Rationalized Education and The Futures of the University

Hallowed Halls, Empty Promises?
Hallowed Halls, Empty Promises?

Next to the church, the university may be the most enduring formal institution in our society. And like nearly every institution from banking to manufacturing to healthcare and even the church, the university is facing a major disruption from social and technological change.

The church’s (simplified)  purpose is to provide a place of worship, communion and education on matters of faith and spiritual guidance.

The university is a place for preparing people to be better citizens, scientists or scholars, and professionals and to advance understanding of our world and universe.

Just as many question how well the church is realizing its purpose, so too are many questioning the university and how it is faring in its mission and purpose.

CENSEmaking returns to a discussion started last year with a requiem for the dream of a university no longer experienced by someone who aspired to serve within it. Following my advice to new scholars and attempts to peel back the curtain to show more about what university looks like for those outside it, it seems appropriate to revisit that discussion to explore the state of post-secondary education as another year passes.

This is the first in a series of upcoming posts looking at the future(s) of learning and professional education.

Rationalizing Education

Universities are rethinking things in a big way led by changes to the way they are funded. Quoting from a recent article in the Globe and Mail on the state of funding for Canadian universities:

Midsize Canadian universities are starting a new kind of cost-cutting exercise as they face the prospect of prolonged austerity and sustained pressure to show their graduates are succeeding.

Administrators have tended to slash budgets equally across the board, leaving it up to each dean and department to set targets inside their faculties. Now, Canadian schools are importing a movement from the United States in which economic hardship is viewed as an opportunity to refocus scarce dollars on faculties that deliver.

If we are to parse through this language, one will see it that points to a new way of evaluating the impact of the university and how it makes decisions about what to invest in:

“Instead of making decisions based on internal political factors or you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, or whatever else has gone on in the past, it’s time for us to shift to a culture of evidence,” said Robert C. Dickeson, the U.S. consultant at the heart of the crusade against across-the-board cuts.

Ah, evidence. This powerful concept is the bedrock of science , has transformed the way medicine is practiced and is now being applied to the ‘business’ of education. In Canada, universities are now seeking data about its product to inform its strategic decisions. Some universities are doing more of this than others in applying some form of evidence to their policy and strategy to deal with current funding challenges:

The University of Guelph has gone furthest. Facing a $32-million shortfall over the next four years, Guelph’s leaders hired Dr. Dickeson for help after an invitation to a workshop he runs landed in provost Maureen Mancuso’s inbox. He was on hand at a Guelph University town-hall meeting in late November where president Alastair Summerlee laid out the challenge: rising costs, flat government funding and capped tuition, combined with a shortage of space to keep boosting enrolment.

“People outside of our institutions are full of a rhetoric around ‘do we produce quality, a quality product?’” Dr. Summerlee told a crowd of about 300. “These things make a case for actually trying to prioritize what we’re doing. … We need to act now.”

The plan is Darwinian. Each of the university’s nearly 600 programs and services, from undergraduate biology to the parking office, has to complete a “program information report” answering 10 criteria, to be reviewed and ranked by a task force of faculty, staff and students.

Embedded in the middle of this quote is the line: ‘do we produce quality, a quality product?

I have been involved in academic governance and policy making for 20 years first as a student representative at the undergraduate and graduate level and later as a full-time faculty member. The timing of my post-secondary life coincided with the last major shift in educational funding and rationalization that began in the early 1990’s with the first introduction of student fees and the start of philanthropic named sponsorship in Canadian universities. Prior to this time, students tuition was all they paid to access services and get an eduction and buildings, faculties and facilities were named based on criteria that was not tied to specific donations.

Despite all of this, quality was rarely a term used explicitly to shape strategy.

Money Matters and Defining Quality

I have never — not once — witnessed a major decision made on the basis of educational quality when juxtaposed against financial concerns. I’ve been a student, trainee or faculty member at five different universities and a visiting or guest lecturer or examiner at many more institutions worldwide and never have I seen quality of education trump fiscal or logistical issues on matters of great significance. Sure, there are small decisions to include particular content into a course or program or invite/disinvite a particular speaker based on perceptions of quality , but no program I’ve known chose, for example, to limit recruitment or enrolment because there were not enough resources to give a quality experience to students.

So if universities are now being judged on quality, what does this mean in practice?

Is quality about jobs? If so, then are they the jobs that students want, the ones they get (which may not be the same thing), the ones that students are trained for, or the ones that the market produces?

Is quality about what gets taught, what gets learned, or what gets applied? If it is some combination, then in what measure?

Is quality about what the market asks for or what the world’s citizens and its ecosystem (including plants, animals and oceans) demand?

Is quality about training people for jobs and roles that have traditionally existed, exist now, or may emerge in the future?

Is quality about the canon, questioning the canon, or re-discovering or creating new canons? Or all of them?

These are some of the questions worth asking if we wish to understand what the futures of the university might be and whether any of those possible futures mean not existing at all. Stay tuned.

Photo University by martybell from Deviant Art.

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