Do universities have a productivity problem, or do they have a quality problem?
If you believe a new report by the government-funded Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, everything in Ontario's universities comes down to productivity. If professors could somehow teach more courses, HEQCO asserts, our institutions could cope with a financial crunch caused by stagnant government funding and rising enrolment.
Productivity – a term more at home in a factory than in education – is about squeezing more outputs from the same pool of resources. This is great if you're making cars or widgets. The concept is less useful in higher education, where students and parents understandably prefer to look at a university degree in more human terms.
The HEQCO report's tunnel-like focus on productivity leads it to make dubious recommendations based on limited and highly selective evidence. The report only examines 10 of Ontario's 20 degree granting institutions. The analysis is confined to three disciplines from the hundreds of academic programs and departments housed by our universities. Their sample of professors represents less than 4 per cent of the full-time faculty in Ontario. Extrapolating from this wafer-thin slice of data to make recommendations about every university and university professor in Ontario isn't just bad research. It's irresponsible.
Worse, HEQCO seems to have no understanding of what university professors actually do. They only look at the number of courses taught in a given year. But professors don't teach courses. They teach students. This happens in classrooms, in laboratories, in the field and in halls between courses. It happens when a professor engages a student in exciting new research. It happens when a professor ignites a passion for learning in a new student, or helps bring a promising PhD dissertation across the finish line.
Professors are also at work in their communities. They work with huge companies and small entrepreneurs to create innovations that grow our economy. They help community groups work for a fairer, more just society. When all the teaching, research, and community service that professors do is reduced to the number of courses they teach, we lose sight of all of the things that make our universities great.
These things are not easily measured, so they disappear completely from HEQCO's analysis. But if they were to disappear from our higher education institutions, we'd be left with a dim shadow of what a university should be.
Ontario's universities don't have a productivity problem. When we focus on productivity, we ask all the wrong questions, and get unhelpfully narrow answers. However, if we focus on quality – that is, the actual education that our students receive – we can begin to have a useful conversation.
A good start is to ask whether universities and university professors have the resources they need to do all of the things that we value – teaching in all its forms, research, and community service. The answer is troubling.
Ontario's universities have the lowest level of per-student funding in Canada. That means our institutions must constantly do more with less. Since the year 2000, the number of students at Ontario universities has increased by over 64 per cent. Over the same period of time, the number of full-time professors has only increased by 30 per cent. That means there are more and more students for every teacher in a classroom or laboratory. Ontario's student-to-faculty ratio is the worst in Canada at 28:1. In 2000, this ratio was only 22:1.
For students, this means fewer opportunities to engage one-on-one with faculty, fewer chances to get involved with research, and less access to mentorship. It also means larger classes. Asking professors to teach more courses doesn't improve this situation. It takes time away from all the ways teaching occurs in the university. The real solution is hiring more professors.
Asking the right questions reveals that, yes, there is a quality problem at Ontario's universities. It's not a crisis, but finding real solutions deserves our best efforts. When we put money into universities, the return on investment is high: Students who succeed in their careers, economic growth, and stronger communities.
Kate Lawson is President of the Ontario Confederation on University Faculty Associations and an Associate Professor of English at the University of Waterloo.