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Doug Owram is deputy
chancellor and principal of
UBC Okanagan. He is also
a Canadian historian and
member of the Royal Society
of Canada. His column
appears in every second issue.
Value our teachers
A modest proposal to
by Doug Owram
ecently there’s been an upsurge in
criticism about the relative resources and
time that universities put into undergrad-
uate teaching. The main argument is that
universities have undervalued undergrad-
uate teaching relative to research and graduate
studies. The result, it is alleged, is not just inequity
but a failure to deliver the skills and abilities that
will enable the next generation to succeed.
In some ways, such criticism is surprising.
Universities can point to key ways in which teach-
ing has been taken more seriously, in the past
decade or so, than in living memory. For example,
compulsory evaluation of teaching performance
is now in place for pretty well all universities.
Students are now part of that evaluation process
and, in spite of doomsayers, their cumulative
effect is both fair and positive. Similarly, tenure
hearings generally take teaching as an important
criterion, and this isn’t just a gesture. As well,
centres for the improvement of teaching and
learning have become an ever more common
feature of campus. Far from simply assisting in
remediation, these centres have become lively
and engaged places where faculty and graduate
assistants can improve their skills, trade ideas,
learn new technologies and generally add to the
quality of the undergraduate experience.
While the effort made by universities to
improve the quality of teaching is laudable, the
challenge to a large degree has been on the rela-
tive allocation of resources – faculty time, hiring
choices and creativity – devoted to the undergrad-
uate. Here, we can understand people’s concerns.
For example, in a landmark set of decisions,
the federal government began, in the late 1990s,
to move significant new money to universities.
Given the concerns of the day and considerable
barriers around federal-provincial jurisdictions,
new programs such as the Canada Research
Chairs and Canada Foundation for Innovation
were focused on research. Even the funds of the
government’s indirect-costs program, designed
to recognize the burden that research puts on
other aspects of the university, have generally
been distributed to support research.
The growing pervasiveness and importance
of international rankings don’t help either.
While many rankings honestly seek a way to
include the student experience in their criteria,
the reality is that research is more comparable
across different nations and cultures. Whatever
their flaws, measures like citation indices allow
quick comparability. There is no such easy measure
when it comes to teaching. As a result, teaching
excellence is visible locally but research excellence
is international. The attention given to the measures
reflect that difference.
So what can be done? Let me offer a few start-
First, universities need to avoid equating
excellence with “freedom” from undergraduate
teaching. Faculty members should be hired with
the message that undergraduate teaching is a
vital – and permanent – part of their role on campus.