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Slowly, belatedly, sometimes forcefully, often quietly, some of Canada's university leaders are at last beginning to admit that the country's largest universities have let down the majority of their students.

The majority consists of undergraduate students who, not to put too fine a point on it, have been getting the shaft.

This state of affairs has been known for a long time, but commented on by only a few observers outside universities. Inside the institutions, a defensive posture prevailed. When anyone acknowledged the undergraduate problem – higher fees, bigger classes, impersonal education – each interest group inside the institutions blamed others, and everyone blamed government.

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Recently, a few university presidents gathered to discuss the situation. One, Robert Campbell of Mount Allison, dared speak the truth. "We all know that the character of undergraduate experience has deteriorated in our lifetimes, especially so in the last decades. And we know in our heart of hearts that this experience can and should be much better."

Harvey Weingarten, who spent nine years leading the University of Calgary, was equally blunt in a lecture for the C.D. Howe Institute. "It would be particularly troubling to conclude that the quality of what goes on in our universities is diminishing. Yet, this seems to be exactly the case."

For a generation or so, universities have been powered by two drives: make themselves stronger in research, and chase money from governments that rewarded institutions for accepting more students. The results were bad for the quality of undergraduate education. Professors favoured research over teaching because their tenure and promotion largely depended on it. More students meant bigger classes, because government funding didn't keep pace with enrolment while professors taught fewer undergraduate classes.

Prof. Weingarten laid it on the line in his lecture: "The trends are for classes to get larger, for courses to be less available, and for more and more of the teaching to be done by sessional and itinerant instructors."

There were other factors at play. Universities lost the battle for marginal dollars to health care. But this truth remained unspoken because university presidents feared incurring the wrath of their health-sciences faculty, the annoyance of government and the anger of citizens who prized health care über alles.

Students who arrive at university are powerless. They're not organized. They're busy with studies and extracurricular activities. They take what they're given, and try to work within it. Challenging, let alone changing, the teaching status quo seems impossible. As indeed it is, because the rules of the game have been set by the powerful providers within universities, notably the professoriate, with its collective bargaining agreements, tenure, research imperatives and the status that comes from academic activities other than teaching undergraduates.

Governments, for their part, have underwritten this state of affairs. They've structured funding formulas to favour admitting more and more students, without any regard for the quality of instruction. They've augmented research funding, although never enough to satisfy the universities. And they've egged on universities to commercialize research. They forgot about teaching.

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Prof. Weingarten, who now heads the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, thinks differentiation among universities is the way to go. The "one size fits all" funding model doesn't allow some universities to soar toward world-class excellence. Some should focus more on teaching, others on research. The risk would be that the big research-intensive universities might take differentiation as a cue to do an even poorer job with undergraduates.

Governments respond to external pressure. Since no one has spoken up for undergraduates, governments have designed policies for professors, administrators, researchers and local communities. If they wanted, governments could adjust incentives so money for research was tied to teaching; that per student funding be tied to a reduction in class size; that some government-funded professorial chairs be tied to teaching instead of research; that awards be given for teaching beyond those already available.

Governments, after all, stuffed the students into these universities, raised their fees and sent money for new buildings, then forgot about the quality of their instruction.

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