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University of Toronto Professor Brad Inwood is photographed while teaching his Ancient Philosophy Class at the University of Toronto, October 04 2012. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

University of Toronto Professor Brad Inwood is photographed while teaching his Ancient Philosophy Class at the University of Toronto, October 04 2012.

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)


Can Canada's schools pass the next great intelligence test? Add to ...

“So it’s in everyone’s interest to ask this question: Are students learning the things we think they should learn?”

However, accountability at universities runs into the same issue that is faced by elementary and high schools: How do you quantify it? It is still a fuzzy goal. While no one thinks standardized testing is right for higher education, some institutions, such as the University of Texas, have started measuring students’ knowledge when they enter and how much more they have learned by the time they leave.

The HECQO has started a similar pilot project with a group of universities in Ontario, and Dr. Weingarten suggests that the information could be used to determine which programs and innovations are working. What’s more, if they were published, they would attract students to particular schools and create a general incentive for improvement.

While some schools are rethinking the purely grade-based admissions process, the same could be applied to the other end: Why must every diploma look the same and why must transcripts be an indistinguishable mass of course names and numbers? Online learning can also allow students to pursue extra, resume-boosting credits, for example, with online “badges” awarded for learning specific skills. The Internet company Mozilla is developing a system that would make such badges accessible online to potential employers.

The most pro-active schools are already taking steps to make themselves more accountable from the day students arrive. Recognizing that freshmen are the most likely to drop out or be disengaged, schools have started to step up the hands-on training they offer in their first year, and sustain it throughout a degree.

At the University of Regina, new students are offered a deal. If they agree to be assigned to a counsellor, to take job-training seminars, to volunteer or work and to maintain a minimum average, the university will give them what is called the UR guarantee: If they cannot find a job related to their field, with the university’s help, in the six months after they graduate, they will be given a year’s free tuition to come back and beef up on missing skills.

“It’s not asking you to do anything you shouldn’t be doing already,” says Elizabeth Morin, a second-year psychology student who is in the program. “But it’s easy to get caught up in university and just go to class and study. You need work experience. You need other skills.”

In Regina, the program is free: The university expects to make up the cost of the program with improved retention rates. In its first two years, 1,000 students have signed up.

But for many such experiments, argues Concordia’s Dr. Shepard, universities will need risk-free cash – he suggests that governments create an innovation fund to permit testing of promising new ideas.

As Lester Pearson predicted, postsecondary education has become the natural step after high school for an ever-growing number of young Canadians. If “massification” was the story of Canada’s universities in the 20th century, the challenge of this new century will be to make our behemoth of a system nimble and responsive to the blinding pace and vast possibilities of how knowledge and ideas are exchanged and applied today.

“Throughout history, there have been lots of people diagnosing change,” Dr. Shepard says. “But every now and again, they are actually right. They were right when they said the printing press was going to radically transform knowledge and how people connected with ideas. The scientific method was probably the next big thing to come along, in the mid-17th century. And now I think we are on the cusp of radical change.”



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