21 November 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Questioning the status quo

The demand for innovation in higher education is widespread and has generated a plethora of books and papers. But too often this discussion ignores the more fundamental question of whether our models for higher education are flawed or at best insufficiently responsive to student needs and societal circumstances.

Implicit in much of this discussion is the view that undergraduate education, and particularly North American undergraduate education, is in crisis and that the modern university is failing in one of its most important responsibilities.

Thirty years ago, Alan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), gloomily wrote that the modern university possesses “no vision … of what an educated human being is”. This was followed some years later by Bill Readings’ aptly titled book, The University in Ruins (1996), in which he talks of the “twilight of the university’s critical and social function”. Finding fault with universities has been with us a long time.

Today, however, there is a new shrillness about this criticism as if we have reached some sort of tipping point around universities as we know them. The books keep on coming: Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift (2011), James Côté and Anton Allahar’s Lowering Higher Education (2011), Glenn Harlan Reynolds’ The Education Apocalypse (2014), and Kevin Carey’s The End of College (2015).

A need to reset the system

We hear repeated claims that universities have failed, and that they are not doing a good job – that students graduate little better than when they arrived, and that we are educating them in disciplines in which there are no jobs and little future.

There are repeated claims that undergraduate education has become entrenched in one way of doing things, and that the broad possibility of new forms of delivery and new credentialling have for the most part fallen on deaf ears.

The massive open online courses or MOOCs, it would seem, have come and gone. We have reached a point, according to Ken Coates and Bill Morrison in the book Dream Factories – Why universities won't solve the youth jobs crisis, where “the global university system needs a reset”.

Underpinning this is a long list of concerns. We continue to struggle with the distinction between a liberal education and a more applied professional and vocationally driven education. We view distance delivery as a challenge to conventional face-to-face teaching. We set traditional classroom study against practical real-world experience.

We agonise over declining standards, that a degree stands for very little and that a degree itself is not necessarily the credential for the future. Teaching is viewed in opposition to research, and we are criticised for not caring about our students. We wring our hands about grade inflation and student disengagement. We worry that, in a world of social media, university education has become disconnected from the experience of our students.

A different kind of undergraduate university

In response to many of these issues, a ‘new’ kind of university has developed in the western Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

With an emphasis on teaching, these new institutions aspire to take the best of traditional community colleges and incorporate them into the context of a different kind of undergraduate university that allows for new forms of credentialling, new and creative academic pathways and an academic flexibility that is responsive to student interest and need.

Students can start a diploma and finish with a degree; or they can pursue a degree and leave early with a diploma.

Such laddering represents a striking departure from established norms and opens the doors for new academic possibilities, allowing, as they do, flexibility between college credentials and university degrees, embracing the best of both. More to the point, this laddering effectively responds to how many students pursue education. Students typically take longer, many are working and do not take a full course load; many want the practical learning of a college credential but the academic legitimacy of the degree.

At the same time, these institutions, while being singularly successful in attracting students, have confronted a series of challenges through not conforming to established models of a university. These challenges include status and acceptance in the context of entrenched attitudes that traditionally define a university. Simply put, colleges offer diplomas and universities offer degrees.

Integrating faculty, college and university alike, can be challenging, as often, especially for legacy college faculty, they do not share the same values as new hires who bring very traditional notions of what universities are about.

Only time will tell whether the single-minded commitment to teaching, and only a secondary recognition of research and creative activity, will be sustainable, not only in attracting faculty but also in retaining them. Will the pressure for graduate studies and reduced teaching loads become inevitable as time passes?

Focus on flexibility

It is too early to say. But increasing enrolments would suggest that students are finding the new universities an attractive option. They like being able to earn a diploma in massage therapy and then later complete a degree in health administration without losing credit, or complete a diploma in library and information technology and then earn a traditional bachelor of arts, again without academic penalty.

They like the idea of a teaching-focused institution. In the case of my own university, it has become the largest transfer-in institution in the province, exceeding even the two large research-intensive universities.

Significant effort has been made to ensure that traditional college programmes and university degree programmes have the same degree of rigour. That has gone a long way to cementing faculty relationships and ensuring the academic reputation of the institution and has assured students that they are getting full value for their tuition. The same can be said for common standards for tenure and promotion, which did not, of course, exist in college days.

Innovation is important in higher education, and in this regard, it is perhaps not so much about individual programmes or opportunities, but about the constant need to re-examine our basic structures which have over time become too rigid and which themselves determine how innovation is implemented when it should be the other way around. Perhaps we need more thinking along this line.

Professor David Atkinson is International Association of University Presidents’ regional chair, Canada, and president of Grant MacEwan University, Canada. He is speaking at the IAUP Triennial conference in Vienna, Austria, from 5-8 July.
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