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In my opinion

Rebalancing the academy: teaching and research at Canadian universities

Canadian universities are in danger of falling out of balance.


This article is a reproduction of a piece written for the AUCC University Commons blog.

Many of this country’s academic institutions – squeezed between the rock of mandated affordability and the hard place of constrained support from the public purse – are facing significant financial challenges. As a result, the foundational core mission of a university – teaching – may be getting lost in the shuffle.

Operating budget shortfalls have prompted campus discussions about the roles of teaching and research and the relative resources devoted to each at the expense of the other. There can be little doubt that less time will be devoted to teaching when the quality of an institution is measured by the total research dollars coming in, and faculty are evaluated largely based on the volume – we are not as yet very good at measuring quality – of their publications.

Some of us in the academy have lost sight of the fundamental reason our institutions were initially created: to teach students. This is the main reason why provincial governments fund us; that is what students and their families pay for.

So what can be done to ensure we provide quality education to more students, while maintaining research excellence and maximizing our impact on scientific, economic and social innovation?

First, we need to work to eliminate or reduce other time-thieving obligations that must fit in to a professor’s day.

Measures could include:

  • Eliminating unnecessary or redundant committees and bureaucratic exercises that have long since lost any value they once provided
  • Rethinking standard classroom contact hours to focus on the quality of instructional time a student gets, rather than its quantity
  • Placing many administrative tasks in the expert hands of non-academic staff
  • Focusing our curricula on carefully designed outcomes rather than on inputs and processes

Second, we need policies and actions – and, yes, reward systems – that reflect the ideal of achieving an equal emphasis on teaching and research. At Queen’s, for example, we have inaugurated a summer research fellowship program for undergraduates, and our annual Inquiry@Queen’s conference suggests new directions in teaching that can better integrate the excitement of discovery into the classroom. Our ongoing academic planning process will be built on the premise that research and teaching are values to be held in balance.

Third, we need to take a hard look at the ways we teach. We live in a 24/7 wired world; our students can do a lot more, with guidance, on their own – precisely the way they will be required to operate in the work force. We need to reexamine the model of dispensing knowledge in three-hour blocks, evenly dispersed through a 12 or 13-week term.

Canada’s future depends to a great extent on the scholarship and discovery that our academics generate, frequently working with industry, while commercializing inventions or translating knowledge into practice and public policy. But the pipeline for inventors and innovators, and for the much larger pool of educated citizens who work outside academe, does not begin at the academic presses, the granting councils or the research parks. It begins in the classroom.

It is time to acknowledge the effects of a persistent squeeze on resources and reassess the balance between teaching and research. We must take measures to recalibrate the mission and function of our institutions in the best interest of our students. They are our primary stakeholders, and our most important legacy.

Daniel Woolf is principal and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University and a professor in its department of history.

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  1. Paul Allen / August 31, 2011 at 17:38

    There are some good ideas here, but I fear it’s too timid and the power required to redress the balance is too cowed in Canada’s universities.

    Too many faculty members (and almost all administrators) are beholden to the grant system and its false promise of fame (and travel) to be bothered with undergraduates. Many faculty strut around as if they are paid civil servants of gov’t granting agencies, the authority of which is held in higher esteem than deans, presidents and public intellectuals in their own field. More knowledge about less and less, etc. In fact, many faculty connive their very best to gain course exemptions so that grant research gets done or the next application, or both.

    It is a tough sitaution we’re in, and as soon as a provincial gov’t realizes that it can get a vocational college to do some of the teaching currently being done in universities for one quarter the cost, they will cut funding and then, watch the river of tears flow.

    So, more than a re-balancing is in order. We need to look at what “quality instructional time” really means in a university. It involves wisdom and character formation for instance, aspects of great teaching that universities are leaving behind with the teaching vocation itself.

    Here is an article with a sense of what that means:

  2. Zarko / September 4, 2011 at 12:38

    Take another look at the amount of teaching being done by overworked and underpaid part-time instructors (in some cases between 50- 70% of all undergraduate teaching). The heavy reliance on part-time teaching must be included in this discussion. Keep in mind that, among many part-timers, there is a great deal of potential research talent but very few to no opportunities for said part-timers to get in on the granting level. In fact, most contracts do not include any research component, and part-timers are generally so invisible that even when they do publish, it is far too commonly ignored by their full time colleagues.

    The possible solution to the problem is in focusing on improving the security and research possibilities of part-time labour. In many new budgetary models for departments, funding is tied directly to “bums-in-seats.” While tenured and probationary faculty are given the opportunity to decrease their teaching load to pursue research, the teaching duties fall to those with less job security than a manager at a McDonald’s (and paid nearly the same).

    Canada’s university system will very much depend on answering existing labour issues, and this will require a great deal of willingness on the part of management and tenured faculty to conjure solutions that will embrace the research capacities of our part-time instructors.

  3. Shoba Zachariah / September 9, 2011 at 16:59

    The resurgence of the importance of teaching and the urgent need for balancing research and teaching has been bitterly discussed in other countries especially the United Kingdom. When we consider the fact that the quality and value added by a large percentage of academic research is doubtful, then it is easy to see the writing on the wall. Governments will not be able to carry on funding while communities require faculty who can really connect with large numbers of students. What I feel is key is their ability to get students to think critically through innovative teaching and assessment strategies. Unfortunately academics are often so rigid that only externally imposed changes have any effect.

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