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A conversation with George Fallis

York U prof says to focus on quality, not expansion, in higher ed reform.


Canadian universities have gone through an unprecedented expansion over the past 15 years. In Ontario, full-time undergraduate enrolment grew by a whopping 75 percent from 1998 to 2008; graduate enrolment was up too, by 60 percent at the master’s level and 70 percent at the PhD level. Federal spending on research increased almost fourfold over the decade.

Perhaps it’s time to sit back and reassess things, suggests George Fallis, professor of economics and social science and former dean of arts at York University, in his new book, Rethinking Higher Education: Participation, Research and Differentiation. Dr. Fallis begins with the controversial premise that, with participation rates at all time high –almost 75 percent of Ontarians will have entered a university or college by age 21 – the province’s postsecondary system is now large enough. Public policy should, he says, stop focusing on expansion and shift its attention to improving the quality of postsecondary education that students receive and to diversifying the range of programs on offer.

“Rethinking higher education will mean more attention to excellence,” he writes. It will mean providing more diverse programs and will require institutions to differentiate themselves “by special areas of excellence.” He calls for a new open, primarily online institution, more applied degrees, an honours program for high-performing students and a liberal arts minor. At the graduate level, he calls for doctoral education to be delivered by only a select group of institutions.

Dr. Fallis spoke with University Affairs about his prescription for redesigning Ontario’s postsecondary sector over the next 20 years.

University Affairs: Yours is not the first book to call for more differentiation among postsecondary institutions in Ontario, although your recommendations on how to get there differ. Can you describe them?

Dr. Fallis: [At the undergraduate level] I think what we want is very similar institutions, widely distributed across the province, all offering quite an array of degree programming of pretty similar quality. I think that’s the bedrock and the great success of the Ontario system.
Let’s move to the PhD level. You need far fewer PhD programs than you have universities, just like we have far fewer law schools or medical schools. That raises the question, where should you put those fewer PhD programs? There is a very strong argument for having universities be quite specialized or having large concentrations of PhD programming. We should have a small subset of universities where we find these clusters of PhD programs. That’s the first major step towards differentiation. And, of course, to attract international students for doctoral work you need to have doctoral programs that are comparable to the top in the world.

UA: That sounds a lot like a two-tier system that always comes up against a lot of opposition.

Dr. Fallis: It is two-tier. But I want to emphasize that even with this system, any university that has doctoral programming would still be primarily undergraduate. So we don’t have any universities that have more than 20 percent of their programming at the graduate level. Even with formal differentiation we won’t ever move off that mark very much.

UA: But how do you choose them? You acknowledge in the book that if you were looking 20 or 30 years ago, the University of Waterloo may not have made the cut. And your institution, York University, isn’t a member of the U15 but is a leader in research in the social sciences and humanities.

Dr. Fallis: There’s no question that that’s a difficult issue. What we’ve witnessed over the last 20 years is that every university wants to become more graduate intensive and more research intensive. I think that is problematic. I don’t think it’s a wise use of our resources to have all professors with the teaching loads of the top doctoral-supervising professors. I think we should be more differentiated on that basis. That’s why at the end of the day I left the group somewhat pragmatically as those who already have a lot of doctoral programming. Of course you are raising the possibility that somebody who is outside could over time become a major doctoral centre, that’s true. But my argument is that over time, we would have higher quality in total doctoral programming by restricting the set.

UA: You make the point in the book that federal funding for research has increased fourfold over the past 15 years and that is one of the most significant forces shaping universities today. How have universities been reshaped by this?

Dr. Fallis: When there’s new money, universities and faculty members are attracted towards that activity and devote themselves more in that direction. And there’s always this kind of professional aspiration to do more research, often at the cost to undergraduate teaching.
I think this government funding has, first and foremost, reinforced the prestige of research within the academy. Much of this new money has been on very new terms than the classic money available from the granting councils. And it’s tended to be in science, engineering, medicine, technology-related fields and health, with a clear view to saying, ‘We want this research to lead to economic implications, and we want researchers to work very closely with the private sector to translate this research into practical applications.’
So some areas of the university have benefitted and flourished under this new money. Other areas feel a little bit marginalized. Even though their money has gone up, it hasn’t gone up at nearly the same rate as in the other sectors. So there’s a good deal of tension in the university between those areas that are flourishing under the new money and those that aren’t.

UA: One of the reasons the government has done this is to try to spur research and development and ultimately Canada’s productivity and innovation. Do you think the money would be better reallocated to teaching, especially at the undergraduate level?

Dr. Fallis: On a broad level, we haven’t solved the productivity puzzle or the innovation puzzle. It is a very important question – whether or not all this investment is going to increase innovation and productivity. I do agree that the universities have tended to not place a high enough priority on undergraduate education. What I tried to do was offer some ways to highlight how much of our resources we are actually putting into undergraduate education and to highlight the shifting of priority and shifting of faculty teaching loads away from undergraduate education. … [The argument that] some money that’s currently going into research might be better going into undergraduate education – I could probably be supportive of that.

UA: One change you call for at the undergraduate level is a new open university, primarily online, that would target the needs of adult and part-time learners. The Ontario government announced not long ago that it would set aside money to develop a new Ontario Online institute. Is that the kind of thing you had in mind?

Dr. Fallis: It looks like they are moving toward a kind of consortium of existing online courses that are being delivered by universities. I think that’s a good first step, but truly offering an alternative delivery mode means an institution which is totally committed to that and then becomes a competitor to the existing institutions. That’s an open university that’s very committed to accessibility, which not only has online and more flexible programming, but also has more flexible entry dates, more flexible course timing, more flexible arrangements on what prior experience and academic qualifications are required for entrance and so on. I think if we look at our whole system, we certainly don’t need a new university, but I think we need an open university, and I would combine it with an open college.

UA: You also called for more applied or career-oriented degrees to be delivered by a subset of colleges. But some argue that university education has already become too technical and career oriented.

Dr. Fallis: At universities, roughly 50 percent of undergraduate degrees are in what we might call career oriented [programs], if you include things like engineering, journalism, nursing, education, etc. And 50 percent are in the arts and sciences. But I believe that there are lots of students doing those arts and science degrees who are quite disengaged, not really interested in academic study, but they want the credential. I think this problem is reducing the quality of undergraduate education at the universities. If you look at what a lot of students do, they do a university degree and then go to a college for a diploma. I think we can do much better for our students. Why can’t we offer a degree-level program that’s very highly applied? In effect, that’s what a lot of students are doing but at a great cost to themselves. I think we could offer in our system a better package of theoretical and applied degree-level study. I think the labour market would accept them.

UA: The labour market may accept them over time but do you think students would? Haven’t students indicated a preference for longer degrees?

Dr. Fallis: I’m not sure, because we haven’t offered them the option. To me, Ryerson [University] is a model of what these colleges could become. Ryerson dropped the name polytechnic but this would be a polytechnic education. There’s lots of opportunity to provide extremely dynamic programming that would attract a lot of students.

Right now the colleges only have the mandate to do four-year degrees and we put them through a very cumbersome and really a university-controlled quality-assurance process. I think we could design a system of a college-based quality assurance and have three-year degrees. Places like Sheridan [College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning] and George Brown [College] and Ryerson or UOIT [the University of Ontario Institute of Technology], they are really offering that kind of degree program. If there’s a demand and this would suit labour-market and students’ aspirations, where’s the best place to expand it? I think the colleges would do it better than – as is sometimes going on at universities now – trying to graft applied work onto an academic degree.

UA: One of the other things you call for at the undergraduate level is a liberal-education minor as well as an honours program for high-performing students.

Dr. Fallis: I’m a great believer in the idea that a university education, a bachelor’s degree, should be either in part or comprehensively defined as a liberal education. We talk about universities as places where we develop sophisticated analytical thinking and how to use evidence, and speaking and writing and thinking about issues of citizenship and global responsibility. But if you actually look at what’s going on in universities, we’re not giving that. We’re giving disciplinary degrees or multi-disciplinary degrees where we are training people to be biologists or historians or psychologists. It’s only indirectly that you get these other things. I believe we do need to have our degrees with a level of specialization but why don’t we give students the option and say a third of the degree will be designed around a more liberal education?

On honours programs, I was very struck by the high-school [system]. There we have universal high school education and we recognize that to provide well for all the kinds of students we have, we need to have quite differentiated programming. We have programs for those with special needs, we have programs for gifted students, we have curriculum streams for those who are going straight to the labour force, those who are going to college, those who are going to university.

Universities don’t have the same level of differentiation, which I found in some sense quite puzzling. In high school we recognize that perhaps it serves people well to have certain programming that’s oriented towards more academically engaged and capable students. [At university], there’s no history program that’s more selective than others. This is really quite troubling. The one place we do have highly selective entry program is into direct-entry business schools.

UA: Do you think your recommendations would make sense in other provinces as well?

Dr. Fallis: My book is trying to deal with the question of how do you design a universal higher education system. In other words, we are no longer expanding the number of institutions. I’m one of the few [in Canada] who argues we are big enough.
Many countries are heading towards this and recognize that at some point there’s going to be a limit. The question now on everybody’s mind is once you’ve got 70, 80 percent of students coming into the system, how do you best structure that system? How do you have programming to suit all the diverse needs of people? How do you have programming for honours students? How do you deal with having graduate education research at world-class levels? Everyone is dealing with those questions.

Rosanna Tamburri
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