The biggest challenges for universities: a prof’s view

The problems look different from inside the classroom

Stanford University students listen during their Technology Entrepreneurship classOutgoing University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope has shared what he sees as five challenges facing today’s universities. Many of the issues he identifies, it seems to me, are important and need to be addressed. His point about preventing universities from becoming glorified trade schools—or, I would say, inglorious business schools—is well taken.

Yet I am struck by how different my perspective is, as a workaday prof in a small, little-noticed university, compared to the view of a long-time executive at a higher-ed behemoth.

In fact, if I had to identify the five challenges, they would be rather different. Here they are.

Student preparedness

A pervasive problem in university education is that students simply do not get the preparation they need to adequately begin university studies. Biology students who haven’t been taught evolution, physics students who only know formulae, not the principles they embody, English students who have never written an essay—the list is endless. The fixes for these things would require only the political and social will to insist that one of the main purposes of secondary education must be to prepare students for post-secondary education.

There are four things that can happen when students arrive unprepared. First, they can fail—and may accrue a substantial amount of debt for what is probably a waste of time and potential. Second, they may do much worse than they expect, and complain about their professors being “too hard” because they “always did well” before. Third, they find one or more of the growing number of professors who are so battered by the first two that they give in and award grades they don’t deserve. Or, fourth, they work hard, get better, and learn what they are supposed to learn. Only the last, of course, is desirable, and it is the least common.

International Students

Closely related to the preparedness problem is the growing presence of underqualified international students at Canadian universities. Of course, there are many excellent international students, and there are numerous cultural and intellectual advantages to having a diverse student body, so I am emphatically not against international enrolment per se. But increasingly, universities across the country are seeking to attract as many international students as they can, largely because they have suffered year after year of cuts and are desperate for revenue. In many cases, and I witness this frequently in my own department, that means a large number of students whose English is not at the level needed to excel at university, and often not even at the level needed to pass. Professors are caught between their obligation to hold all students to the same high standards, and a natural reluctance to fail the vast numbers of their students.

And so, increasingly, one hears more and more about balancing expectations against reality and taking into account what international students can do—euphemisms for lowered standards.

Still worse, because many students quickly realize their English is substandard, many turn to plagiarism. Of course, plagiarism is a problem in any case, but a substantial and growing number of new students whose language skills aren’t up to snuff only exacerbates the difficulty.

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Inverted expectations

One of Toope’s challenges is that universities must adapt to changes in student expectations. This has the matter backwards. The real issue with expectations is getting students to understand what our expectations are of them, not to conform to their expectations of us.

If a student is used to reading mainly tweets and not—gasp—books, it is not the job of the academy to start teaching in a tweet-friendly way, but rather to show students that, fun though it may be, a tweet is not a format conducive to complex, detailed, or nuanced exposition or argument. And that there are other avenues—broad and exciting avenues—down which intellectual discourse can travel.

The economic imperative

I have always understood that universities are dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and that one of the happy side effects of those processes are that universities also contribute to the economy on various levels. Today that understanding is being upended, and we are told repeatedly that the fundamental function of universities should be as leaders in economic growth. Research and teaching, in this view, become merely means to that end.

But with so many branches of the public sector, and, indeed, almost all of the private sector devoted to economic expansion, wouldn’t it be wise to have at least one institution from which we did not seek a return on investment?

The cult of content

Amid all the talk of online learning and how it is going to (someday) disrupt higher education, what is frequently missed is that a university education—at its best at least—is more than a series of courses that deliver content to the student. But that is the underlying conception of education in the massive open online course (MOOC) model and other supposedly game-changing innovations. Why, many ask, would students want to sit through lectures with their local run-of-the-mill prof when they could get higher-quality lectures online? To this, there are any number of responses, but one that is heard too little is that our students deserve more than the strict factual content covered by their course, and indeed, more than courses themselves.

They deserve the conversations and arguments in the hallways after classes, long walks home with a head swimming from a revelatory lecture, late nights rehearsing a play or organizing a protest. These are activities that have long been associated with higher education, though they have not been strictly part of degree programs. For that reason, it’s easy to ignore them when planning for the future.

We do so at our peril.

At its best, a university is a gathering place. A place where we bring as many of the most exciting minds we can find and let them create, and nurture, and support all manner of learning. To be sure, this sounds like a place whose definition is imprecise and its results hard to quantify. It is. And they will be. Getting  politicians and bureaucrats and administrators to accept such a vision will be supremely difficult.

But, hey, I’m up for a challenge.




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The biggest challenges for universities: a prof’s view

  1. International Students and cheating:

    In my University, there was a co-hort of Chinese students who could barely speak English, yet they repeatedly wrote perfect essays, or submitted work in perfect English. Often, they all submitted the same work. It would appear the writer is on to something, as often, these students would be submitting work that was quite similar.

    As for this line:
    “They deserve the conversations and arguments in the hallways after classes, long walks home with a head swimming from a revelatory lecture, late nights rehearsing a play or organizing a protest”

    As is often the case for Canadian Universities, the “revelatory lecture” often involved the revelation that socialism or marxism is actually the system that is most fair…..it’s just that no one has implemented it correctly. In my case, I was often subjected to screeds about how unjust Israel is, or how much of a bully the Americans are.

    “Organizing a protest”

    yeah…why study or do homework when you can block the roads and smoke pot in public. I had one prof, and whenever there was a protest going on….she would be at the front of the line….especially if it was against George bush.

    If you want to be a professional protestor…….join the NDP. Don’t mess up the timings of other classes.

  2. A very interesting article. Thank you. I share many of your concerns.

    The challenge is the 21st century.

    The world has developed a ‘culture of education’ over the centuries, and it’s pretty much the same culture everywhere. In fact I have a drawing of a class in ancient Babylon….that with a minor fashion change would look just like any classroom today….anywhere, at any level.

    Teacher/professor at the front….checking out someone’s work on a tablet. The students appear to be writing answers, and trying to look at other’s tablets. No doubt these students have exams, and parents pushing them…..and in the early universities complaining about wasted money….oh wait they do that now as well.

    It’s been the only way to educate people…..but it has reached the end of the road.

    Imagine instead each student having their own software program…..from birth on up. It adjusts what subject is taken, and how fast…for each individual student. There are no exams. The object is to have the student ‘understand’ the subject so it will stay with them….not just memorize something for a test and then forget it. If extra work/help is needed the program will provide that.

    It should start out as a game, and then grow with the student. It never yells, throws chalk, makes fun of or puts down a student. There is no ‘grade’. No ‘class of your peers’. If you’re good at math then you can race through it. If you’re terrible at math it slows and/or re-approaches the topic until you master it. This is vital in math because it’s like building blocks….miss one and it can all fall down.

    There is no ‘school year’……it’s available 24/7/365. You can do it at home, on the bus, at a mall or even in a few leftover classrooms if you need a place to meet for help or discussion. A teacher/professor is a facilitator….there for guidance. If something needs to be memorized….then it is. If a lab is needed….then use a lab. No one ‘fails’.

    You can learn all your life. Right now we have Just-in-Case learning…..so you have to know everything within a few short years. We need a Just-in-Time method…..so if you move to a new job or country, you learn that one subject you need right then. Certainly there are core subjects that everyone needs to know….but you can mix and match the rest.

    Put aside any idea of education as ‘punishment’, something kids need to be forced into, a way to get them out of the house…..customers for clothes and shoes and textbooks….consumers.

    Kids are born full of questions…..they can’t wait to go to school….3 maybe 4 years after starting most of them hate school. What work gets done is grudging, and social life can take over……hence the problem later in universities. Large playgrounds for the middle-class. A time to get drunk and drugged and partay…..before ‘real life’…..a life they are totally unprepared for….begins.

    This just isn’t good enough anymore.

    We are building ITER…… an experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor. We are also building a starship…..star, not space.

    So it’s time to leave Babylon behind.

    • Interesting comments / ideas Emily.

      The only comment I would add however, is that some students are simply not motivated enough to get the required work done on their own. That is where teachers (at least in early grades) come in.

      the kind of kids who would benefit from your ideas, are the same kind of kids who benefit from standard curriculum. The kind of kids who make good students in regular classes would make good students in your type of classes. It is those who work hard, have goals, and seek to actually accomplish something. A lot of kids, on the other hand (especially today, in the “me generation”) would simply slack off…simply because they can.

      a mix of both perhaps. For those who can work on their own effectively…….this would work. for those who need a bit of a “push”……..they need face time.

  3. No mention of the fact that most “professors” are now adjuncts, paid a pittance by the course with no means of obtaining a full-time, tenure-track, job even if they have actually published solid scholarship?

    God, I am so glad I am near retirement. This generation hasn’t a clue.

    • CELT,

      Universities need to start doing a few things differently; but it is politically damaging and won’t happen.

      1. Raise tuition fees to what they actually cost. Stop relying on government subsidies. Give students longer to pay off debts, and only charge interest to cover inflation. Once students are gainfully employed, garnish their pay until it is all paid back. Raise the pay of profs who actually perform to a high standard, and dump the rest.
      2. Tell students what the job prospects are for various professions. This would help students make better decsions. If they want to pick a useless degree with little prospect of being gainfully employed in their field…..too bad. We still take back the fees we’ve provided them.
      3. Fire profs who suck at their job. If they want to cancel classes so they can go to a protest….let them go as unemployed layabouts; not paid layabouts.
      4. If a prof feels he/she is underpaid, then by all means, please find another line of work and open a spot for someone who wants to be there.
      5. Ditch all of the non-educational expenditures that have little to do with the curriculum. No money for “anti-apartheid” crap, protests, social justice groups..etc..etc….

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