One of the benefits of working at HEQCO (and let’s face it, there are many) is that staying abreast of postsecondary education literature is part of the job. Although the volume can be overwhelming, much of this writing is provocative and helpful. Occasionally I run across something that simply provokes.
In a recent opinion piece in Inside Higher Education, Prof. Steven C. Ward attacks competency-based education or CBE. He characterizes CBE as another neo-liberal nail in the coffin of equitable access to quality higher education.
I accept that there are cases to be made for both the pros and cons of CBE. I also retain enough of a sophomoric sense of humour to appreciate the buzzwords that the author uses to denigrate current trends in higher education, i.e., Jebification, Zuckerberging and Gatesification.
Most unsettling in the article was its intrinsic resistance to change in higher education, which is more common within the academy than we might care to admit. Irrespective of our affection for a past golden age (as with all such recollections, more gilded in memory than reality), change is necessary; what today’s college and university students want and need cannot be met by an uncritical defense of the status quo.
Ward’s core argument is that “…a thorough, content-centered liberal education…” is essential to any postsecondary student’s course of study. He argues further that this component is systematically being taken out of the reach of all but the financially privileged and that “…the big questions, or…powerful or sacred knowledge, where the unimaginable becomes imagined, is [sic] not really relevant for most middle- and working-class students.”
Of course, wherever choice and access to a quality postsecondary education are being restricted to those with money, we should all line up in opposition. My objection to Ward’s arguments, however, is his implicit assertion that all students desire and would be best served by such a “… social democratic vision of liberal arts education.”
In 1965, when dinosaurs walked the halls and I enrolled at McGill, I was among the 5-10% of my age cohort that attended university. A postsecondary education was seen as essential only where it was a requirement of professional practice in areas such as engineering, medicine and law (not then nor now bastions of a liberal education) and for those with the highest academic aspirations who hoped to go on to positions of leadership in any number of domains. A university degree was not seen as the only route to success and certainly not as a pre-requisite to a prosperous and fulfilling life.
Things have changed dramatically in the intervening 50 years, most markedly in the past two decades. In Ontario, as in most parts of the privileged world, the percentage of high school graduates attending colleges and universities has ballooned. Some years back, the Province of Ontario set the target that 70% of adults should hold a postsecondary degree or diploma – a goal that has now been met. This trend is even more impressive when expressed in the actual numbers of students.
This pattern is driven by the fact that a college or university degree is now seen as a prerequisite for many jobs. In recent years, growth in full-time employment has been attributable almost entirely to jobs that require a degree or diploma while those that do not are on the decline. From the perspective of the individual, studies have repeatedly shown that the deferred income and money invested in a degree or diploma translate into lifetime benefits of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
With its important benefits both for the economy as whole and for the individual graduates, the reality of increased enrolment is here to stay and the consequences bear on the case Ward makes in support of the status quo.
First, it is entirely unreasonable to expect that we can educate this much higher proportion of the postsecondary age group with the same approach we have used in the past; it is simply unaffordable. For example, it is inconceivable that full-time members of faculty who are paid equally to teach and to do research could do all the instruction (which is another issue worthy of another, longer discussion).
Second – and what is often missed in considering the challenges of increased enrolment – not only are there more students, they are different students. Campus curmudgeons tend to characterize these differences in negative terms, i.e., less well educated and prepared, less intelligent, interested only in getting a job, not interested in learning for the sake of learning, etc. The reality is that the students who now sit in our classrooms are no longer only the 5-10% with the highest academic interests and achievements. And, indeed, the majority of them are unashamedly interested in gaining experience and competencies that will enhance their job prospects and performance in the workplace. Is this really a surprise? Is it something we should resist? No and no.
How do we meet the expectations and needs of these students who would not have been on our campuses 20 or 30 years ago? No doubt, there are aspects of a liberal education that should feature in any program. But the conversation cannot end here. For both economic and pedagogical reasons, we must strive to find new and innovative means to ensure that these students acquire the knowledge and skills they need in their lives and workplaces. And, our debates concerning how best to achieve this goal cannot be based on the seemingly high-minded argument that stifles meaningful discussion. Rather, our conversation needs to be based on a clear statement of our objectives and an evidence-based evaluation of the extent to which new, and old, approaches best serve our students and our society.
Greg Moran is HEQCO’s director, special projects and former provost of Aga Khan University and Western University.