Students across British Columbia scored a quiet victory last month as the highest appellate court in the province ruled in favour of the University of British Columbia, and against the faculty association, for the right to overhaul policies related to student evaluations, including posting results online. At issue was whether UBC’s faculty union, through their collective agreement, had control over evaluations, or if UBC’s academic Senate did. The case has resulted in direct benefits for UBC students and raises questions over whether the faculty association is concerned with teaching quality.
The website teacheval.ubc.ca, where evaluations may be viewed, has been of benefit to students. Similar to controversial third-party websites such as www.ratemyprofessor.com, but more formalized and scientific, the UBC site provides information on popular professors and what courses to take. Students now being able to see their own evaluations may also be encouraged to take them more seriously. The policy also outlines everyone’s responsibilities on giving, handling, and receiving feedback. As before, evaluations will be a factor when professors are up for tenure and promotions.
The controversy surrounding student evaluations started in May 2007, when UBC’s Senate approved the new policy. Background work went back nearly a decade and was a part of the university’s strategy to improve its teaching quality.
The faculty association immediately filed a grievance and sought legal action, with support from the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees. They argued that UBC’s Senate had no legal right to pass that policy, as it infringed on their collective bargaining agreement.
The faculty union, thus, appeared more interested in their power struggle with administrators than with the enhancement of teaching quality at UBC. As the BC Court of Appeal wrote, “It is apparent that the overall purpose of the Policy is to improve the quality of teaching at UBC.” In fact, there was little merit to the faculty union’s position that there was conflict between the collective agreement and the adopted student evaluation policy. The judges dismissed that “[the] entire grievance was predicated on the basis of a conflict.”
The ruling in favour of UBC also sets precedence on the matter of bicameral governance for universities and colleges. Public institutions are typically governed by both a Board of Governors and an academic Senate. The faculty union’s collective agreement is with the Board, yet the student evaluation policy was passed by the Senate. The BC Court of Appeal has ruled that no agreement signed by the Board of Governors can overrule something passed by the Senate, since the Senate’s jurisdiction is over academic matters. So assuming even if a conflict existed between the collective agreement and the student evaluation policy, the Senate’s policy would preside.
However, despite the legal victory, students are still mostly left in the dark about their own teaching evaluations. The website that was supposed to support transparent and open access for students is incredibly limited. If courses have multiple instructors, if a professor denies consent, if it is the first time a course is offered, or enrollment is too low, evaluations won’t be posted. The policy was condescendingly referred to as “rateyourprofessor@ubc” in one meeting held by the faculty union.
For students across British Columbia, the ruling affirms the autonomy of Senate decisions to better protect the interests of students by providing a legal framework that means students will not get left behind in academic matters when the union and administration disagree.
Keith Van is an accounting student at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.