The current focus on research–and securing research funding–at Canadian universities could be taking away from teaching. According to a new survey by the Ontario Government’s Higher Education Quality Council only 61 per cent of the professors “believe that teaching is important or very important to their institution” and “70 per cent of professors surveyed believe research has a bigger payoff than teaching in enhancing reputation, respect of peers, and access to funds.”
When it comes to teaching the report says that many professors fount that “little formal support was available when they began their careers, although the survey indicates that teaching support is considered especially critical in the early professional years. Most said they learned about teaching through practice as a graduate student and
continue to learn about postsecondary teaching through practice and peer consultation.”
While this should be concerning to everyone, especially those of us currently pursuing an undergraduate degree, it’s hardly surprising. Sooner or later, everyone in university will encounter professors who lack basic teaching skills and who are far more interested in telling your class about their research than teaching the course material.
In a press release the executive director of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, Henry Mandelbaum, blamed the over-focus on research on the government. “Our universities are chronically underfunded, and that means administrators must chase any additional money they can find,” Said Mandelbaum. “As a result of federal and provincial government policy, much of this new money is for research. It’s therefore not surprising that teaching has taken a backseat at many of our institutions. Funding universities adequately would eliminate this imbalance.”
But there’s more to it than that. Universities don’t really value good teaching. Sure, there are a handful of teaching awards available to professors but tenured professors know that when it comes to promotions, published research counts far more than teaching skills.
One of the other problems with research funding is that it disproportionately goes to “hard” science. Three quarters of federal funding for science and technology go to “natural science and engineering,” with the other quarter going to “social sciences and humanities.” This might not be such a problem if universities and professors weren’t so motivated by research funding. The end result of this imbalance is that “hard” science programs have more funding than their counterparts in the arts, universities value these programs more and science professors have more opportunity to secure grants, publish and get promoted. The problem is that there are more students in the arts than any other program.
Research is always going to be a big deal for universities and a point of pride. I briefly attended the University of Winnipeg a few years ago and I remember the university promoting itself by saying that since it was an undergraduate university, undergraduates would have greater oppertunity to participate in research. The other day, McGill principal, Heather Munroe-Blum told CBC radio that the university’s focus on research and large number of graduate programs would benefit undergrads through some sort of trickle down effect.
This debate won’t be going anywhere soon, the Quality Council’s next research projects will look into improving teaching.