Dal Senate opens discussion on undergraduate education

University brings in outside experts to help launch reform initiative

Shelagh Crooks talked about opening up students’ control of their degree during the panel discussion. Photo: Ken Wallingford

Faculty at Dalhousie university face a “tipping point” of pressures on their ability to teach effectively, a senate forum on the university’s future heard today.

DALVision 2020 saw around 400 students, faculty and staff come in and out of the event as a discussion developed on what the undergraduate experience will be like in seven years.

Representatives from each group had a chance to make a presentation to the crowd of mostly staff and faculty members, followed by a series of group discussions aimed at nailing down some ideas for immediate, as well as long-term, implementation.

The first keynote speaker at the event was Nick Mount, a Dalhousie grad, former King’s College professor, and now an English professor at the University of Toronto. An authority on teaching methods, Mount went into detail on the challenges facing teachers.

Universities have reached tipping point, he says. 

  • university enrolment is higher but students are less prepared for university
  • there are fewer teachers
  • class sizes have ballooned (he cited a first-year psychology class of 3,000 at U of T)
  • university administration often favours research over quality of teaching

Teachers weren’t the only ones up for discussion. Dalhousie Student Union President Jamie Arron took the stage following Mount to share some thoughts on a student’s experience.

Stress levels are high among university students dealing with the financial strain of paying for school, Arron says, and it doesn’t get easier after graduation since earning inequality is increasing and people are spending more time at work.

One thing Arron is working on is starting a seminar class for first year students.

“The class is dedicated to learning how to learn through critical thinking, communication, career planning, applied community-based learning,” Arron says.

A class like this would also require money, another issue universities across Nova Scotia are facing, given recent years’ budget cuts.

Dal Senate Chair Lloyd Fraser talks of this, following the day’s events.

“Some of it’s very practical, in the sense that money is becoming restricted, student numbers are increasing at the same time, so you have a squeeze on universities,” he says when asked why the event was organized.

After hearing from Arron, facilitators from co*lab, a Halifax development group, told people to split into groups of three or four and put their ideas on brown paper tablecloths using the rainbow markers provided.These conversations provided the basis of a report that will be sent to the senate, and then passed along to the students.

panel discussion
(From left) Suzanne Le-May Sheffield, Frank Harvey, Nancy Pitts, Chris Saulnier, Shelagh Crooks, and Nick Mount took part in the panel discussion responding to questions from the audience. Photo: Ken Wallingford

After a panel discussion brought the event to a close, attendees were reminded that this forum for ideas was not the end of the discussion.

As one of the facilitators of the forum, Sheila Brown is in charge of filing the report. She says there will be follow-up events to keep the conversation going.

“We’re going to see if we need to maybe broaden the conversation,” says Brown. “A lot of the conversation today was about jobs after your degree. Maybe we have to expand the conversation to involve employers.”

University president Tom Traves had a more immediate plan for the results.

“Eventually this will probably morph into the new president’s efforts to craft a new university strategic plan, I see this as one of the building blocks,” he said. “Frankly, some of the ideas, if they grab us now, we don’t have to wait for anybody, just go and do it.”