found that significant number of faculty members are not achieving in research either. Based on the three disciplines examined (economics, chemistry, and philosophy), over a quarter of faculty members in economics and 7 per cent of faculty members in chemistry have neither published in peer-reviewed journals nor received a grant from a major research council over the past three years.
If faculty who were not active researchers spent more time in the classroom, it would be equivalent to adding about 1,500 faculty members across the province. Students would welcome this wholeheartedly – class sizes continue to see an upward climb, and Ontario universities are not pursuing any fixes to this problem.
So how should universities address this problem? The province should be monitoring faculty teaching output and establishing mandatory baselines for teaching loads. Universities would have to work toward these baselines, with funding rewards for achieving them and penalties for missing the mark.
If universities faced rewards and penalties tied to teaching performance, they may also change how they make hiring and tenure decisions to place a higher emphasis on teaching. University administrations expect newly-hired instructors to step up to the plate and learn how to teach quickly. Yet students have overwhelmingly said that resources should be spent on training professors and teaching assistants. Teaching and learning has advanced considerably over the past decade, but many faculty members are left in the dark about how to actually lead a productive, student learner-centred class.
Eventually, if we value teaching as much as research, the PhD itself needs a rethinking. A PhD is a sign of being an able researcher and attaining meaningful results within one's field. Teaching has nothing to do with it. So why is it a requirement of university teaching?
All this shifting of priorities is not going to fix a fundamental problem at the heart of Ontario universities. Faculty hires have not kept up with the massive influx of students throughout the early 2000s. In 1990, universities employed one faculty member for every 18 students. Now, that number has risen to one per 28 students, which represents a 55 per cent increase.
As a result, it's becoming more difficult for faculty members to guide and mentor students more closely or even to have any contact with professors at all. There are only so many hours in the day and until measures are taken to improve productivity and funding, the quality of education will suffer.
Spencer Graham is a steering committee member of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and vice-president of the McMaster Students Union.