A wake-up call for the University of Alberta
Dr. Paul Boothe
professor and director of the Institute for Public Economics
Recently the Globe and Mail told us some shocking news: our students think the U of A provides a rotten undergraduate education. Indeed, we are ranked as one of Canada's 10 worst universities in terms of the quality of undergraduate teaching.
Predictably, our first reaction is to deny that we are doing a poor job for undergraduates. We point to our own surveys showing how much students love the U of A. Next we try to shift the blame to the government for not giving us a bigger budget. We look everywhere for excuses - except in the mirror.
The reflection in the mirror would tell us that the quality of undergraduate education is not a priority at the U of A. In fact, we don't even bother to measure quality. We don't track the resources we devote to undergraduate teaching compared to research, administration, or capital. We don't have a budget process that allows us to examine the trade-offs between undergraduate teaching and other university activities. We don't have a plan that takes concrete action to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching.
Our failure to provide a good undergraduate education is not because we are short of good faculty dedicated to the task. And it's not only because declines in government funding were not fully offset by increases in tuition, although that is certainly part of the story. The most important reasons lie in the choices we have made as an institution.
We've been able to continue to grow even as the quality of our product slipped because it's hard for our customers to measure the decline in quality if we want to ignore it. But just like General Motors, the word on quality eventually gets around. Higher quality competitors are beginning to attract our best students. It's no accident that a number of universities in the highly competitive Ontario market outranked us in the Globe survey.
A quality undergraduate has three elements: good teachers, good teaching conditions, and high academic standards. We know we have a number of good teachers because of the awards they win. But a good undergraduate education is about average quality, not just a few classroom stars. In our single-minded drive to measure success by the amount of outside money we attract, we are willing to accept grants that distort our priorities and bring with them costs that far exceed the new financial resources. When money gets tight, it's always undergraduate teaching that gets sacrificed - because students don't complain when teaching conditions deteriorate and classes get bigger. To keep students flowing through the system, academic standards gradually decline.
Our neighbours are asking themselves: if they should pay $5,000 for a poor education at home or double the cost to send their children away for a quality education. As a parent as well as a faculty member at the U of A, I am beginning to wonder myself.
Of course, the U of A is a diverse institution and some faculties, the School of Business is a good example, have kept quality undergraduate education as a priority. The Business School monitors quality on an ongoing basis using surveys administered by the Population Research Lab. But, the overall numbers reported in the Globe tell us that, on average, our students think quality is a problem at the U of A.
We can wring our hands and point fingers at the government or our students for not giving us more money or we can take action ourselves. What do we need to do? In my view, there are five steps to improving the quality of our undergraduate education.
First, we need to measure and report on quality annually. The saying in business is "what gets measured gets done." If we don't measure quality, others will. Until we confront the reality of declining quality in undergraduate education and come clean with our students and all Albertans, no progress will be made.
Second, we must establish quality as one of our top priorities. This priority setting has real consequences. For example, we must tell the government that we won't grow if it means quality will be compromised. We won't accept research money if teaching quality will be compromised. Indeed, if we need to shrink or forego research funding in order to improve quality, so be it.
Third, we need to change the way we allocate and account for resources so that we can measure what is allocated to undergraduate education, and whether that allocation of resources is effective in improving quality.
Fourth, we should get administrators out of the boardroom and into the classroom. Successful managers say they do it "by walking around" i.e. by having first hand knowledge of the business. Only by having regular contact with the students and experiencing actual teaching conditions will the senior academic administrators understand the nature of the quality problem and possible solutions.
Fifth, it is essential that we communicate a new commitment to quality to students, the public, and the government. We should tell them clearly what we are going to do to return to a quality undergraduate education, how long it will take, and how they will be affected.
What it really comes down to is holding ourselves accountable for quality. That means everyone from individual instructors to deans and presidents. We need to examine the impact of every decision we make on the quality of our undergraduate education. Undergraduate teaching is more than rhetoric and glossy ad campaigns. It's our future as an institution - and our future is on the line.
(Paul Boothe is a professor and director of the Institute for Public Economics at the University of Alberta and EnCana Scholar in Public Policy with the CD Howe Institute)