Are our Universities Broken?

A controversial article in the Globe and Mail on Universities  provides some perspective and insights on some of the challenges at academic institutions, particularly undergraduate programs. Most students take courses from “itinerant graduate students”, large classes especially in first and second years are not supportive of learning, and use of multiple-choice tests instead of essay questions is the trend in universities.

The dropout rate at universities in Canada is at an all-time high (56 per cent finish their degrees within six years)”. Universities are rewarded for getting bums in seats, not for educating and graduating them. Educating undergraduates is just about the last thing most professors want to do. They’d rather not have the students around, because they’d rather do research.

The author also points out that universities are unaccountable for results, if, by results, we mean successfully educating students. In the reward system of universities, its research, not teaching, that matters. Professors are rewarded not for turning out high-quality graduates, but for turning out books and papers – even if they are unread. This perverse system stubbornly persists; despite the fact that everyone knows it’s absurd. Some research, especially in the sciences and medicine, matters a great deal to the advancement of society. But a vast amount of it does not.”

Richard Vedder, a leading U.S. critic, has argued that the higher education system has pawned off the responsibility of educating students “in favour of pursuing a whole lot of self-interested research (which the majority of undergraduates are not involved in) that for the most part, doesn’t matter.”  He argues that we should spend less time worrying about university access for all, and more time on the “scandal” of the billions we waste on unsuccessful efforts to educate students who fail to graduate. “The focus of higher education reform should be on increasing the quality of our college graduates,” he writes. And that will never happen until students count for more than articles in unread quarterlies.

Continuing on with a series of articles in the Globe  the author suggests that we’ve been told that higher education is the key to prosperity in the post-industrial age. Our policymakers and politicians insist that expanding access to higher education is crucial to our economic fortunes. The trouble is this will only work if higher education actually succeeds in turning most students into better reasoners and thinkers. It does not.

Academically Adrift, a book that is today’s must-read in higher education circles found that a large number of students learn little or nothing in university. More than a third shows no improvement in their skills at all. The authors found that universities are full of “drifting dreamers,” with high ambitions, but no clear life plan for reaching them. For these students, university is primarily a social experience, not an academic one. (The research included only American universities but there is no reason to suspect the situation is any different in Canada.)

What does the research tell us according to the authors? They’re not hitting the books. On average, students spend only 12 hours a week studying, and are academically engaged for no more than 30 hours a week. Thirty-seven per cent spend less than five hours a week studying. Many academic programs are not particularly rigorous or demanding. Less than half the senior-year students surveyed had been required to complete more than 20 pages of writing for any course in the previous semester. Even so, graduation rates are stagnant or decreasing. Only 34% of American students finish a BA in four years, and only 64% in six years.

A lot of students are very good at strategic management of work requirements — that is, getting a degree with as little work as possible. On many campuses, students and professors have what the authors call “disengagement compact” – a mutual understanding that “I’ll leave you alone if you leave be alone.” The reasons aren’t hard to find. Because students are considered customers or clients, client satisfaction is tremendously important. Also, most professors would rather not teach. On average, faculty spend only 11 hours a week on preparing and delivering classroom instruction and advising students.

It’s a good thing that universities aren’t car companies. If they were, they’d be out of business. As higher- education critic Richard Vedder puts it, “We are sending too many kids to school to learn too little to get jobs for which often the little that they do learn is not even necessary.”

Why do we keep forking over billions to institutions that don’t deliver what they promise to so many of the people they are supposed to serve?

Our universities admit too many people, not too few. According to Ken Coates, dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo, and Bill Morrison, a retired history professor from the University of Northern British Columbia, they’re full of people who probably shouldn’t be there. Their new book, Campus Confidential,  is a bracing reality check that should be essential reading for would-be university students, their parents and anyone who thinks higher education holds all the answers.

The authors state that Canada already has one of the highest postsecondary participation rates in the world. Nearly half of all high-school graduates go to college or university. Tuition rates – especially for affluent families – are a bargain. Virtually anyone who wants to can get in somewhere. But many students aren’t sure why they’re there. “Canada’s national conceit is that all students who want to go to university should have the chance.  Other countries are not so egalitarian. They limit access to publicly funded universities to students who’ve demonstrated aptitude and motivation. The dirty secret of our system is that a dismally large portion of students you see on campus will fail to graduate.

The vast expansion of higher education hasn’t smartened up people. Instead, it’s dumbed down the standards. As most employers will attest, a BA degree no longer certifies that the holder will be able to read, write or communicate. And many (if not most) undergraduates are not interested in the material they’re studying. “The widespread perception is that fewer and fewer of them are participating beyond the bare minimum required for a degree,” the authors write.

Meantime, the return on investment for a general undergraduate degree has fallen sharply. What Canada really needs are people with trade and technical skills. There’s enormous demand for medical professionals, certain engineers, IT technicians, millwrights, plumbers and electricians – but not so much for BAs in sociology. Our graduates are mismatched to the job market.

On top of that, today’s university graduates aren’t just competing against each other – they’re competing against graduates from around the world who can handle our knowledge jobs at lower cost. Higher education by itself can’t solve Canada’s competitiveness problems. For that, we’re going to need a lot more smarts about what higher education can and should deliver.

About jimmintz

Managing Partner, CEPSM Jim Mintz is a veteran marketing professional with many years of experience as a practioner and academic. He is presently Managing Partner at CEPSM and Program Director of the “Professional Certificate in Public Sector and Non-Profit Marketing” at Sprott School ... Specialty Areas: Social Marketing, Integrated Marketing Communications, Public Sector and Non Profit Marketing
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One Comment

  1. Jennifer 05-07-2011

    Tell you what; there are many, many college students who simply aren’t going anywhere because they have NO ability to communicate, verbally, with other human beings…so right there…they’re finished!

    Sound the Buzzer: Aaaaaahhhhhhhnnnn! Thanks for playing, please sit down…

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