Two of University’s Most Stubborn Obstacles & Potential Solutions

Below, Alex Harding, a 3M National Student Fellow, shares his winning 3M application response to the following topic: “Challenges in Post-Secondary Education”

We are incredibly fortunate to have a post-secondary system as strong as Canada’s,  but it is our responsibility as the next generation of students to identify our weaknesses and improve upon them. We want Canada to remain an international post-secondary leader.  However, there are major accessibility issues that still face almost all current and potential university students. Let’s talk about two pretty darn big ones.

1: Accessibility Within the Classroom

While elementary schools in Nova Scotia limit class sizes to 20-23 depending on grade, university classes (especially during first year) range anywhere from 50–300. With such diverse students spread throughout the desks, it is logistically impossible for even the most gifted professor to meet the needs of everyone. For example, while one portion of your Thermodynamics class may be able to understand basic adiabatic systems in half a class, another group of students is guaranteed to have trouble even wrapping their head around the concept.

This leads to two big problems. Firstly, few students are learning at a rapid pace; most students are struggling to focus or are struggling to keep up. Secondly, it is no secret that many students fear asking questions when amongst peers of different levels. It’s considered embarrassing. Yet this embarrassment should never happen. The ability to ask questions is why we’ve held on to “brick and mortar” lecture halls for so long. With our large class sizes however, we’re losing this element.

Ideas for Tomorrow: Lose the Paper

Tailoring lessons to meet unique needs doesn’t have to be expensive. Frankly, the technology already exists. KhanAcademy and MIT/Harvard’s edX systems are enjoying massive growth and attention south of the border. These web-based online teaching methods improve on standard online university courses in almost every way. They offer far more interactive tools per class to meet an enormous range of needs per subject. Their high degree of promotion means active class forums and discussion. Most importantly, they’re all completely free.

I am not advocating for obsoleting physical lecture halls and professor-student contact. But online tools have been relegated to the sides at best, as if seen as a threat to the post-secondary ecosystem. Instead, I  strongly recommend shifting away from paperback textbooks. They look great on a shelf, and on paper (bad pun!), a repository for all information needed in a class seems useful to students. But the fact is that we simply do not use them unless we’re looking for assigned homework questions.

A textbook alone carries zero interactivity. I believe that a move towards accompanying material in the form of web-based side lessons, example questions and sample tests has enormous potential if done right. Such a tool needs to be comprehensive. Otherwise, as soon as a student looks up “Magnetic Field Distribution” and can’t find exactly what they need, they’ll be far less likely to use said tool again.

2: Risk/Reward and University Accessibility

I was fortunate enough to balance a job with IB coursework in high school and receive scholarship support in university. But I know at least two dozen of my classmates that deserve these opportunities just as much, if not more, than I do. You’ve no doubt heard of dozens of cases of tuition adjustments, and maybe worked out the math in your head. How much would that cost? Billions nation-wide perhaps? But that’s the knack of it – we’re looking at the problem from the wrong perspective.

It isn’t that university is impossible to afford- it’s the uncertainty and risk that comes with the mounting cost that is driving fantastic students away from our colleges. We’ve all heard about the dismal job prospect statistics and the regular preaching of the uselessness of college degrees by the Daily Show, Colbert Report, and CTV.

Some undergraduate degrees like engineering are weathering this storm because they come with insurance: rock-solid co-op programs. If a student is passionate about chemical engineering, that student loan is a minor concern since he/she will get job offers before graduating. But if you love Canadian politics and want to study Parliament, that $30,000 student loan comes loaded with question marks.

Ideas for Tomorrow: Expansion and Increased Support of Co-op Programs

Once again, accessibility to post-secondary education does not necessarily require the government to spend billions.

Potential post-secondary students need to know the value of their degree upon graduation. This enables them to see university as an investment instead of a risky extension of high school. At Acadia University, engineering and business programs are thriving and boast hundreds of students (per year) on a tiny campus. The same goes for Pharmacy and Nursing programs on other campuses. In contrast, degrees such as physics majors, have a minuscule number of students (ie. less than five).  Unlike engineering and business programs, physics programs lack co-op opportunities.

I would know: I was three days into a physics major before I transferred to engineering for just that reason. While co-op exists for most departments, to say that they are as supported as the “Big Two” would be to compare Canada’s ice hockey program to Spain’s (and vice versa for soccer). Engineering and business students (at least locally at Acadia) pay no tuition during a co-op placement, and receive extensive assistance during the application process. If you want a placement, you will most likely get one.

Expanding internship programs across science and art programs will go much further in combating student debt anxiety compared to simply adjusting tuition and interest rates. Adjustments do little to reinforce the idea that post-secondary education is a high-risk low-reward venture that can leave arts and theoretical science students in the dark upon graduation.

We know that universities can’t dictate national economics. But they’d be mad not to invest in their most valuable resource of all – their future alumni.


Photo Credits: STHLE 2014 via Dropbox

One thought on “Two of University’s Most Stubborn Obstacles & Potential Solutions

  1. Shwetha Chandrashekhar on

    Beautifully expressed Alex!

    Completely agree – ” Secondly, it is no secret that many students fear asking questions when amongst peers of different levels. It’s considered embarrassing. Yet this embarrassment should never happen. The ability to ask questions is why we’ve held on to “brick and mortar” lecture halls for so long. With our large class sizes however, we’re losing this element.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.