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University of Toronto campus. President Meric Gertler says it's a false premise to suggest research excellence jeopardizes undergraduate learning. (University of Toronto)
University of Toronto campus. President Meric Gertler says it's a false premise to suggest research excellence jeopardizes undergraduate learning. (University of Toronto)

Ontario universities defend focus on research in wake of report Add to ...

Ontario’s proposal to increase the portion of university funding tied to undergraduate learning outcomes could threaten the benefits students get from research and lead to fewer programs, the province’s universities warned in response to a report on the future of the sector released Wednesday.

The report was the result of months of consultations with students, universities and employers, and recommended that the government use its funding to encourage universities to refocus on undergraduate education, rather than prioritize research. That separation was false, schools said. “Our mission is to find new and better ways to make the research experience available to as many undergraduates as possible. It’s not either-or, it’s both,” said Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto.

“If there is a premise circulating in this process that being good at research excellence comes at the expense of undergraduates, it’s a premise that I do not accept.”

But employers said that finding a way to pay attention to and to report on what undergraduates were learning in the classroom would be welcome.

“We are major recipients of the education product, if I can call it that,” said Janet Ecker, CEO of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance. “Certainly from industry, there is a sense that graduates don’t always have the hard and soft skills that are required in particular jobs.”

One way to address the concerns of employers would be to add experiential learning opportunities, such as co-ops and internships, students said, a recommendation made in the report.

“Those are things that students prize and don’t think should just be left up to the prerogative of the university. ... We’d like to see a way that they are permanent aspects of the funding,” said Spencer Nestico-Semianiw, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

Current funding levels would make the introduction of new performance metrics very difficult, universities said. Any increase to the $3.5-billion the province currently gives universities was not on the table and some members of the reference group said that made the consultations difficult.

“This was a constrained conversation in an environment where funding has been extremely limited,” said Hugh Mackenzie, a researcher with the Centre for Policy Alternatives and one of the people who served on the consultation group.

Even maintaining the current quality of education is stretching resources, others argued.

“Having just come back from China, it’s clear that country is doubling down, if not tripling down, on ensuring that country has strong representation in the world’s top-ranked universities. If we are not doing something similar, very soon, in Ontario, we run the risk of becoming also-ran,” Dr. Gertler said.

Still, U of T placed in the top 10 in the world in terms of the employability of its graduates in a recent Times Higher Education survey, Dr. Gertler pointed out. “We must be doing something right,” he said.

In spite of continuing concerns, universities, colleges and the province are already beginning to test possible measures of performance. Six pilot projects on how to design learning outcomes are under way at colleges and universities. What schools want to avoid is a system where performance is measured the same way across the whole system.

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