Singh: ‘University mission’ remains a deed under scrutiny

The primary focus of higher education is to help shape the future by advancing the boundaries of knowledge and boosting human potential. Graduates acquire logical reasoning and extension of imagination that may serve as a catalyst for self-improvement and direct societal change. For example, 50 years ago, there was no cell phone, Internet, biotechnology, genome sequences and cure for any cancer. Today, most of them are a vital part of the world’s economy affecting our daily lives. We are living longer, healthy and interacting globally and distance is no hindrance. Needless to add, most such advances are the result of the knowledge and imagination invariably gained via a university education. Also, society is counting on higher education to continue to offer novel solutions for future societal needs and challenges.

Operationally, universities focus their mission on teaching and research. This mission needs timely scrutiny in order to keep up with the fast pace of novel developments. In the following sections, I have reflected on my experiences as a professor (38 years) and member of Western Senate, as well as the Board of Governors. These thoughts offer lessons not only for Western, but any Canadian postsecondary institution.

Source of funding

Fundamentally, the management of the teaching and research mission at most universities is rather complex. Although the two missions are intended to be complementary, often they face competition for resources. For example, most funding (80-90 per cent) for university operation in Canada comes from the government and student fees. This funding supports the day-to-day operation, particularly the teaching mission. Also, philanthropy-based funding for universities in Canada is rather modest (~15 per cent) and often comes with strings attached.

The debate on stable university funding is an issue for discussion in every boardroom.

Most university-based research in Canada is supported by the Tri-Council; Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) on the basis of national competition. The competition for this funding is extremely spirited; most grants submitted to national programs are not funded. This deprives the research community from an open enquiry that holds the key to true innovations.

It is fair to say all universities count on student-based funding. Also, they harbour an ambition of research. It is in their DNA.

Today, acquiring research funding has become a full-time job. More and more research funding is directed to highly organized multidisciplinary teams possible in large and comprehensive universities only. The recent awarding of $900 million through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund is such an example. It is a wonderful initiative. However, no single researcher at any institution could ever compete for such funding.

It is not all happy, happy!

Who does the teaching?

Undergraduate enrollment has remained stable or continued to climb in most universities. Most professors in core faculties are hired for their research potential on 40 per cent teaching, 40 per cent research and 20 per cent service responsibilities. Yet, undergraduate teaching is not given its proper due; tenure and promotion is primarily based on research.

Most research professors avoid undergraduate teaching and ~40 per cent of undergraduate courses in most Ontario universities are taught by limited-term hires, contracted on a course-by-course basis. This need is created by tenured faculty on sabbatical leave, appointment as research chair or to ever-increasing administrative positions.

The first responsibility to go in all these cases is the faculty’s teaching.

Universities buy out the teaching time (often 40 per cent) of such faculty by appointing a limited-term hire to cover a course. Interestingly, there is no buy out of the research or service. The limited-term faculty come and go and are often disappointed in the situation they find themselves.

From the perspective of universities, they must give teaching its proper due. Only the most qualified and prepared instructor with exceptional insight and interest in the subject and student well-being should show up to the classroom. Our students deserve it.

Changing expectations

The financial pressures on the universities have led to a set of irritations. These include the mission of the university itself. On one extreme are people who emphasize fundamental research – the foundation of novelty and breakthroughs. On the other hand, businesses and governments often expect universities to produce market-ready employees and products. Also, the allure of a university education in modern society is undeniable. The Ontario government set a goal that more than 70 per cent of the working-age population should attain a postsecondary education. There is no substitute for higher education.

Teaching (via/versus) research

It is obvious most universities focus on teaching. Faculty in core faculties are hired for undergraduate teaching but are expected to develop novel research. Lately, however, some faculty are being hired to develop a research specialization with little involvement in teaching. Undergraduate students almost never get to see such researchers in the classroom.

It has begun to create two categories of faculty. Such issues are causing an operational dilemma. A single solution will not work. Every university will have to develop its own priorities with the future of students in mind.

Learning from the past successes: Western Experience

Not too long ago, Western had a reputation of being ‘a party school.’ Most academically inclined high school students did not select Western. The administration at the time recognized Western’s teaching mission needed a major makeover. They convinced the community to focus on excellence in undergraduate education. It required making hard choices, a plan of action and quantifiable measures that reflected progress.

That focus for measuring progress was put on the average high school mark of entering students. It represented an independent measure, easily available and comparable across universities. It was also a major concern at the time for Western as it was below comparable universities and fell below the provincial average in 1993-94.

The mantra became “recruit the best students and offer them the best student experience possible.”

This necessitated the development of new and innovative programs of interest to exceptionally talented students, new residences, modern classrooms and laboratory facilities, strategic infusion of resources and remodeling of frosh (party) week. It attracted fire from a variety of circles as it affected the status quo. The result is the average entering grades of full-time first-year students at Western in 2011-12 was greater than 87 per cent, among the top two universities in the province.

Western’s new challenge in undergraduate education (staying on or near the top) may be harder than getting there.

The available data on Western research argues it must do better nationally and internationally. It is a complex issue that will take time and special attention. Moving Western research forward is an achievable goal for this university with a long history, presence of a high-calibre student population, comprehensive offerings and international interdisciplinary expertise. Stakes are high and the status quo will not produce different results. Major successes and reputation in research will be needed to bring Western to its rightful place in the high-calibre universities of the country and the world. It will require both excellence in teaching and research. There is no doubt a close collaboration between efforts towards teaching and research will have a multiplicative effect.

The success, however, is not dependent on the action of universities, alone. The future generation is counting on consequential commitment from society and the government for persistent excellence of higher education in this country.

Shiva M. Singh, Distinguished University Professor is a past member of university Senate and the Board of Governors.