Monday, October 24, 2011

Fixing undergraduate education

Here's Jeffrey Simpson's column this past Friday -- his latest in a series (1, 2) taking universities to task over undergraduate education. (The Globe seems to be on a tear lately about our "unsustainable" universities.)

I seem to live in a different world than Simpson's hard-luck undergrads: in my program, classes are small and are (almost) all taught by full-time, tenure-track faculty. The small classes probably come from the newness of our program -- we're expecting to ramp up enrollments over the next decade. But the use of full-time faculty in teaching is more or less universal at Canadian engineering schools. Why is that? It's partly because engineers with PhDs can get lucrative jobs, so perma-adjuncting is not very attractive. But it's also because you need a license to teach engineering in Canada -- licenses are tough to get, and until very recently you couldn't get one if teaching was your only work experience.

So here's something the provincial government could do, which would cost very little up front: require teachers at public universities to be licensed, much as public school teachers are. As a condition of the license, the province could require a course or two on teaching at the postsecondary level (something very few professors have ever received -- right now it's a learn-on-the-job kind of situation). The province could also distinguish between "adjunct" licenses and "tenure-track" licenses, and require at least some minimum fraction of education hours be given by tenure-track license holders.

This kind of solution strikes me as much easier to implement than trying to strong-arm universities into opening up collective agreements with faculty, as Simpson seems to want. It wouldn't do much about class sizes, but that is more of a monetary issue.

Of course, I disagree fundamentally with Simpson's view of the university -- particularly his disregard for research and graduate education -- but that's a topic for a different post.

No comments: