As tuition rises, does quality go up?

What are you buying when you pay your tuition? Instruction? A quality education? Unfettered access to experts? According to Associate Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Dr. Michael Collins, we are paying for the latter and nothing more.

After a number of student complaints, Collins sent out an e-mail to students in the faculty addressing three concerns. Two of these concerns were met with very frank and reasonable answers. First and foremost, students have been complaining that in certain lectures with two sections, so many unregistered students have been attending that people who have a legitimate right to be there–who have paid their tuition fees–cannot find seats and cannot attend. From here on in, any student caught attending these classes who should not be there will be removed and placed on academic probation. This is reasonable, as no student should interfere with another students’ opportunity to learn.

However, Collins states that the overcrowding in these lectures is the result of greater problems. Students have cited two main complaints, and have listed them as reasons for wrongfully switching lectures: “the instructor has a strong accent that we cannot understand,” and “the instructor is ‘poorly organized’ and hard to follow.” To the first complaint, Collins simply states that this is the students’ problem, and on some levels, this is true. While it is evident that demand is so great students cannot simply switch lectures before the drop date, he makes a good point: “Understanding someone with a strong accent takes a bit of practice, but it represents no meaningful impediment to learning […] In your professional lives you will encounter people with accents whom you will have to understand. The time to start is now.” However, the response to the second concern places students in a very difficult position.

He explains that professors are not there to instruct. Their primary job at the university is research–no big surprise given the U of C’s new academic plan. However, Collins continues with some problematic words: “It is the students’ responsibility to map the professor’s teaching space into their own learning space. Calling a professor ‘disorganized’ is to divest yourself of your responsibility as a student.”

While Collins raises a valid concern–there comes a time when a student must learn to adapt to the style of his or her professors–he also ignores an expectation of quality of instruction. The university, while focusing on research, exists because of undergraduate students. By writing off any complaint regarding a professor’s instruction as a lapse of responsibility, Collins simply absolves professors of the responsibility of maintaining quality of teaching. Along with raises in tuition come higher expectations, and someone paying around $4,500 per year for an undergraduate degree shouldn’t hear that any problems with a professor’s teaching are their own. As Registrar David Johnston said when appointed last year, a sentiment that seems to be reverberating through university administration (at least when justifying tuition costs), “students are paying a lot more. People are making consumer decisions when they come to university and bring customer expectations with them.”

However, the university–at least the Faculty of Engineering–is clearly not prepared to treat them this way. Blaming students for poor instruction is, indeed, to divest this university from its responsibility undergraduate students–students that provide this university the support it needs to conduct its research. Without students, what will the university have left?

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