Educated Solutions article by the Academic Transformation authors

Republished from Educated Solutions: The Student Success Issue (Issue 7, November 2010)

By Ian Clark, Greg Moran, Michael Skolnik, and David Trick (Authors of Academic Transformation)

In recent years, the public and the government have had a growing expectation that universities will produce knowledge that will enhance Canada’s economic well-being and international economic competitiveness. At the same time, the number of students seeking access to baccalaureate programs has skyrocketed. Enrolments have grown by over 100,000 in the past decade, and an additional 60,000-100,000 more students will want to attend university in the decade to come. Funding increases have not been sufficient to cover inflation and appoint the additional full-time faculty that would be necessary to keep pace with these demands.

The pressure on full-time faculty to do more research and to teach more students threatens to become unsustainable. Meanwhile, students’ needs are becoming more diverse: more students are entering university who require extra academic support in order to succeed.

We believe a compelling case can be made for expanding the number of faculty positions devoted primarily to teaching and making them part of the tenure stream. Faculty in these positions would predominantly be teachers, with a portion of time provided for keeping up-to-date in their discipline and for research that will improve teaching and learning.

Such a move would depart from the current model in which almost all full-time faculty are expected to devote 40 per cent of their effort to teaching, 40 per cent to research, and 20 per cent to service. In this model, a typical full-time faculty member teaches four one-semester courses per year.

The large increase in part-time instructors in recent years shows that this teacher-researcher model is in retreat. Instructors not engaged in discovery research have grown from being a relative rarity in the 1960s to being responsible for half or more of all undergraduate teaching in some of the largest university faculties today.

While greater resources—from government, student tuition, or both—are indeed needed, there is no reason to think they will be adequate to fund normal university inflation, increased research activity, and future enrolment growth based exclusively on the teacher-researcher model. As Ontario moves to a near-universal system of higher education, we need to plan for a system where the majority of undergraduate teaching will be conducted by faculty who are not substantially engaged in their own original research. Most of this instruction should be done by full-time members of faculty rather than those appointed on a course-by-course, part-time basis.

While it is widely claimed that faculty who are engaged in research are in a better position to be effective teachers, a recent survey of the literature on this question funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario highlighted several studies showing that there was no correlation (positive or negative) between faculty research and teaching effectiveness. Another comprehensive survey examined 58 studies on this topic and found the correlation between good teaching and good research was zero. The authors concluded that “the common belief that research and teaching are inextricably entwined is an enduring myth.”

Current practice in Ontario is that most teaching-oriented instructors are part-time. This means they are generally less available for duties that require a presence on campus and foster student success, such as meetings with students, professional development, program curriculum development, and departmental meetings. To the extent that they do not hold permanent appointments, they are not required or expected to participate in the self-government of the university. The burdens and privileges of self-government fall almost entirely on full-time permanent faculty. Lacking security of employment or other protections, part-time and temporary faculty are increasingly likely to adopt an industrial model of labour relations.

There are many Ph.D. holders who have an overriding love and commitment to undergraduate education, and who would gladly concentrate their academic effort on teaching if such stable, respected, full-time positions were available. Although these individuals would make excellent teachers of undergraduates, many of them are now working outside the university or as itinerant part-time instructors.

Others who do work full-time in universities currently devote time to research that could be spent more productively in teaching. One of the consequences of forced research is a torrent of pedestrian publishing that very few people read. If, instead, gifted teachers could spend more time teaching and gifted researchers could spend more time on research, the effectiveness of both teaching and research would be increased.

Many Ontario universities have formally established teaching-oriented full-time instructor posts in recent years with appropriate professional and career development policies and practises. Eight of the thirteen Ontario universities who responded to our survey on this subject confirmed that they have full-time teaching-oriented positions. The number of such positions at each university ranges from fewer than ten to more than 300. Teaching-oriented faculty typically have course loads of about eight one-term courses per year. The number of such positions is in some institutions tightly controlled by collective agreements. An analysis by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations reached similar conclusions. In only three of the universities cited in the OCUFA study are the full-time teaching positions in the tenure-stream, and they are confined to specific program areas, such as languages, and limited in number.

We hasten to add that we do not suggest the compartmentalization of the full-time professoriate into two separate camps, but rather that universities should move incrementally to foster more variation among faculty. Given current and anticipated levels of participation in undergraduate education, the proliferation and acceptance of such predominantly teaching full-time appointments would complement the typical teacher-researcher role to the benefit of members of faculty, students, the university, and the society at large.

Three related further points must be made. First, it would be both unrealistic and undesirable to imagine that part-time contract positions would be eliminated entirely. Such instructors often provide outstanding instruction in subject areas where sufficient numbers of full-time faculty are unavailable. In addition, these same appointments provide welcome experience and funding for some senior graduate students.

Second, it is important that universities more fully acknowledge and embrace the central role that part-time contract faculty play in the fulfillment of their teaching and, indirectly, their research mission. Such a change would involve an increased level of engagement of part-time instructors in the academic life of the institution, the provision of adequate resources to support their teaching, and the application of high standards for appointment and performance evaluation of their teaching.

Finally, although the model suggested here has many substantial advantages, it is undeniably likely to involve increased net costs relative to the current heavy reliance on course-by-course instructors. Our argument is that the ever-growing reliance on part-time faculty is not sustainable and does not best serve the interests of undergraduate students. It seems increasingly likely that the contingent workforce will become regularized, with greater security of employment and salary levels that reduce the current financial benefit to the university of hiring part-time instructors. There is a substantial public interest in ensuring that this transition takes place without lengthy disruptions in students’ education, and without moving to a universal teacher-researcher model that is financially unsupportable in a near-universal system of higher education.

It is time to adopt an approach that is capable of delivering an undergraduate education of high quality within the reasonable limits of funding available from the individual student and a government faced with the challenges of supporting a post-secondary educational system that is quickly approaching universal participation.

Ian D. Clark, Greg Moran, Michael L. Skolnik, and David Trick are the authors of Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario (Montreal and Kingston: Queen’s Policy Studies Series, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).