Plenty of feedback: Faculty decries minister’s push, defends Western’s progressive classroom.

With seven roundtable discussions now complete, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities is waiting out the Sept. 30 deadline for feedback on its contentious proposed changes to Ontario’s postsecondary system.

But adding to a growing list of concerns coming out of the ministry’s paper, Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge, is a worry the feedback will not be heeded.

“This (paper) is worrisome for a variety of reasons. The changes have to be grounded in evidence, not a shift in the government’s priorities,” said Mark Rosenfeld, executive director of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), during last week’s town hall meeting of the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA).

The ministry will soon publish a document reflecting feedback from its consultation period with officials from Ontario’s universities and colleges, Rosenfeld explained. He is concerned the document may not be representative of the reaction in the postsecondary community.

“Will it be filtered or accurate? To what degree is this a personal (for Minister Glen Murray) or a government agenda? Were the consultations a formality? A clear sense of that will come with the document,” Rosenfeld noted.

He called the discussion paper Murray’s “pet project” and wondered if it is his way of leaving a mark and becoming this century’s Bill Davis, who, in the 1960s, established Ontario’s college system.

Much laughter ensued from the audience and UWOFA members to these suggestions and more, only the tip of the iceberg that kicked off UWOFA’s town hall discussion last week.

“There’s ambiguity surrounding the (proposed) changes and what problem the changes are meant to address. It’s unclear what the goal is, except the broad idea of a shift,” said Rosenfeld, adding the discussion paper doesn’t address what universities actually do.

“We have a minister that wants to teach those in the university community, those in the college community, how to manage and how to operate higher education, when he himself isn’t immersed in the system, when he doesn’t understand the system – or fully appreciate its complexities, nuances, subtleties, accomplishments and its failures. And that to us is a dangerous precedent.”

So what doesn’t Minister Murray get, according to Western’s staff and faculty?

For one, universities – and Western is no exception – are already responding with cutting-edge technologies and teaching methods to meet students’ needs and demands, inside and outside of the classroom.

“We are doing (these) things with no attention being paid,” said Deb Dawson of Western’s Teaching and Learning Services.

Carefully curated online classes and technological advancements are no detriment to learning and Western is responding to students and offering a variety of ways and opportunities to learn, all of which function best in addition to traditional in-class teaching, she explained.

Aside from online courses, Dawson added uses of Second Life in the classroom and Western’s 3D Anatatorium and simulated clinical education suite in the Faculty of Health Sciences – among other innovative teaching strategies – show Western’s dedication to changing with the times and offering an education that aligns itself with current trends.

What’s more, if universities responded to calls for prioritizing online education, they would be failing to meet the needs of some students, Dawson explained. She said most online courses are geared toward students who are not only self-motivated, but also able to separate what they know from what they don’t know in order to teach themselves.

Advancements such as massive open online courses, free to anyone, and a great advancement in accessible education, also fail in the end as most that sign up, lacking guidance and motivation that comes from traditional teaching, don’t complete a course.

It’s all about striking a balance in response to students’ needs and demands, Dawson explained.

Kane Faucher, professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, echoed Dawson’s sentiments that the province isn’t giving faculty credit where credit is due.

“(It) neglects to note that we’re doing something right in terms of our teaching practices. We have sufficient measures to evaluate them. There is a risk of revoking our autonomy,” Faucher said. He expressed concerns over potential measures that could be used to evaluate not just the quality of teaching but also faculty members.

“We are not the hot dog vendors of knowledge. We are professionals, each and every one of us.”

No, Western’s faculty doesn’t consist of “horses for courses,” said Graham Smith, professor of Geography with numerous teaching awards under his belt.

“The minister has a solution and is looking for a problem to hang it on,” Smith said.

He explained the problem is finding a way to house 60,000 new students the province hopes to accommodate, without building anything or investing in the people who will facilitate the students’ learning.

“There is no pedagogical goal in this document. (Murray) is trying to leave his mark,” Smith said, in agreement with Rosenfeld. “The minister has a brand new toy, called universities. He doesn’t know how to use it yet. Let’s teach him.”

Other concerns brought up during the meeting included a lack of quality control in education if a credit transfer system were to be established as well as a lack of maturity and preparedness that would plague students if a three-year degree became a reality.

Both OCUFA and UWOFA, and all universities present during consultations, according to Rosenfeld, have voiced their opposition to the ministry’s discussion paper.

Don Abelson, UWOFA president, noted Western’s administration has been cooperative.