Students, profs and admin talk undergrad education at DALVision 2020

Dalhousie Student Union president Jamie Arron speaks at DALVision 2020 (Photo: Bryn Karcha)

Hundreds of people – a mix of students, faculty and administrators, including several from King’s – filled the room for DALVision 2020.

They spent the day on Nov. 13 discussing the future of undergraduate education at the conference organized by the Dal Senate. Participants heard speakers, a panel discussion, and talked at free-form roundtables.

Funding cuts and teaching difficulties were mentioned throughout the day, as were issues raised by students from both Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College.

“I came to Dal with a real thirst for learning,” said first year student Alex Coley. “The end result was that it quickly got beaten out of me, and turned into me needing to get good grades.”

Coley said he should be able to have an interdisciplinary degree, not one limited within faculties.

“I would like to direct my own education and still come out with a degree,” he said. “I don’t like that next year I’m going to be told what I’ll have to take.”

Keynote speakers and professors said universities are facing difficulties teaching. A former King’s teaching fellow, Nick Mount, said universities are pushed to increase enrolment while decreasing teaching resources because of money shortages.

“Teaching is not just pushed down the priority list, it’s pushed there consciously,” said Mount to the crowd.

“I would like to direct my own education and still come out with a degree… I don’t like that next year I’m going to be told what I’ll have to take”

– Alex Coley, Dalhousie first-year student

Mount was a member of the King’s faculty until 2001 as a Foundation Year Program tutor, after which he joined the University of Toronto’s department of English. In 2011, he was awarded named a 3M National Teaching Fellow, a nation-wide award given out by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. He also recently appeared at King’s as a guest lecturer.

Ian Stewart, a King’s History of Science professor, agreed with Mount.

“We’re teaching more students, less well prepared and with fewer resources,” said Stewart, noting the problem comes down to money.

“[Universities] are in a vicious cycle,” said Stewart. “They’re like businesses: they have to grow, they have to increase revenue… Coupled with reduced government funding, it means that we are seriously hampered from doing the very thing that makes us better – reducing size.”

Photo: Bryn Karcha

Universities are more reliant than ever on tuition fees yet serving more students, added the Dalhousie Student Union, noting that 43% of university revenue in Nova Scotia comes from tuition. DSU President Jamie Arron says three times as many students are enrolling in university as were in the 1970s.

He, and other student leaders, said the event encouraged discussions on how to improve things.

Arron called the forum “one massive invitation to take risks.” Omri Haiven, the external vice president of the King’s Students’ Union, said the ideal learning environment is one created by “the stability to be uncomfortable.”

Tom Travers, the president of Dal, told the crowd that such discussions are important as university educations are evolving.

“If we ignore these issues… they will over time transform us as an institution in ways that we don’t really like,” said Travers. “We’re not the same as we were in 1860 and we’re not the same as we will be in the 2020s.” Nick Stark, the current president of the KSU, and Chris Saulnier, the former DSU president, both agreed it’s good the discussion is happening, but neither student thought it was enough.

“I’m encouraged by the discussion that’s happening. It’s not a pointless exercise,” Stark said. The forum, he said, “could be effective, but it all depends on the after effects… it’s not enough on its own.”

Saulnier called the forum a “great starting point,” but not all that is needed. “it’s hard to change things in an educational institution.”

Mount, one of the key presenters, said after the discussions that some, if not all, of the people who needed to hear the discussion were present.

“Ultimately, the administrators, the people that make the financial decisions,” need to listen, he said. “There is one missing contingent [here] though – the politicians.”

Senate chair Lloyd Fraser says a report on the day’s discussion will be presented to the Senate and made available to the public.