I don’t usually comment on under-development Strategic Plans, but I’m going to make an exception for the University of British Columbia because they’re doing something that is either going to be incredibly transformational or seriously catastrophic.
Just a little bit of background. The process (a full time-line and process notes are here) has been about as inclusive as you’re likely to see at a major university. Which is to say, there have been a lot of test-the-water meetings but not necessarily a lot of deep collective strategic thought. This is not a knock on UBC: it’s pretty much par for the course in university strategic plans. As I have noted previously, these plans are far more for staff than they are for faculty, in part because many faculty do not fundamentally believe they have a responsibility to any corporate entity larger than their department (and even then, in a fight between a department and one’s own research agenda I wouldn’t necessarily bet on the department). Staff think corporately, faculty less so, and so strategic plans tend to ask as little as possible of the latter because it’s just a lot simpler that way.
UBC is at the draft phase now (draft here), and it’s a mixed bag. Some of it is sensible. Some of it is bland (Mission: “Pursuing Excellence in research, education and community engagement…”). Some of it is atrociously worded: specifically, one of the ten plan objectives is to “achieve agility through systemic change and simplification”, which I think just means “stop being so goddamn slow” (even funnier: by the final draft there is meant to be actual metrics to measure progress towards agility). But quibbles aside, it’s a pretty much par for the course for a big institution like UBC.
Except for one thing. Under Draft Strategies for Transformative Learning (page 14) it says: ”Reframe undergraduate academic program design in competencies rather than credit hours: we will move towards competencies as a primary metric of program structure and completion, reflecting the growing premium on transferable and cognitive skills, and better engaging student curiosity and agency in how they acquire and demonstrate proficiency”,
Here’s my non-cynical reaction to this: Oh. Em. Gee. That’s massive. Huge. Brilliant. It’s exactly the way higher education needs to go and If a big, globally-renowned institution like UBC could actually accomplish this, it would be arguably the biggest news in North American higher education since Harvard pioneered the elective system in the late 19th century.
Now for my sober and realistic reaction: guys, c’mon, this is half-baked. However cool an idea this is in practice, trying to move an entire major institution from one system to another in one go is like trying to do wheelies in a Sherman tank. And it’s not like there’s been tons of prep work done for this: my understanding is that there is little to no staff buy-in on the concept. That’s not to say faculty are opposed – it’s just that this idea is being sprung from the top rather than filtering up from the bottom. Which, on the whole, is usually the least effective way of driving academic change.
Here’s a more realistic approach. By all means, strengthen the outcomes statements of each class and each program. Certainly, find ways to better align student assessment within each class more closely to those transferable and cognitive skills. And yes, perhaps find ways to experiment with both the design of practical experiences (and maybe course formats too, while you’re at it) as well as of the crediting of knowledge and skills. Do it all. Encourage units to try out their own initiatives in these areas. Let a hundred flowers bloom.
But for God’s sake, don’t kill a hugely promising innovation by over-promising on implementation. UBC can, if it chooses, be a leader in this area, but moving in this direction is a 20-year process, not a 5-year one. Plan accordingly.