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Margin Notes

AUCC workshop puts the spotlight on undergraduate education

The current situation is not a “crisis,” but also not sustainable.


Last week (March 6-8) in Halifax, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada held a really quite remarkable workshop – more of a summit – on transforming undergraduate education in Canada. The level of engagement shown by those in attendance, and their unflagging enthusiasm and diligence in addressing incredibly complex issues, was very encouraging.

Sixty-five participants attended, including 13 university presidents, more than 25 vice-presidents (academic) and other senior administrators, and 15 student representatives. Twenty-two institutions were represented, running the gamut from smaller, primarily undergraduate universities to several of our large research-intensive institutions.

Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University, set the tone in an address during the opening dinner. The “promise” of universities, he said, both to society and to individuals, rests on “the quality and effectiveness of the undergraduate student experience.” Yet, the pre-eminence of undergraduate education, its centrality to the institution, has been neglected over the last decade, he said.

In the roundtable discussions and presentations that followed over the next two days, many participants identified an excessive focus on research and graduate education as the culprit, but others noted a whole host of compounding factors, including faculty workload, the rewards structure, enrolment pressures, and funding and revenues that have not kept pace with costs. Participants also discussed and deliberated over what outcomes one should aim for in an undergraduate education and how to assess them, and the perceived barriers to change.

The participation by the students was particularly heartening. Their voices are not always included in these sorts of discussions, and they clearly appreciated taking part and offering their views. Several felt that student groups can be a sort of neutral party (between the faculty and administration) and at least a few seemed particularly interested to play a more active role in curriculum and course design.

Is the present situation a crisis? Most of the interveners didn’t think so, but there was a strong consensus that the current situation is not sustainable and that the system must change, or else Canada’s universities “risk eroding our brand,” as Mount Royal University President David Marshall expressed it.

Paradoxically, several participants noted that there seems to be little perception by the public that there’s a problem, and that students and their families generally continue to express high satisfaction with the education received. This, participants agreed, has helped to feed a certain inertia to change.

So what comes next? Ray Ivany, president of Acadia University, caught the mood by saying at the end, “You could declare the last several days a success on a number of dimensions, simply by drawing the university community together around this theme at this time and the robust discussion we had.” But, he added, “I don’t think it’s enough.”

Paul Davidson, president of AUCC, encouraged participants “in your own roles at your own institutions, to think about how change can occur.” He also noted that the association is in the process of crafting a “new narrative,” or new agenda, for the next decade and the results of the undergrad workshop will feed into that. The issues will also be discussed at the association’s membership meeting in April “to keep them moving forward.”

One point that was made by some at the workshop is that we need to recognize that there is much innovation in teaching and learning happening at our universities. I think it would be helpful to create a compendium, or inventory, of best practices and innovative new approaches and models to course design and delivery. We can then see if these could be scaled up institutionally or system-wide.

And, of course, we need to continue the dialogue – and you can be a part of that. Let us know your thoughts and reflections on this tricky issue.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / March 14, 2011 at 13:05

    Very interesting. Was there any discussion of trends in employment in universities? It seems to me that we should at least be discussing the impact on undergraduate education of large numbers of sessional and adjunct teachers in many of our universities. Is this one of the symptoms of the neglect of undergraduate education over the past several years?

  2. lcharbonneau / March 14, 2011 at 13:18

    Hello Jo. The use of sessional and adjunct teachers did come up — indeed, a sessional lecturer was invited to participate in one of the workshop sessions, and the story she told was not pretty. So yes, I think it’s fair to say that it was acknowledged as being part of the problem.

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