Universities are sitting ducks for reform

According to one 2008 survey, Canadian faculty were the highest-paid among 15 countries studied.

By: Margaret Wente

Excerpt from: Globe and Mail, Tuesday, Apr. 13, 2010

Full article at:


What is the most pressing problem facing Canadian universities today? If you ask the professoriate, the answer is likely to be: massive underfunding, combined with creeping corporatization and growing threats to academic independence.

If you ask Dalton McGuinty, Ontario’s Premier, the answer is: poor accountability, and not enough bang for the buck. Last week, he fired a warning shot, saying he plans to have “honest conversations” in the coming months about what universities and colleges can expect in return for the extra money they’re getting to educate another 30,000 students. Translation: You folks are in the service business.

The trouble is that universities aren’t set up for that. The principal job of today’s university and college system is not to push forward the frontiers of knowledge, but to efficiently deliver mass undergraduate education to 30 or 40 per cent of the population.

Universities now do this job in the most expensive way possible, argues Ian D. Clark, whose recent book, Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario, should be a wake-up call to everyone in academia. That’s because universities are still based on the research model of higher education, which adheres to the view that students should be taught only by faculty members who are “actively engaged in original research.” Nearly every university, no matter how small and obscure, aspires to this model. At many universities, professors are required to spend no more than 40 per cent of their time teaching. That often means just two courses per term, in a two-term academic year that totals eight months.

This entry was posted in Academic Freedom, Budget/Crisis, Clippings, Education Quality/Learning Environment. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Universities are sitting ducks for reform

  1. Roberta Lamb says:

    [Letters published in the G&M on Arpil 14]

    The frontiers of knowledge

    The sad truth is that Canadian universities are perfectly viable but have been overburdened by absurdly expansive, yet ineffective, administrative branches (Universities Are Sitting Ducks – April 13). At my university, the number of administrative middle managers has doubled over the past decade. The root problem with Canadian universities is not far from Margaret Wente’s lament: a lack of focus on our core mission of academic teaching and research. The solution is to gut the administrative ranks, not the university system itself.

    Brian J. Lowry, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of New Brunswick

    Margaret Wente is right: A research university is an inefficient way to produce large numbers of people with an undergraduate education. They are necessary, though, to produce people with advanced understanding of a subject, and trained to do research in that area. The many colleges in Ontario fulfill the function of providing an undergraduate education and training admirably; so why not either close the research universities or turn them into colleges?

    Derek Walton, professor emeritus, McMaster University

  2. Roberta Lamb says:

    [Letters published in the G&M april 15]

    Campus rumpus

    Margaret Wente (Universities Are Sitting Ducks – April 13) appears to be unaware that the “reforms” she believes are necessary for Ontario universities are already largely in place, including more utility courses, productivity targets and an increase in underpaid and precariously employed faculty.

    At our university, nearly half the classes are taught by part-time faculty who make about $7,000 a course and do not receive benefits. These academics simply can’t afford to do research, as chronic provincial underfunding has seriously eroded their chances for job security and a reasonable standard of living. Less than 50 per cent of our university’s budget now comes from the province, and the shortfall is made up on the backs of students.

    Who benefits from the erosion of quality higher education, the impoverishment of academic workers, the eradication of research in a knowledge economy or the burdening of students with large amounts of personal debt? It sure isn’t the people of Ontario.

    James Compton, Amanda Grzyb, Alison Hearn and Bryce Traister, University of Western Ontario

    Margaret Wente makes several questionable assumptions. First, she assumes that the “value” of research produced at Canadian universities can be easily and objectively evaluated. Research is an incremental process, and no one can predict the eventual impact of a seemingly modest contribution.

    Second, she assumes that all university workers are overpaid. I am a part-time, temporary, contract teacher who makes $10,000 to $15,000 a year. The high salaries reflect the fact that most professors, who require as much as 10 years of postsecondary training to get even a chance at a tenure-track job, don’t start earning until well into their 30s and 40s. My high-school classmates who went into trades will earn far more than I do over their careers, even if I end up with a higher salary.

    Finally, why assume that undergraduate education is a “public service”? Many of my students would be better served elsewhere but are led to believe that a degree is a prerequisite to joining polite society and an entitlement to a job. Canada needs better research funding, better trained workers and fewer status-symbol degrees.

    James McKinnon, Edmonton

    As a young teacher and researcher, working a mere 60 hours a week for a whopping $20,000 a year, I’d like to join the chorus of approval for Margaret Wente’s column about how we should cut funding to university research. Just because the students I teach at the University of Toronto are every bit as good as the students I taught at Cambridge and Yale, that doesn’t mean they deserve a world-class university system.

    After all, they’re Canadians! What makes us humble hewers of wood and drawers of water think we can play in the big leagues with such countries as Sweden, Switzerland and Australia? We need to set Mr. Ego adrift on the old ice flow and refocus our postsecondary education system on training a compliant and uncomplicated work force.

    I mean, what do we have to lose, other than our quality civil service, tech industry, international reputation and fine-honed national sense of irony?

    Nick (Fat Cat) Gunz, sessional lecturer, University of Toronto

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