The University Transition

Most people, reading a headline like “The University Transition” would pass it by thinking it’s yet another article about how the baby-sitting service known as high school ends, and that you’ve got to take responsibility for yourself once you go on to tertiary education.

But this one isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about the transition the universities themselves are going through — and what it means to you as a potential user of the university system.

Make no mistake, universities are troubled placed these days — and their time of woe is just beginning.

As usual, what underlies the pain is money. In particular, it’s where their money comes from, and how much of it has strings attached.

Few universities these days, for instance, get a major gift — the ten million and up range — that doesn’t come with serious expectations attached to it. The conversion of the old Medical Arts building into the Jackman Humanities Institute, without strings saying how the Philosophy, Religious Studies, English Literature, etc. departments benefitting from it would evolve is a rare case. Far more common is “here’s the money for the new institute or building, but I want it to focus on this”.

Even when the benefactor is more hands off than you’d think (for example, Munk doesn’t really interfere in the evolution of the Munk School of Global Affairs) the worry is always there within the university’s management. They start editing themselves to “conform”.

Management, itself, is part of the problem in the modern university. It’s within one lifetime that universities have gone from essentially being managed by their faculty as a “corner of the desk” responsibility to having a management cadre that grows deeper annually. (In Ontario, where anyone in the broader public sector who makes more than $100,000 per annum goes on a publicly-disclosed “sunshine list”, it’s amazing how many middle managers — much less senior ones — come from the province’s university and college system.)

Put all these non-teaching, non-researching resources on the payroll, and something has to give. Is it any wonder two thirds of your instructors are on year-at-a-time contracts?

Undergraduate studies, of course, have been littered with teaching assistants (also known as graduate students) taking the classes while the nominal professor never appears for years. Given that research grants are another major revenue source, it should be no wonder that professors are expected to research (and publish!) first, and teach third (doing all the paperwork to get, administer, and report on progress for grants comes second). Some unemployed Ph.D. can be paid like a graduate student teaching assistant to actually teach the students…

But think about this: an institution like the University of Toronto has over eighty Master’s degree programs. Most of these are “professional” two-year efforts aimed at the job market — Master of Public Policy (MPP) for people wanting into the civil service, Master of Museum Studies (MMSt) for future curators and museum directors, MBAs for future “masters of the universe”, and so on. That two thirds temporary help profile increasingly reflects these graduate school degrees as well.

Given that dissertations need to be supervised by someone who will be there on a continuing basis, there will still be permanent, tenured (or tenure track) faculty involved. The division of the university into narrow Schools, Institutes, Centres, etc. means that many of these now have quasi-managerial roles as well, as school directors. What that means is that the whole baroque structure of little independent agencies, each out trying to raise money to keep itself going (from benefactors and grants) is now invested in keeping these units going whether there’s demand for them or not.

What that means is that undergraduates will be “slotted” into programs they may not want simply because when they go to choose classes these are the ones that still have seats open in their courses. Even if the Geology Department had 1,000 new students wanting to take its courses, its seats are limited. Some of those budding geologists will have to find a home in the open chairs offered in, say, the Department of Gender Studies, or the Journalism program (even though everyone knows the media is cutting back, not adding on new help).

Admission, in other words, is to the institution of the university. Getting your tuition dollars applied to something you want is one of those caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) moments. (My daughter chose between offers from Cambridge, University College London, and Durham for her Master’s in Archaeology, and selected Cambridge because of their specialty program in mediaeval archaeology. After accepting, and rejecting the others, and paying Cambridge, she was told that the mediaeval program wouldn’t be offered this year. While she’s happy enough in the Egyptology option, her professional career as an archaeologist has just been wrenched away from England and off to the sands of the desert — and should she choose to do the Ph.D. it will have to be in Egyptology (since she now won’t have the master’s level courses in mediaeval England on her transcript) or spend an extra year “catching up”.)

Meanwhile, governments are cutting back on the number of student positions they fund (increasing the competition between units), and on the funding for research, and support for publication venues. So all the pressures on the university are boiling over.

Now add the question of “do you need a university” raised by online courses, and the “what are you doing with your degree” caused by a job market in deep and fundamental transition and turmoil.

By all means go to university if it is the right thing for you to do (as a person, not because “of the job”). But understand you’re entering an institution undergoing a period of great stress and you will be buffeted by it, with little recourse. Much like an airline — which does not guarantee that you will fly anywhere with your purchased ticket, or fly at any particular time — a university does not guarantee that your admission and tuition will lead you to any particular program, any required course, any reasonable conditions for learning — or any destination.

The disconnect between what you experience and receive, and the reputation of the institution and quality of its faculty, has never been more profound. Choose carefully!

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