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In my opinion

Experience is the best teacher

A response to the opinion article, “The rise of the experience industry on campus”.


Jonathan Finn’s recent opinion piece, “The rise of the experience industry on campus,” is a well-intentioned critique about what our sector is doing to recruit, support and retain students. But, in my opinion, it misses the mark.

Dr. Finn argues that there has been a change in language at universities from “education” to “experience,” representing a shift in focus and resources from one to the other, leading to growth in an “industry” that emphasizes recruitment incentives and frivolous, sometimes anxiety-inducing initiatives that exist simply to bolster enrolments, pad resumés and boost scores on student satisfaction surveys.

From a Canadian perspective at least, I see no sector-wide enrolment crisis leading to over-the-top luxuries like Louisiana State University’s lazy river referenced in Dr. Finn’s article, nor do I see an industry built to serve the needs of a student-consumer mindset. Instead, I see faculty and non-faculty working in partnership to provide an educational experience that is both challenging and supportive, focused on the development of students as thoughtful and productive scholars and global citizens. Focusing on the whole student experience is not about treating students as consumers, but about developing people who are ready to act in the world.

Dr. Finn defines education as “formal learning and training through interactions with experts in a subject area, otherwise known as a faculty member.” If this narrow definition were to hold, certainly there are many online options that enable this type of education. Students might not even need our campuses then, especially at the undergraduate level. Yet few of us would trade our years on campus for isolated learning in front of a screen.

An alternative view is that education is a process – or an experience – involving not only faculty but also peers, staff, community members, alumni and employers. The student learning environment has evolved in progressive and exciting ways, where curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular programs are complementary, and where experiential learning, defined broadly, has become increasingly important to student development and success. The work of faculty remains the most important part of this experience, but it is not, nor should it be, solely their responsibility to deliver on our educational mandate. Immersing students in the world, guiding them, supporting them and teaching them, requires the work and expertise of many, both faculty and non-faculty.

Dr. Finn expresses concern that support for students may be counterproductive. He argues that part of the dramatic rise in demand for mental health services on campuses can be attributed to the unnecessary priming of incoming students for the stresses they are likely to encounter. In my experience working closely with student mental health professionals, this is not what we are seeing. There are many more important factors to consider. Stigma reduction, advances in diagnoses, better support for students in K-12, an overburdened health care system, and family, financial, academic and societal pressures, all play a part in the escalating demand for mental health services on our campuses.

Dr. Finn also points to the pursuit of CV-building, extra-curricular activities as a source of unnecessary stress. While I agree that some students put too much on their plates, these opportunities are essential to social cohesion and to student development. We don’t need fewer of these opportunities, but rather an ability to better coach students on what and how many of these opportunities they choose to pursue.

Finally, Dr. Finn acknowledges that “at its best, the experience industry provides students with the support necessary to complete their education.” At its worst, he states, it’s about removing “obstacles that make students unhappy.”

I see things differently. At its best, a holistic educational experience offers students no less than first-rate professional development, personal transformation, lifelong friendships, and a better understanding of themselves and the world. In my view, these are the things that are lasting, meaningful and important.

And at its most challenging, I see both faculty and non-faculty working together at the intersection of complex, sensitive issues involving academic integrity, human rights, freedom of speech, mental health, and rising government and societal expectations. The questions are not focused on degrees of student “happiness,” but rather about the well-being of individual students and the student community.

We have one of the best publicly funded PSE systems in the world, and our focus on the whole student and the entirety of their experience is one of the reasons. We should continue to nurture and celebrate that.

Sean Van Koughnett is the associate vice-president, students and learning, and dean of students at McMaster University, and is the incoming chair of the Ontario Committee on Student Affairs.

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