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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Arts
April 20, 2014
 
 
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Dean's message: The Drummond Report and Small Steps

Apr 10/12

The Drummond Report and Small Steps

Mike Carroll, Dean, Faculty of Arts

The much-anticipated Drummond Report has now been out for almost two months.  Most of the media coverage has focused on Mr. Drummond's call for massive cuts in the provincial budget (many of which, given the province's subsequent pronouncements, seem to be forthcoming).  But is there anything in that Report of special relevance to the Faculty of Arts at Laurier? A bit.  As a start, the Report tells us:

In this knowledge-based era, education and innovation will be the key for Ontarians to be prosperous. But for Ontario to succeed in the competitive global economy where many other jurisdictions are improving their educational systems, Ontario graduates will need much more than a simple handle on facts and figures. The value added by a PSE must increasingly be the ability to think critically, to express those thoughts clearly, and to adapt and apply knowledge to new areas and tasks. (p.240)

Fairly general, to be sure, and nothing really that we can take to the bank - but at least it seems to be a clear recognition of the societal importance of the core skills that have always been the hallmark of a liberal arts education.

On the other hand, in the end, in discussing the state of post-secondary education in Ontario, Drummond comes to exactly the same conclusion reached by any number of other commentators of late: "the status quo is unsustainable."  Basically, the problem is a simple one: inflationary costs (including the costs of increasing compensation) are regularly outstripping revenues, which come mainly from provincial operating grants and tuition. Universities, Drummond points out, have responded to this escalating structural deficit "through two strategies: expanding class size, and/or increasing the proportion of teaching done by part-time instructors [some of] who do not do research (p. 240).  And since universities have no real control over operating grants and tuition levels, this structural deficit is just going to get worse.  Indeed, Drummond himself gives a precise indication how much worse it will get by first noting that inflationary costs for universities are running between 3% and 5%, and then recommending an increase of only 1.5% in the  provincial operating grant.

So what is to be done?  Actually, for all the money spent on the Drummond Report, most of the solutions offered are the same solutions that have been offered over the last two years (for free!) by commentators like - to take a particularly visible example - Harvey Weingarten, president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) and former president of the University of Calgary. Unfortunately, while many of these solutions sound good, at least at first, they're often impractical. Consider everyone's favorite panacea: differentiation. In Drummond's words:

Recommendation 7-4: By 2012–13, establish multi-year mandate agreements with universities and colleges that provide more differentiation and minimize duplication; these should be implemented beginning in 2013–14.  Not every institution needs to become a comprehensive research university, nor does each college require new degree granting authority. The primary intent of further differentiation is to provide clarity to the system in terms of mandates. (p.246)

Implemented by 2013-14? Good luck.  In any event, Harvey Weingarten's take on differentiation is much the same:

For institutions, differentiation means that they value different things and pursue different objectives . . .  A good example of institutional differentiation is the distinction between the research-intensive universities and the liberal arts undergraduate colleges in the USA.  For government, a policy of differentiation means that they do not have the same expectations of all universities in a system.  Because the government expects different things from different universities, they fund them differently to achieve outcomes that are tailored to that institution’s mission and they hold them accountable to different performance objectives. (rf "Check Against Delivery," posted to the HEQCO website, October 2011)

The problem with "differentiation" – at least when it is taken to mean that some universities will focus entirely on undergraduate education to the exclusion of graduate education - is that it runs afoul of entrenched realities at most universities.  Basically: research is valued more than teaching and the research interests of faculty are more closely intertwined with graduate teaching than with undergraduate teaching.  Combine this with the fact that for the past few years the province has been pouring money into the expansion of graduate programs (and is still pouring in such money), and what you get is a situation where no one strongly objects to differentiation so long as "someone else" has to put the brakes on graduate expansion and where every university has an incentive to expand (not eliminate) graduate programs.

On the other hand, differentiation need not mean giving up graduate programs entirely. We need to keep in mind that graduate programs aid faculty in the conduct of research (which is, remember, one of the primary goals of a university) and graduate students routinely serve as TAs and so enrich the undergraduate experience. Nevertheless, at a time when employment opportunities for PhDs in a great many disciplines are diminishing, we might take “differentiation” to mean reducing the number of universities which all have a stand-alone MA or PhD program in X (best to be generic here!) and encourage universities instead to focus on those MA/PhD programs that are most central to their distinctive strategic vision.  Unfortunately, even this is not likely to happen given the current presumptions of an entrenched academic culture that encourage across the board graduate expansion at all costs without regard for its effects (in terms of resources and faculty focus) on undergraduate education.

Still, if differentiation (of any sort) is not likely in the foreseeable future, there is a transitional step that can be taken to rebalance the importance accorded to undergraduate programs relative to graduate programs, and it too was one of Drummond's recommendations:  provide institutional incentives to make teaching, undergraduate teaching in particular, as valued as research. In his words,

Recommendation 7-9: Encourage universities that do not presently have flexible provisions regarding teaching and research workloads in their collective agreements with faculty to consider such provisions in future bargaining . . . Progress on this front should be noted: 11 Ontario universities already have such flexibility . . .  Some institutions have also experimented with alternate career paths, including formalizing teaching-only or research-only streams. We consider this to be a viable option for top performing teachers and top-performing researchers. (p. 249)

Although this recommendation is at pains to balance "teaching" and "research", it is really a call for more use of teaching-stream positions.  In talking about the "11 Ontario universities [that] already have such flexibility," for example, Drummond refers readers to a HEQCO report on those Ontario universities that currently have teaching-stream positions.

A teaching-stream position, if done right, is not simply a faculty member who does more teaching. It's a position designed to attract top quality teachers by providing them with the same compensation and the same level of job security as are provided to full-time faculty generally. Teaching-stream positions, if done right,  are also meant to lessen (though not eliminate) the need for research and publication in the case of outstanding teachers just as research chairs (of which there are a great many) typically lessen (but don’t eliminate) the teaching load for outstanding researchers.

At least for the immediate future, then, teaching-stream positions are a very tangible and concrete way of promoting a greater valuation of undergraduate teaching relative to graduate teaching and research, and so are a way of enhancing undergraduate education within the constraints of the current system.

In this context, I am happy to report that during the last round of Collective Bargaining for full-time faculty, Laurier proposed - and the Faculty Union accepted - the establishment of teaching-stream positions. There are some restrictions (in the Faculty of Arts, for example, teaching-stream appointments can only be made in our larger programs), and the positions must be financed from existing budgets (tricky!), but at least such appointments are now possible. It's a small step, perhaps, but clearly a step forward in the midst of an otherwise bleak situation.

Stay tuned.

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