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Adventures in Academe

We need to have a candid conversation about quality undergraduate education

There’s much to admire in Canada’s higher education system, but we can do so much better.


A few months ago I was asked to sit on a University Affairs panel at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Vancouver to talk about the future of higher education. The guiding question was “what keeps you up at night?” The very prospect of sitting on a panel with such thoughtful public scholars like Shannon Dea and Creso Sá kept me up for the first several nights, and the question lurked at the edges of my brain for weeks.

Many things (including two tiny humans) keep me up at night: making the academy more equitable, diverse and inclusive; creating spaces for emerging scholars and amplifying student voices; decolonizing our institutions; advocating for teaching and learning as scholarly endeavours; arguing for the relevance of the humanities – and the list goes on. As the date of the conference approached, I started to panic, writing several drafts on a variety of topics, and wondered with increased urgency what I could possibly contribute to the conversation.

And then it struck me: instead of focusing on what keeps me up at night, I thought about what gets me out of bed in the morning. Suddenly everything came into focus. What gets me up in the morning is the deep-held conviction that by collaborating we can enhance the quality of undergraduate education in Canada. What does quality undergraduate education look like? High-impact practices, or HIPs, provide a very useful guide. According to George Kuh, HIPs are evidence-based principles that have clear links to student learning, engagement and retention.

These include:

  • collaborative assignments
  • undergraduate research (working directly with a faculty member)
  • writing-intensive courses
  • signature first-year experiences
  • building common intellectual experiences (usually through learning communities)
  • service and community-based learning
  • experiential learning (e.g. internships, co-op, field experience, practicums)
  • international field study and global learning
  • a capstone experience (senior project or thesis, portfolio, etc.)

If these are widely accepted features of quality undergraduate education, why are they not embedded in all undergraduate programs at every institution across the country? One reason is that HIPs are, for the most part, resource-intensive initiatives. A writing-intensive course necessitates small classes; working directly with a faculty member on a research project at the undergraduate level requires time, training and supervisors; and service learning demands tremendous logistical support and high interactions between and amongst students, faculty and communities.

To put it simply, universities are deincentivized to adopt HIPs. Current provincial funding formulas incentivize universities to rapidly grow enrolment at the undergraduate level. The very loathsome phrase “bums in seats” refers to students as revenue generators, not as three dimensional individuals who each embark on their own messy and transformative journey through higher education. As a result of funding formulas, we’ve witnessed alarming trends in the last 20 years: in Ontario, for example, you are now hard-pressed to find a primarily undergraduate institution that is under 10,000 students, while small, liberal arts institutions are struggling to stay intentionally small at their own financial peril.

Let’s be clear: I am not arguing that comprehensive and research-intensive universities are delivering lower-quality undergraduate experiences. In fact, some of the largest universities are leading the way with incredible programs, departments and institutes that have a significant impact on student learning and engagement. Nor am I arguing that large class sizes have a direct relationship to quality: I firmly believe that you can model curiosity, courage and generosity of spirit in a class of 600 students just as you can in class of 20.

What I am saying, however, is that we need to have a candid and even uncomfortable conversation about quality undergraduate education in Canada. I recently came across a statistic that 90 percent of students attending Canadian institutions end their PSE careers at the undergraduate level, and yet we are not committing 90 percent of our attention to this topic.

It’s a very Canadian problem: we aren’t doing too badly, but we have the potential to be exceptional. As institutions of higher learning, we have the curiosity, creativity and capacities for collaboration that can help us build the next generation’s capacity to impact positive change.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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  1. Ray Dart / October 30, 2019 at 16:12

    This is such an important topic. I think both the HIPs described here as well as the foundational undergraduate learning goals of critical thinking, oral and written expression, analysis etc. are all at odds with the factory farming model of undergraduate education that is happening almost everywhere in the system right now.

    A national summit on undergraduate learning would be very timely. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Helen / November 12, 2019 at 19:02

    This article absolutely resonates with me. Although it was a good 20 years ago, I recall very well my disappointment in the undergraduate experience. Based on my parents’ memories of university, I was looking forward to exploring new ideas, challenging different perspectives and growing intellectually. What I got was multiple choice scantron tests and assignments which relied upon regurgitation of the professors’ lectures.

    Through no fault of the teaching staff, it was such a disappointment that I contemplated dropping out almost daily and felt as though I was stuck in a holding pattern, jumping through hoops until I had served my time. In short, it was High School 2.0. Three degrees and much professional, ‘real-world’ experience later, I’m afraid I can say almost the exact same about my Masters and PhD degrees. If I could do it over again, I would have learned a trade, earned a living, then if I felt like it, pursued a degree on a part-time basis. The quality of university education simply isn’t worth the investment of time, emotional and physical energy or money. We absolutely must prioritise the learning and growth opportunities for students. Otherwise, we are only perpetuating mediocrity.

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