One of the Ontario government’s goals for the Reaching Higher Plan was to improve the overall quality of our post-secondary education system. Five years and billions of dollars later, students and government alike are concerned with the lack of results. The causes have been debated at length, but whether it was unexpected enrollment growth or unchecked cost inflation at our institutions that swallowed this funding, improving the learning environment and investing in student success continue to be important goals for the future.
A renewed emphasis on quality and student success is necessary for Ontario’s future economic prosperity. While participation rates in Ontario have climbed toward 70%, countries around the world are still catching up, especially in university enrollment, and as the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity has consistently articulated, Ontario cannot compete with the world based solely on volume of graduates. With universities in India and China turning out hundreds of thousands of graduates, Ontario must have the best and brightest workforce, not simply hand out the most credentials.
And so we turn to the future, and to the question of how we can enhance the learning environment at our universities given Ontario’s poor fiscal situation. Some suggest the greatest priority is to lower student-faculty ratios, but, while this ratio is an important indicator, the quality of the learning environment cannot be reduced to this one figure. Other options deserve to be explored as well. Given the attention this subject has received of late, I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify OUSA’s position on student-faculty ratios and, more broadly, the quality of teaching and learning at our universities.
Reducing the ratio of students to faculty generally allows for two things: greater student-faculty interaction and smaller class sizes. Increased interaction can have a significant positive impact on learning and is a desirable outcome for students. OUSA’s recent Ontario Student Survey showed a significant correlation between the availability and helpfulness of academic staff and students’ overall satisfaction with teaching quality. However, when asked what makes a high-quality teacher, students selected multiple issues related to teaching pedagogy above availability outside the classroom. It should also be noted that high student-faculty ratios are not the only things preventing greater interaction. An increased emphasis on research has led to reduced teaching loads and less time for each professor to spend with their students.
On the second benefit, smaller classes create an environment where instructors can more easily implement active learning strategies and build stronger connections with their students. That said, most students have seen firsthand that a large class with a great teacher can be much more engaging than a small class with a not-so-great teacher. Dr. Tony Chambers and his colleagues at OISE are currently investigating the link between small classes and learning outcomes, and thus far they have found no causal relationship. In a presentation to the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Dr. Chambers concluded that small classes in and of themselves do not improve specific learning outcomes unless the instructor is proficient enough in teaching to take advantage of this environment.
To add some context, student-faculty ratios have increased steadily for the past 50 years. Our partners at OCUFA put the current ratio at 27-to-1, and estimate that over 7,000 additional faculty would need to be hired, for a total cost in the billions of dollars, to return to the ratio seen in 1990. In the end, hiring these professors would not directly address students’ concerns with the quality of instruction at our universities. Students support the goal of lowering student-faculty ratios, but it should be treated as one part of the broader discussion of teaching quality. Given the fiscal situation we face in Ontario, we must consider where limited new funding should go to have the greatest impact on teaching and learning.
OUSA has developed a plan to enhance the quality of teaching and learning by pushing for cultural change in the way we teach. We have known for decades that the lecture model is less effective than active and deep learning techniques, yet we have not changed our practices accordingly. To provide a catalyst for change, OUSA is asking the government to:
-Target new funds to support and expand Centres for Teaching and Learning at Ontario colleges and universities
-Require new instructors to complete a training module in teaching, learning and assessment
-Require all graduate and PhD students to be given formal instruction in teaching, learning and assessment
-Set a province-wide target for the percentage of college and university courses employing forms of active learning
-Fund chairs in teaching, similar to the provincially-funded research chairs already in existence
While lowering student-faculty ratios is a worthy long-term goal, students believe these changes could be implemented at a modest cost and would have a tremendous long-term impact on the quality of teaching and learning at our universities.