A better BA: An assessment of the current Bachelor of Arts Program at the University of Manitoba

Commentary, Education, Ivan Holloway

Ivan Holloway, Research Associate, Frontier Centre for Public Policy

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 10% of Canadian university graduates are functionally illiterate.

What is wrong with our education system? Could it be true that one out of ten university graduates does not have basic reading and writing skills?

In an attempt to answer these and related questions, students at the University of Manitoba have conducted and published a ten-month study that examines the academic standards and quality of the University of Manitoba’s Bachelor of Arts program. The final report, A Better BA, assesses everything from grade distribution and academic skills to voluntary withdrawal dates and course requirements. It has been found that:

  • Students can take a whole first-year course load of the most popular subjects without ever having to write a single sentence.
  • Students can complete a whole degree without ever having to use basic numeracy skills.
  • Students can graduate without ever having made a public presentation or even having spoken up in class.
  • Students can graduate with a disproportionate number of first-year course credits and without ever having taken a third-year (or higher) course.

So what happens if students pick the easiest, custom-designed courses and don’t like their grades? No problem-after a course is 90% over and students have obtained about three quarters of the final grade, they can withdraw voluntarily, thereby erasing poor results from their records. In fact, they can drop a whole first year’s worth of courses (one-third of a general degree) without penalty.

As well, after dropping all the courses that have exceeded the maximum desired level of intellectual challenge, students may pick others that hand out high average grades. Among major departments in U of M’s Faculty of Arts, average grades in 1998 ranged from 2.49 (on a 4.5 scale) in Anthropology to 3.18 in Religious Studies. That is a differential of over one half a letter grade. While various explanations for the differential have been offered, the most reasonable is that some programs are just a lot easier than others.

The question then arises, what impact have these lax standards had on the overall quality of U of M’s BA graduates? While it is always perilous to make absolute assertions about cause and effect, there are indications that quality has declined. In a survey of professors, 36% felt the academic skills of BA graduates were deteriorating, while 8% believed they were improving. When professors were asked about the quality of the BA program, 44% thought it was diminishing, as opposed to 8% who saw improvement.

It seems that the rigour of the Bachelor of Arts degree has been allowed to slip. A BA granted today is not of equivalent value to one granted 40 years ago, neither in stature nor in substance. And since the problems that face our society are no less challenging than they were then, the need for liberally educated citizens and leaders is just as great as ever.