Incentives are needed to Improve Undergraduate Teaching

Commentary, Education, Rodney Clifton

By now high school graduates have had their graduation celebrations, started their summer jobs, and many are getting ready for university.  Some plan to attend research-oriented universities, such as the University of Manitoba, while others plan to attend teaching-oriented universities, such as Brandon University. 

Unfortunately, those who attend a research university will soon learn that teaching first-year students is not highly valued.  In fact, students will discover that many courses are scheduled in large lecture halls with several hundred seats.  Many of these students will also discover that their instructors are inexperienced graduate students who receive small stipends. 

Almost three years ago, 40 university presidents and vice-presidents held a conference–The Revitalization of Undergraduate Education Canada–to examine the success of undergraduate students at Canadian universities.

In the keynote address, Robert Campbell, the president of Mount Allison University, noted that universities have “lost their way.”  “We all feel and know that the character of the undergraduate experience has deteriorated in our lifetime, especially so in the last decades…. “And we know in our heart of hearts that this experience can and should be much better.”

Unfortunately, the situation has gotten worse rather than better.

In the closing address, Paul Davidson, the president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, admitted: “We are actively searching for new policy tools, new policy ideas … to ensure that Canadian universities are equipped to make the next generation of students the best educated and the best prepared to meet the challenges that this country is facing.”

This admission is surprising because these people should know how to educate undergraduate students.  Nevertheless, the little available data show that at the research universities between 20 and 30 percent of first-year students fail to proceed to second year, and fewer than 60 percent graduate within six years. 

Surprisingly, no new and effective policy tools to fix this problem have been devised by these high-priced senior administrators.  Some recent initiatives in the United States, however, show us how this could be done. 

In 2008, the U.S. federal government passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which required all post-secondary institutions that received federal funds to disclose the number of students who graduate within fixed periods of time.  In fact, the legislation provided much needed information to students, parents, and taxpayers.  Students began selecting institutions that were more successful in graduating first-year students which put pressure on the other universities to improve their teaching.

In Canada, provincial governments, supported by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, could improve the transparency, quality, and comparability of data across institutions and provinces.  The total cost of universities in Canada was slightly more than $26 billion in 2008-09.  Provincial governments provided almost 49 percent of the funds; the students’ tuition fees accounted for about 22 percent; and the federal government provided almost 12 percent, which mostly went to research grants for faculty members and their graduate students. 

Unfortunately, in the research-oriented universities, the incentives are, as expected, for research and not for teaching.  Professors, graduate students, and administrators have good reasons for maintaining the status quo.  Nevertheless, there needs to be a balancing of the responsibilities and rewards so that undergraduate students, who provide substantially more funds than the federal government, are more likely to graduate.

For this reason, provincial governments should insist that all universities publish the type of data that U.S institutions are required to publish.  Otherwise, governments should decrease the funds they give to universities.  Only then will the status quo change.

It is time for professors and administrators at research universities to realize that first-year students deserve to have excellent courses, and that more than 60 percent deserve to graduate within six years.