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York University students. File photo.DEBORAH BAIC

Canada has made a big bet on undergraduate education as the path to prosperity. We've opened our campuses and our wallets to produce one of the most educated populations in the world.

But the best educated? Look into classrooms, and it's a troubling sight. Classes of 500 students or more taught by an emerging cohort of indentured PhDs who carry a growing share of the teaching "burden" but have little hope of long-term employment. Professors who get "relief" from teaching obligations to pursue research. Classes and courses of study that prize particular academic disciplines rather than make the connections among disciplines that are so crucial to learning.

For students, it's unacceptable; for taxpayers and families who spend tens of billions of dollars each year, it's unsustainable.

The reformist wave that is transforming health-care delivery in Canada must now reach undergraduate education at our publicly funded universities.

Many university leaders know it. Addressing a conference of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in March, Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University, said universities have lost their "foundational narrative thread."

"We all feel and know that the character of the undergraduate experience has deteriorated in our lifetimes, especially so in the last decades," he said.

There's hard evidence to support the anecdotal concern. The ratio of full-time students to full-time faculty in Ontario increased to 25 from 17 in the years between 1988 and 2008. More collective agreements establish a standard teaching load of two courses per semester, down from three a generation ago. Despite this, faculty incomes have outpaced both inflation and government grants per student.

We are getting less for more. Teaching is getting short shrift; more students are graduating, but not enough are leaving school with the skills they need for success in the real world.

It's time for a Canadian renaissance in undergraduate education. And it will take both timid governments and hidebound universities to get the job done.

They should actually spell out what an undergraduate education is good for. Here's one definition: It ought to produce critical thinkers, scientifically and culturally literate people who can assess evidence, connect the dots and communicate with clarity – the key skills, that, in a fast-changing economy, prepare people for the jobs that haven't been invented yet.

But we don't actually measure this or dock those universities whose graduates don't measure up.

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario is working with colleges and universities to describe the content and skills students from the physical sciences, life and health sciences, and social sciences should have upon graduation. It's a good effort; political leaders should talk about their vision for a quality education and work with universities to make sure that quality is delivered in the classroom – or change programs accordingly.

We can reward universities that value excellent teaching and emphasize it in tenure applications. Faculty compete for research grants. Why don't they compete for teaching grants?

As former Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance executive director Alexi White points out, it is curious that we require years of training for high school teachers, but not an hour of training for those teaching students just a year older. Governments should shift the per-student funding formula to hold back money until underperforming faculty members get remedial training in teaching. If you can't explain it, you shouldn't be allowed to teach it.

As long as students are guaranteed some small classes, we don't need to abolish large classes. They can be great, as long as faculty get the time, technological tools and training to teach them well. That's especially important now that the Internet has turned information into a commodity. Dumping information from a professor's head onto a student's notebook isn't education.

There are lessons to be drawn from Britain, which has experimented with teaching training for faculty for decades and is considering making it mandatory. Academic Reform, a forthcoming book by Ian Clark and his collaborators, suggests the creation of new, undergraduate-focused universities. And to force universities' hands, the authors suggest separating governments' operating support for universities into two streams: a teaching grant and a research grant.

Many university leaders want change. They now have to steer their institutions, so good at producing new knowledge, to get smarter about their own affairs.

As a country, we have made some strides in making undergraduate education affordable, with government-funded scholarships, more public lending and private giving.

Now we must tackle the quality of that education. Let's begin a reformist agenda and bring the values and practices of a liberal arts and science education to the masses – and create the kind of citizens and future workers essential to a free and democratic society.

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