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Outcomes don’t matter

Yet another pointless report on higher education: Pettigrew


 

We hear a lot of noise about “outcomes” at universities these days. Much of it is well meaning, but little is helpful. Government types like to make these kinds of noises because they want to be seen as good stewards of public money making sure education is providing good value for the dollar. But all this talk about outcomes and its demented twin “quality assurance” does nothing to make universities better. A good, or rather bad, example is this week’s report about “ensuring quality” from the Council of Ontario Universities.

According to the report, a focus on outcomes is necessary to “assure taxpayers, policymakers and government of the excellent return on investment of a university education.” I could say plenty about this kind of ugly, narrow-minded view of higher education that sees learning as merely another engine of utilitarian economic growth rather than a means to nurture a democratic civilization. And I have. So I won’t repeat those arguments here.

Instead, I will argue that any attempt to refashion university education along an outcomes-based model is, or at least should be, doomed to failure. Here’s why.

First, professors, thankfully, have few means to compel students to do the work asked of them. There are no truant officers to herd students back to their American Literature class, and profs can’t call parents to discuss their kids’ progress in Intro Sociology. In other words, there is no way to guarantee particular outcomes except to fail students who don’t achieve them. But that means that the issue is really good old fashioned standards and supporting those instructors who are courageous enough to give a failing grade to every test and paper that deserves it. Let me know when the COU comes out with a report on that.

Further, many of the important things we want from university graduates are not easily measured or quantified. The COU report defines outcomes as “what a student should know and be able to do.” But a lot of what we want our students to get out of university is neither knowledge nor skills, but qualities like skepticism, courage, and creativity. The COU report does gesture towards such things (it mentions approvingly the capacity for “ethical action”), but makes no mention as to how one could possibly measure them, even though it insists that universities do measure their outcomes.

Still further, the university, by its nature, comprises a vast range of disciplines from the speculative and abstract (like Philosophy and Mathematics) to the pragmatic and professional (like Accounting and Law). Any statement, therefore, of a what a student with a degree at a certain should know and do could only be a list of competencies so broad as to be practically useless. In the examples provided in the report, for instance, the “Degree Level Expectations” for both Political Science and Nursing graduates are identical: “Autonomy and Professional Capacity.” Avoiding that kind of vague, jargony discourse could be a course outcome for English 101. Sadly, it’s not listed as one.

To be sure, it is probably a good practice for professors to think seriously about what they want their courses to do and what they hope students will get out of them. But all this talk about outcomes at the broad levels of universities and provincial systems is balderdash. Instead of outcomes, we should be looking at environments. How do we create the best possible university environments to inspire students to grow as thinkers and creators and citizens?

Do that, and the outcomes will take care of themselves.


 

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