IF YOU THINK balancing a full-time course load and a part-time job is a lot to handle, try being the president of a Canadian university. Not only do you have to be concerned with providing students a quality education given by professors engaged in the classroom and in their research, but you have to do that with declining support from the government and without charging students exorbitant tuition fees.
Then you need to consider the changing environment in which your university exists. Are you effectively using social media to engage with your students? How big is your campus’ ecological footprint? The Fulcrum sat down with some of the people who run the University of Ottawa to get a better idea of the biggest challenges they face each day.
1. Money, money, money
The Drummond report, released last month, recommended the Ontario government limit the growth of its funding to universities to 1.5 per cent each year, even though enrolment is expected to rise 1.7 per cent each year. Enrolment levels and the funding a university receives from the government are intricately linked, but this financial model is proving to be unstable in the long run.
“The only way we have of increasing revenue is by taking in more students. We are not eligible for additional money from Queen’s Park if we want to put it into quality, hiring more professors, reducing class sizes, innovations in teaching, more online learning—we don’t get money for that,” explained Allan Rock, president of the University of Ottawa. “But we’ve got to the point where we feel we have to limit growth if we are going to improve the quality of the student experience.”
With limited support from the government, universities must accommodate not only a growing campus, but also rising costs on campus, which increase between four and 4.5 per cent each year. Universities are forced to consider increasing the cost of tuition, even though Ontario universities already boast the highest fees in the country, at an average of $6,300 per year for an undergraduate student.
“It’s a very difficult circumstance,” noted Rock. “As someone who graduated from this university with a considerable student debt, I know the burden that entails … We’re conscious of the importance to try to limit the burden of debt on students, and we’re conscious also of not discouraging people from coming because of the size of the tuition fees.”
Liz Kessler, vp university affairs for the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), stresses the importance of considering how higher tuition fees can impact students. Beyond increasing the amount of debt incurred by students, financial burdens affect the quality of education received at universities.
“When students are so worried about paying the bills they are going to be spending more time working—which means less study time, and that means the quality of what we are learning goes down,” she said in an email to the Fulcrum. “More time working and less financial security also means more stress, and we know there has been a huge rise in mental health issues among students.”
She says the university should consider cutting administrative costs, such as salaries, over raising tuition fees or cutting services essential to students.
“A few years ago, we saw across-the-board five per cent cuts to university services, and we are seeing the effects of that now in reduced quality,” she said. “For example, there are now waiting lists to get into counselling services, which is an essential service for many, many students.”
The challenge of balancing the need for funding and the provision of an affordable education for students is forcing universities to be creative in finding solutions for this problem. Marcel Mérette, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, said there isn’t one unique solution to the issue of funding, but many small solutions. He thinks improving retention rates and offering students a more diverse selection of courses will keep students at the U of O throughout their studies.
“If we are able to improve our retention, we don’t need to increase the number of students, but we will have more funding because they will stay longer in the programs,” he said, mentioning the need for faculties to become more proactive in identifying and supporting students at risk of dropping out of university.
“The challenges we face are an opportunity to be more creative and to generate new ideas—and that’s also exciting,” he said. “The universities that succeed in the future are the universities that will be able to adjust and be creative and innovative with respect to programs and student experience.”
2. Striking the balance between researching and teaching
As the federal government’s support for research increased in the past decade, universities responded by pursuing more research on campuses. Although the importance of research to post-secondary institutions is undeniable, the Drummond report highlighted a number of disconcerting trends regarding research and teaching.
“Most universities (and, more recently, some colleges) have elected to pursue the myriad of federal and provincial research dollars available, all in the name of becoming ‘world-class research centres’,” the report states. “The reality is that few of Ontario’s research centres will become the best in Canada, never mind the world.”
The report highlights the decision of universities to increase class sizes and the number of part-time professors hired in order to further their research programs, as well as the decision of some universities to cross-subsidize research by using undergraduate tuition fees to fund projects. Oftentimes this money is used to support the institutional costs associated with research.
“Right now, the government of Canada contributes about 21 per cent toward our institutional costs,” Rock explained. “If we run a laboratory, we have costs for electricity, maintenance, the cost of salaries for the research assistants and technicians—all of those indirect costs amount to almost half of the total research funding we get.
“As Drummond quite properly points out, we’re taking revenue from tuition and using it to pay those institutional costs, and diverting money that should go toward quality of student experience to subsidize the research enterprise.”
The University of Ottawa’s strategic plan for the future, entitled Vision 2020, includes “rich, inspiring student experience” and “research excellence” as its top two goals for the school. Rock says he doesn’t believe these two activities are in conflict with one another.
“A lot of people have wondered over the years whether it’s possible to have a university of high research intensity, and at the same, have a place where undergrads can have a quality experience,” he said. “Some say no. I say yes, you can—in fact, I say those two missions can be complementary to each other.”
“Research should be an input to teaching,” said Mérette of the need for universities to strike a balance between the two. “If you do research, your research should improve your teaching. We should not separate the two—we should try to make them complement each other.”
One way the university attempts to do this is through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which offers undergraduate students the opportunity to work with graduate students or professors on research projects in their field of study and earn some money at the project’s end.
The Drummond report also challenges universities to reward their professors for using innovative teaching methods that truly engage students in the same way professors are rewarded for doing research.
“We can maybe value more teaching than we do. This university has taken steps to improve on that,” said Mérette, noting the creation of a research chair at the university that focuses specifically on exploring methods of teaching.
“These chairs could be very useful to improve the ways we’re [teaching], and at the same time, to recognize the good teaching and innovation of our colleagues [who] are doing new ways of teaching and training in classes.”
3. Using social media to reach out to students
As the world embraces the web 2.0 era, there is a need for post-secondary institutions to do the same. Maintaining an online presence can help a university draw more students, improve services, and shrink the gap between staff and students. However, the transition is not always easy.
Adrian Ebsary is the online community specialist at the U of O. He manages the school’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts and oversees social media use at the university. Ebsary said institutions using social media need a concrete strategy and trained staff to be successful.
“I think education is a vital part of any organization’s shift into the web 2.0 era,” he said. “I think it’s becoming of greater importance, but you need to make sure all your communications agents are efficiently versed in all the tools.”
Ebsary said one of the biggest challenges he faces as an online community specialist at the U of O is keeping up with the university’s bilingual identity.
“We’ve tried to put together both our French and English accounts so we tweet both French and English from the accounts, and this is hopefully going to help our students be immersed in the bilingual environment, but will also increase the probability that Francophone students will interact with Anglophone students,” he said.
The aim is not to foster a new community, but to be a part of the online presence U of O students have already created. Ebsary said Twitter is the best tool for that as access to tweets is often unrestricted, unlike on Facebook where an individual has to accept a friend request or “like” a page before an interaction can occur.
“I think Twitter is really powerful because it’s short and the data is easily accessible,” said Ebsary. “You can’t take data on Facebook as easily as you can on Twitter, so I think people are going to start moving in that direction just because it’s easier for people to interact.”
Ebsary said there are many advantages to using social media, including collecting feedback and data about services on campus.
“On Twitter we’re reaching out to students who are upset—trying to take that data to use it to improve our services—and I’m contacting staff members to have them reply to students,” he explained. “We’re going to be opening the Facebook wall soon for students to post and that will allow students to engage with us more there.”
In addition to bridging the gap between staff and students, using social media has helped increase accessibility for students. According to Ebsary, those interacting with the university staff feel a stronger connection to the U of O.
“I love it when students feel like we’ve made a positive connection and I’ve solved some of their problems without having to take a longer route,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable that social media will start to work its way into the classroom.”
4. Building a sustainable campus
As the environment becomes an increasingly important issue to Canadians, there is pressure on not just citizens, but governments, corporations, and even universities to become sustainable enterprises.
Although the need to invest in sustainable practices on campus may seem less important than investing in traditional academic activities like teaching and research, Jonathan Rausseo, campus sustainability manager at the U of O, explains investing in sustainability makes a lot of sense for universities.
“What we’ve found is when we work with things on sustainability, we save a ton of money, we save ourselves a lot of headache, and we end up being much better corporate social partners with our community,” he said.
Rausseo noted by investing in making our campus more energy-efficient, the U of O has saved $40 million in utility costs alone. In the long run, these savings translate into spending opportunities universities wouldn’t have otherwise.
“When you save that kind of money, it means you can reinvest in your own institution,” he explained. “You can reinvest in students [and] you can reinvest in better infrastructure.”
The University of Ottawa has undertaken a number of initiatives that have led to it being named the second most sustainable and environmentally friendly campus in Canada earlier this year. In addition to making improvements to existing and new buildings—typically ensuring they are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified—the U of O has implemented a ban on the sale of bottled water on campus, created the SFUO-run Bike Co-op, and introduced the U-Pass.
The U of O excels in the areas of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy conservation, waste, and sustainable transportation, particularly when compared to other Canadian universities of a similar size. Despite these successes, the U of O can still improve its record on the environment.
“We don’t offer as many courses on sustainability as a lot of our competitor universities do. We don’t do as much research in sustainability—or we don’t report on it—as much as we could,” Rausseo commented, also noting the university’s lack of a comprehensive policy on buying green products.
Ensuring sustainability remains a top priority will always be a challenge for the University of Ottawa.
“We have to face the fact we are a university, and our core mission always relates to academia,” Rausseo said. “At the U of O, we have a strong culture of making sure we define and promote Franco-Ontarian values—and you can only have so many missions before being spread too thin. Sustainability gets put on the backburner.”
Despite the fact sustainability did not make it into one of the university’s top goals in Vision 2020, Rock asserts it will remain important for the U of O, as we have a strong history in promoting green values on our campus.
“This university has been very conscious of the need to limit emissions, limit greenhouse gases, limit carbon dioxide production, use resources sparingly, and that tradition has continued over the decades—I’m not sure exactly where it comes from,” he said. “Now it’s become a point of pride, one of our defining characteristics.”
—Mercedes Mueller and Jane Lytvnenko
—With files from Kristyn Filip