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Jeffery Haga, a second-year student at the University of Ottawa, says his favourite class is taught by a professor who conversationally weaves in examples and background.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

In one of Jeff Haga's second-year classes at the University of Ottawa, about half of the 150 students vanish at the break. The three-hour lectures, he says, are "brutally" dull – the professor reads straight off slides that regurgitate what's already in the readings and add little context.

"I can sit in my room and read a textbook, and probably get more out of it," says Mr. Haga, a communications student.

On the other hand, he describes a favourite first-year class – 400 students packed into a lecture hall for three hours, which sounds like a less-than-ideal learning environment. The second professor, however, lectures to bullet points on slides, conversationally weaving in examples and background, so students could add their own notes on the matching PowerPoint on their laptops. In each session, she lectured for 90 minutes, and then broke the students into small groups of six, with an assignment based on the lecture to complete by the end of class.

"You're forced to think," Mr. Haga says.

Much of the impetus for reforming universities focuses on improving the learning environment for undergraduate students, the largest group on campus, and the one that most acutely feels the financial pressures facing universities.

Undergraduate programs pay the bills, especially in an era of declining public funds and booming student populations, but costly graduate research is still the marquee star, earning international prestige, faculty accolades and valuable grants. It works, universities have long argued, because top researchers make passionate teachers – they're what makes a university education distinct from high school or college.

But in reality, freshmen often don't meet these Mick Jaggers of academe. Instead, universities have been forced to save money by hiring a cadre of part-time faculty. And the poor cousin status of undergraduate programs is exacerbated by the emphasis that teaching talent is typically compromised for research when it comes to making tenure decisions.

Universities are beginning to try to change this: At Carleton University, for instance, a new collective agreement with faculty signed in September requires professors seeking tenure to submit detailed teaching "dossiers" describing their approach and background in education – an element of the process that was recommended previously, but not mandatory. But can institutions with a deeply ingrained "publish-or-perish" culture give teaching its due, or is it time, as some observers have suggested, to create new institutions that make teaching undergraduates their focus?

"The part of the system that is getting shortest shrift is undergraduate education," says Ian Clark, a co-author of Academic Reform, a book on the need for change in university teaching, and a professor at the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy. "What can you actually do to improve the quality and the cost-effectiveness? What buttons do you push to make things better?"

Dr. Clark, who arrived at the University of Toronto after a public-service career, believes that creating new teaching-intensive universities would be most effective. He cites California as an example of how a system like this would work: In that state, a network of state universities exists with a smaller cluster of research-intensive schools such as the University of California, Berkeley.

Using Ontario universities as a comparison, he says, the teaching load among faculty in California is 46-per-cent higher – and students are more likely to be taught by full-time faculty. The state, he points out, also spends 21-per-cent less on faculty time for research – with that time concentrated among faculty at the research intensive institutions – yet has still managed to produce 25 Nobel prizes since 1995, as well two public universities in the top 15 of the prestigious Time Higher Education World University Rankings, released this month.

Canadian universities, on the other hand, fell in the rankings – with none placing in the top 20 – a result that led to several of the country's university presidents calling for a more focused approach to research.

Dividing institutions challenges a central tenet of a university education – that its cachet is students being taught by scholars who, in an ideal environment, are experts in their fields, current on new research developments and passionate about the topic. If implemented, Dr. Clark's proposal could create a two-tiered system, where an elite class of students attend research-intensive institutions while another group graduates with what might be regarded as less-respected degrees, says Maureen Mancuso, vice-president of academics at the University of Guelph. (Though one could argue this demarcation already exists to a certain extent between Canadian universities.)

"If the problem is cost-effectiveness, the solution is not to create additional types of institutions, with their inevitable layers of bureaucracy," Dr Mancuso said in an e-mail interview. "If the problem is overall quality, the solution is not to create more 'separate but equal' systems – we know how that ends up."

There are indications that universities are tackling teaching quality with new fervour. This month, for instance, the University of Calgary announced the creation of a new Institute for Teaching and Learning on campus, which president Elizabeth Cannon says will expand on the teaching centres that exist at many universities. And the university has announced a new credited course, planned for next September, that will see first-year students working on research projects with graduate students and professors.

Adam Chapnick, deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College, suggests that universities are hampered in their efforts to improve the classroom experience because they don't have a clear sense of what an optimal postsecondary teaching environment looks like.

"Humility is needed," he says, "for us to admit that even though we have been running universities for so long, we still don't know a lot about how students learn."

What is needed, Dr. Mancuso says, is "not mere administrative reorganization but transformative change at the very core of how we pursue both our teaching and research missions."

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