A Fork in the Road

Students protest Ontario tuition costs
Students protest Ontario tuition costs at the University of Toronto campus on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. (CP/Nathan Denette)

Transforming education

Audio: A new way of thinking about education that could transform the costs - and the role - of colleges and universities in our communities. Listen audio (runs 6:35)

A growing chorus of voices from the world of universities and colleges is sounding the alarm over post-secondary education - that it's becoming less affordable - and that students are getting less from their education than previous generations.

The cost of tuition in Ontario is rising two or three times faster than middle-class incomes and the quality of that education experience for students is getting worse. It's not unusual to find class sizes of 1,000 students for some introductory classes with very little opportunity for personal contact with the professor.

We've already heard that the Don Drummond Commission, mandated by the Ontario government to prescribe changes to a host of government services, will call on universities to shift their current emphasis from research to teaching, at the undergraduate level.

Another move to improve the quality of education and to strengthen post-secondary education's role as a public good, comes from the U.S.. On January 10th, President Obama launched a year-long campaign to encourage colleges and universities to become more responsive to the communities where they're located.

Detachment is not expertise

Harry BoyteHarry Boyte

Harry Boyte, of the Centre for Citizenship and Democracy in Minnesota, and one of the drivers behind the campaign says universities, especially research universities, have become insular and inward.

But they're not alone, says Boyte. Post-secondary institutions reflect a broader shift across the whole range of public institutions, from hospitals to governments to banks, of becoming detached from their own communities - a shift that Boyte says has been heavily influenced by what he calls "the scientific ideal of the detached expert".

Boyte says universities and colleges will become more effective at educating students and at harnessing a wide range of resources if they return to the actual soil in which they are located, based on a model from an earlier era.

"There was a very powerful culture among scientists at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s - let's say a soil conservation scientist working on soil issues and contour farming. There was a lot of effort to deal with erosion in the farming regions of Minnesota."

"The principle of the soil conservation scientists was that the community's knowledge is more important than your knowledge. Now it wasn't that soil conservation scientists didn't understand that they had important contributions to make. Or that the communities had all the answers themselves. But the premise was that when you work as a soil conversation scientist, you need to get to know the community - and listen to the people. And find out about the culture and history and the different factions and the different immigrant groups and tensions and the politics and the economic life. Good work as a scientist in soil conservation involved really becoming deeply knowledgeable about the place where you were working."

By understanding the role universities and colleges have to play in strengthening and supporting democracy, Boyte says it becomes clear that one of their goals must be to prepare students to play an active role in the issues of their communities.

Boyte says the results of closer collaboration with the surrounding community were transformative at one school. The Chicago Highschool for Agricultural Sciences, whose students once ranked at the bottom of the city's academic scores, is now ranked at the top in science and technology tests.