Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/12/2016 (229 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
With the cessation of the recent labour action by the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, it is an opportune time to reflect on why the strike occurred.
It is tempting to see this issue in classic Marxist terms, where the workers (faculty with salaries ranging from $75,000 to $140,000 per year) defend their rights against administrators who have been captured by a corporate agenda. Equally, one can view it as an administration holding the line, in the face of revenue constraint and enrolment increases, while confronted by a faculty that seeks undue control.
Some truth exists in both views, but not a lot. More profound are two disruptions that have fundamentally changed the nature of post-secondary education in Canada: technology and globalization.
My favourite definition of a university lecture is that it is "the magical process whereby the notes of the instructor transfer to the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either."
When I started teaching university 43 years ago, lectures consisted of verbal presentations, typically augmented by a chalkboard. Most baby boomers who attended university can recall the most effective lecturers as those who could be entertaining and informative and, most importantly, could present in a way that allowed the students to take good notes. Attending lectures was necessary to get a good grade.
In the last four decades, we have witnessed a revolution in learning. The most important change is that students have lost their memory. We now confront the iPad factor. Who needs to remember anything when a smartphone and Dr. Google are the sources of all knowledge? I am as guilty as anyone when, as I am dining with friends, I reach for my phone to discover who starred in the original Ben-Hur. The externalization of memory matches the explosion of facts and knowledge.
Top Hat, an educational software company, recently surveyed 22,000 university teachers. One of its striking findings was that most had experienced exponentially growing expectations from students to create a multimedia approach to delivering learning. Modern students are accustomed to accessing knowledge from social media and the web. They expect their university learning to reflect the same production values as Facebook, with interactivity and instant response. With everything online, lectures become optional.
Now, here is the problem. Graduate school, the qualifying process to become a university teacher, does not include training in multimedia. Yet that is the way knowledge is currently delivered. Faculty are caught in a very difficult bind. To acquire the multimedia skills that students have come to expect requires a massive investment of time.
This is a risky prospect for many, since it jeopardizes their research programs, and every faculty member knows publications and grant funding are the sure paths to promotion.
Universities are trying to invest in learning technologies, but the pace of innovation is extraordinary. Consider remote proctoring, the process of examining students online using secure authentication technologies that forestall cheating. Once dynamic multimedia takes over lectures and secure examination occurs online, will we need classrooms? How many "live" teachers will we need? I gave a brilliant lecture on marginal cost pricing in 1979; if I had that lecture on video, I would not need to constantly redo it.
The second disruption is globalization. In 2000, the University of Manitoba had 693 international students out of a total enrolment of 21,083, meaning they constituted three per cent of the whole. By 2014, this had climbed to 15 per cent (4,464 out of 29,657). Approximately one in five first-year admissions is now an international student, compared with one in 20, 15 years ago. The acceleration in enrolments from China and Africa really started in the last five years, coincident with the emergence of a well-off middle class in the so-called "Third World." While I am using University of Manitoba data, I am certain this is a North American trend. At the current rate, in a decade if not sooner, the University of Manitoba could admit more international students than students from Manitoba.
The reasons are simple to understand. With English now dominating the worlds of science and commerce, many international students arrive seeking to acquire an undergraduate degree in North America to demonstrate their linguistic capabilities. However, the reality of their competency often fails to match the receipt of a degree. Although they are supposedly screened for language competency on entry, many international students graduating from a three-year degree in arts cannot compose simple sentences in English. I have the emails to prove it.
International students at the graduate level are equal to students who enter from North America. The screening is much more rigorous. But increasingly, the early undergraduate years are becoming remedial high school education. This influx of poorly qualified students has transformed undergraduate education. A separate division has even been created at the University of Manitoba to help incoming international students acquire competency in English and other academics before proceeding to standard university courses.
Why do universities accept this situation? The reason is simple. International students are not subject to the tuition-fee freeze. A Canadian student taking a five-course year in the faculty of arts might pay $3,500 in tuition. An international student pays five times as much. This creates a powerful incentive for the administration to accept under-qualified international students. They are cash cows. Again, this is a North American trend. It is not just confined to Manitoba.
Both the faculty union and the administration are caught in the ’60s. The recent dance (strike) between the two sides demonstrated the mutual disconnect from the realities of modern education. The union wants protection for positions and language to govern workload as well as broader assessment criteria for promotion. To what end? To continue lockstep in traditional teaching?
The administration, for its part, is making investments in new teaching technologies, but these are a pittance compared to its very impressive 30-year plan to transform the campus physically. Much of the current capital campaign will seek funding for new buildings and physical infrastructure.
This bias to the physical is simple to understand. A philanthropist (a.k.a. retired capitalist) is more inclined to offer several millions in exchange for a name on a building than for acknowledgement of sponsorship on a suite of Internet courses. Many could also see such sponsorship as an unwarranted corporate intrusion into academics.
What seems to be lacking is a pedagogical strategy to manage these technological and demographic changes. Creating and funding a 30-year plan to build a beautiful campus is much easier, but much less important. Until such a strategy is created, one endorsed by the entire academic community, we will continue to engage in meaningless and costly labour strife that properly belongs to an earlier era.
Gregory Mason is an associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba and a senior consultant at PRA Inc. His views are his own.