A Veteran Prof Compares Then and Now

A prof in the GTA continues to consider the implications of the colleges’ business model:

I have been a full-time teacher at [my] College since 1969. In the wake of the recent vote to accept management’s “offer,” I am for the first time ashamed of my job.

When I started in the system, each teacher had four classes for two semesters with an absolute enrolment cap of 15 students per class. That made for a maximum of 120 students per calendar year (it was usually slightly less). I now have five classes for two semesters and three classes in the Summer with a flexible cap of 35 students per class (it is sometimes slightly more). That makes for 455 students per calendar year.

In constant dollars my salary has been increased by a little less than 120%, whereas my “productivity” has increased by about 380%.

As well, in 1969 my department had about fifty full-time and one part-time teacher. Now, the ratio is roughly 1.3 part-time for every one full-time (absolute numbers vary from semester to semester).

Is this any way to run a railroad? Maybe, but it’s no way to run any college worthy of the name.

Of course, this post raises many questions — and the first one that many would be asked is whether college professors have any right to expect that they should be exempt from the trends affecting virtually all employees over the last 40 years.   The first question that strikes me, though, concerns the reality of his — of our — current “productivity”.

How many of our current students are failing needlessly?  No less significantly, how many are passing undeservedly?  And is the tail of class sizes currently wagging the dog of academic standards?

If our productivity has increased, the question remains — what is it that we are producing?  A transferral of knowledge and skills, or graduates?

But here’s the real question: Let’s say for the sake of argument that it would cost more money — to students or taxpayers or both — to have smaller class sizes and/or more full-time faculty.  Even if those smaller classes would result in fewer students failing or falling between the cracks; even if they would result in stronger assurances of the quality of every graduating student — who would choose that option?

My suspicion is that my students would prefer to have overcrowded classes and less stringent attention on my part to their work (including, say, less time spent checking their work for plagiarism), so long as it costs them less money in tuition.  Similarly, I think that that Ontario taxpayers are perfectly happy with overcrowding and reduced standards, so long as their taxes don’t go up, and so long and so long as the colleges’ management and the government continue to tell them that they have “the best postsecondary education in Canada“, despite having the lowest per-student funding of any province.

Obviously, the management is happy with the trade-off as well — they’ve initiated and perpetuated it.

But as I asked before — is the current crowding, with its consequent reduction of personal attention to students,  a problem?  Do our students suffer because of it?  Does our province?  Is there anything inadequate about the education that we are able to deliver?

Everything seems to be working fine — students continue to enrol, they continue to graduate, businesses continue to hire graduates.  Is this a sign that college management is doing its job of maximizing productivity while ensuring that the needs of the province’s students and workforce are met? Or is it a sign that our colleges now function as simulacra, where managers pretend to know what students are “supposed” to learn, professors pretend to uphold standards, and students and their parents are happy to be told that the education being delivered is excellent?

It would seem to me, then, that if professors are arguing that this model provides inadequate education or an inadequate system of delivering and receiving it — if it constitutes a kind of fraud upon those who pay tuition and taxes to maintain that system, then it is the onus of the professors to develop some sort concrete means of proving that claim.

After all, one could look at the increased numbers and say that things are working better than ever.  Or one could look at the increased numbers and say that things have reached (or passed) a breaking point.  The conventional wisdom seems to be the former interpretation, so if professors are going to argue that the increased workloads negatively affect education, then I personally think that we’re going to have to invoke research and our own personal examples to prove that point.

Let me start with one simple research experiment that you can answer anonymously:

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