Canada’s universities: The new Pier 21

September 22, 2011

As Canadian Universities seek to re-vitalize themselves for the next 100 years, we must re-focus on the centrality and importance of the undergraduate experience.

AUCC held its March workshop on the undergraduate experience at Pier 21 in Halifax, which offered a great framing metaphor. Roberta Jamieson, CEO of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, characterized this venue as the personification of the Canadian promise. Universities have been – and should continue to be – Pier 21s for Canadians.

The Grote Bier docked at Pier 21 in 1953 after a journey from Rotterdam. A Dutch family entered Canada with armfuls of blonde children. Neither parent had a university education. Nonetheless all seven of their children went to university. I was fortunate to marry one of them, who did a doctorate, wrote ten books, won a teaching award and a Governor General’s Prize, and entered the Royal Society. For the Verduyns, Pier 21 and Canadian universities provided a gateway to opportunity.

Like Pier 21, Canadian universities personify promise. Their graduates make enormous social contributions while generating few burdens. They add more to society than they take out of it, while strengthening Canada and its communities.

Canadian universities are connected to Canadian communities in aspirational, experiential, and consequential ways. This relationship rests on the quality of the undergraduate student experience.

Why does this need stating? The recent experiences of many university presidents have been fraught with frustration. Here is the context: massive enrolment pressures; cyclical waxing and waning of government support; revenues that have not kept pace with costs; deferred maintenance; and so on. As an administrator, I have mainly managed crises, juggled loaves and fishes, raised funds, and learned alchemy.

To be honest, I have assisted universities’ re-engineering to contain unit costs and to expand the research and graduate agendas. Governments’ PSE expectations focus on productivity, innovation, commercialization – offering financial incentives for universities to embrace this agenda. Universities, in turn, have adopted a narrow focus on policy and financial issues to maximize revenues from research and related areas. This ‘cherry picked’ the university promise and experience at the output end of the university funnel – at grad studies, R&D, big science – to the neglect of the upstream entrance of the funnel that feeds the high-end outputs.

In doing so, we lost sight of the broader promise of our universities – particularly the undergraduate experience. We also lost connection with our broader communities.

The irony is that the quality of staff, infrastructure, and programming has improved. But the character of the undergraduate experience has deteriorated. This experience can and should be better. The overall size of many universities has become problematic, as has class size. There is increasing use of contract teaching and less personal interaction. There is too much emphasis on testing and not enough on writing and talking.

This reflects both financial necessities and internal institutional choices, where the resources assigned to undergraduate education became the dependent budget variable. The ‘high-end’ envelopes are often cross-subsidized by the undergraduate envelope. Addressing the problem is complicated by the fact that many in our community may not actually see a problem.

We have to find a way to get equilibrium amongst a number of agendas to improve the undergraduate experience. We must also get parents and families on our side – their tolerance of the situation is surprising.

At the mouth of the funnel, we should emphasize access by re-connecting to our communities. We should increase accessibility for new Canadians, rural and small town areas, aboriginals, boys, and first-generation attendees – working with high schools to ensure skills/aspirational connectedness.

Within the funnel, we should maintain a quality experience by ensuring the core ingredients of quality, and fire-walling it through a financial sustainability model. We should not be afraid to differentiate ourselves.

At the funnel’s output, we should demonstrate community and social results, providing students with stepping stones for next steps, whether grad or professional schools, community engagement, employability, or research/knowledge – tracking, measuring, evaluating, and communicating this to our publics.

This is our story: we recruit, teach, and train young talent; we produce knowledge; we create opportunities and benefit the community; we are the site for major public discussions. This all starts with quality undergraduate education. We need to commit to this, do it, and tell it.