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Higher Education Strategy Associates

Sessionals, Nursing Degrees, and the Meaning of University

Be forewarned: I am going to be very mean about universities today. 

One thing the labour disputes in Ontario highlight is the amount of undergraduate teaching done by non-tenure track professors.  Numbers on this are hard to come by, and poorly defined when they are.  York sessionals claim to be teaching 42% of all undergraduate classes – but how do you define a class?  But from what I’ve gathered from talking to people across the province who are in a position to know, it is not uncommon at larger universities to at least see between 40 and 50% of all undergraduate credit hours (which is the correct unit of analysis) taught by sessionals.

Think about that for a minute: half of all credit hours in major Ontario universities are taught by staff  who are off the tenure track.  People with no research profile to speak of.  Yet aren’t we always told that the combination of research and teaching is essential in universities?  Aren’t we told that without research, universities would be nothing more than – God forbid – community colleges?  So what does it mean when half of all undergraduate credit hours are taught by these sessionals?  Are students are only getting the essential university experience half the time?  And the other half of the time they are at community colleges?  If so, why are student and taxpayers paying so much more per credit hour?

These are important questions at any time, but I think their importance is underlined by the stramash currently going on between Ontario universities and colleges over the possibility of colleges offering stand-alone nursing programs.  You see, Ontario has none of these.  Universities can have stand-alone nursing programs; colleges can have nursing programs, but require a university partner to oversee the curriculum.  This partnership has nothing to do with sharing of physical resources or anything – Humber College’s partner is the University of New Brunswick (which is how UNB became Ontario’s third/fourth-largest supplier of nurses a few years ago).  No, it’s just a purely protectionist measure, which Ontario universities justify on the grounds that “patient care [has] become so complex that nurses needed research, theory, critical thinking, and practice in order to be prepared [for work]”.  Subtext being: obviously you can’t get that just from a community college.

But why is this obvious?  Clearly, universities themselves don’t believe that theory and critical thinking are related to research, because they’re allowing non-research staff to provide half the instruction.  Indeed, maybe – horror upon horrors – nearly all undergraduate instruction in nursing can be delivered by halfway competent practitioners who are reasonably familiar with developments in nursing research, and that actually having one’s own research practice is neither here nor there.   In which case, the argument for stand-alone nursing schools – with appropriate quality oversight from professional bodies – is pretty much unanswerable.

Too much of universities’ power and authority rests on their near-monopoly on degree-granting.  And too much of that monopoly on degree-granting rests on hand-waving about “but research and teaching!”  Yet, as sessionals’ strikes always remind us, Ontario universities are nowhere close to living up to this in practice.  I wonder how long it will be before some government decides to impose some costs on them for this failure.

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6 Responses to Sessionals, Nursing Degrees, and the Meaning of University

  1. Paul Morrison says:

    I’ve always thought that this was the crucial weakness in university arguments as far as colleges offering degrees. It also makes any refusal of college bachelors degrees fairly indefensible.

    What I do want to see is how undergraduate credit hours break down by year of study and who teaches. It may be reasonable if the first any maybe second year of study are standardized foundational content that they be taught in a more consistent way by lower-cost adjunct faculty and that the real “secret sauce” gets delivered in the upper two years (just using this 50% stat quoted from the article) by research involved faculty. I’ve never seen a breakdown of this type either published or internal but it might be the only way to defend the rising numbers in adjunct teaching.

  2. Anonymous @ Big research Uni says:

    Truth to power, indeed. It’s just that power’s ring tone is set on mute.

  3. frustrated administrator says:

    No surprises here. Universities have been captured by their faculties and are thus run for the benefit of the faculty; all enforced by a tight faculty union/government relationship that limits innovation and competition. If the interests of students are served, it’s only a coincidence.

  4. Laura Servage says:

    As much as I am a fan of excellent teaching in universities, and the SOTL model generally, I’ve always had a bit of skepticism around the teaching and research link. It would seem more important as students move toward a graduate school track, and it is more likely to be of value in senior undergraduate courses. But junior courses could be very well taught by teaching professors who have time to stay current in their fields, but aren’t necessarily doing “cutting edge” research.

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