Rebalancing the Academy: teaching and research at Canadian universities

August 29, 2011

Canadian universities are in danger of falling out of balance.

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.

38 Comments on Rebalancing the Academy: teaching and research at Canadian universities

  1. Shoba Zachariah says:

    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. No Government can carry on funding for outcomes that provide limited value. On the other hand, communities require faculty who can really connect with larger numbers of students and get them to think critically through innovative teaching and assessment strategies. Unfortunately the academia are often so rigid that only externally imposed changes have any effect.

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