Opinions

Editorial: The need for balance

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The role of a university in society is debatable.

Its two main functions--research and teaching--indisputably play a vital role in society. That said, one function cannot be sacrificed for the other. It has been shown that those with a university degree are more likely to stay above the poverty line, vote more often and overall be more aware citizens. However, academic research lends important contributions by adding to a society's knowledge base, which provides a basis of inquiry for advancing further research.

However, research can be said to only impact the wealthy. If you look at diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, research has provided us with simple cures. However, these are largely unavailable to not only members of the developing world, but also those below the poverty line in the developed world.

Although an emphasis on research may add prestige to an institution's name, prestige does not necessarily make one university better than another. In order to create a healthy institution which benefits the majority, it is essential that we strike a balance between the two.

While many would feel more comfortable thinking of a university as a social institution always emphasizing the good of the majority, this is not necessarily the case. The University of Calgary's president Dr. Harvey Weingarten has explicitly stated that the university is a big business, noting over $900 million flows through the institution annually. If we are to accept this claim, then we must also ask who the customers of this business are. Although provincial taxpayers heavily fund the university, students should be the direct beneficiaries of this institution. The university has an obligation to their customers to operate in a way that best suits their needs.

The majority of students do not personally benefit from an emphasis on research, but instead, the quality of their education is directly determined by the quality of teaching they receive. Students are paying tuition to learn and when the university places precedent on research, it fails in providing students with adequate opportunity to learn.

The provincial government attempted to classify the Roles and Mandates of the U of C as a "comprehensive research institute." However, after consultation, key stakeholders decided to change the title to "comprehensive research and academic institution." This title recognizes the balance between the two priorities and it must be lived up to in practice, not just in name.

The university's increasing focus on research is becoming more and more evident, however, notably through its blatant refusal to value the importance of session instructors who do not put emphasis on research.

For example, here at the U of C, an instructor who has won teaching excellence awards four out of the last six years has not been offered a tenured position and although he is at the top of the sessional pay scale, that means just under $26,000 a year. Paying instructors as little as many retail jobs devalues the time, effort and cost of achieving a PhD.

Sessionals do not contribute heavily to research, but their dedication to improving the student experience must be rewarded. When a university does not go out of their way to retain an instructor who students have repeatedly recognized as excellent shows not only a lack of respect for passionate instructors, but also a lack of respect for the paying customers of this institution.

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The authors write: "Dr. Harvey Weingarten has explicitly stated that the university is a big business... The university has an obligation to their customers to operate in a way that best suits their needs."

As a business, the university has a superior obligation to its shareholders--the public in various forms including taxpayers, granting agencies, some private enterprise--to deliver the highest possible return on investment. An emotionally detached analysis shows that undergraduate degrees for students need not be the university's primary output as a "comprehensive research and academic institution".

With such a mandate to do everything (the meaning of "comprehensive"), the university could legitimately focus on finding funding for a particle research institute and a Chaucer program (which we don't have, yet), while simultaneously reducing the number of seats in the undergraduate philosophy and ecology programs to 10 each per year, since in both cases the university's actions would bring it closer to meeting the sufficient condition of being "comprehensive" in scope.

The role of a university in society is debatable, but not in the way that the authors behind the tone of this article would like in the context of Calgary. The University of Calgary should be charged with research and teaching responsibilities, but as only one in a system of a dozen post-secondary institutions operating in Calgary, and as only one in a system of several dozen operating in Alberta.

A healthy university (as measured by our current, flawed, throughput proxies) which benefits the majority is not necessarily one which neglects its core competencies to focus on things it could do better. The U of C does not have a particle physics or Chaucer institute because those functions are performed much more competently elsewhere within the global university system. The U of C does not (explicitly) teach plumbing or divinity because those functions are performed much more efficiently at other institutions in Calgary. Similarly, SAIT does not train doctors.

Using throughput of either research or students as our measure, it is not a reasonable proposition to ask the U of C to invest limited resources in undergraduate teaching, at which it admittedly is not the best and for which there are several other better local vendors, when the institution can focus its investment on developing and furthering its lead in areas where it has clear competitive advantages.

Moving a non-research sessional instructor within the university system from the U of C to a less research-oriented institution such as StMC or MRC would not reduce his or her throughput of students taught, but would put the instructor in an environment which supports and values their teaching skills more highly than does the U of C. This arrangement would provide a larger net benefit to all parties, including society, for many arbitrary measures of return or benefits beyond those considered in the original article.

Considering a more cosmopolitan and more objective view, taxpayer dollars for post-secondary education are best spent where they could be the most efficiently spent. The quality of education provided to Albertans is not diminished if the same quality of instruction is provided using different management or physical infrastructure.

The consumer mentality, although it can sometimes empower students to speak up to administrators, often gets in the way of the educational relationship between teachers and students.

It takes hard work to learn. Customers don't work hard. The hardest work customers do is to earn money and then shop around. But ultimately when it comes to the market transaction, they are consumers. They receive a product. However, effective learning is not so passive.

Students are so busy "getting an education" and working to pay for it that they have little to no TIME TO LEARN nowadays. Now how does that help a student get the most out of their tuition dollar?

Education is a two-way street. You need to make room for it in your life if you want to benefit from it. Teachers will easily get discouraged when they work hard to structure learning for students who cannot and will not engage by doing the readings and participating during class.

Students need to be aware that each course demands 1-1.5 hours of study outside of the class for every hour of class time. It's a 40 hour study week to take 5 courses. Add a part time job to that, and you will have no time for social life. It's no wonder students are taking longer to graduate-- it is inhumane to work and study more than 60 hours a week, but many students are doing this, at the cost of true learning.