Research meets the Front Page


By Krista Vogt

As a full time practitioner in the student services field and flex-time PhD student, I read a lot of higher education literature, so when I saw the Globe and Mail’s Our Time to Lead series a few weekends ago, I was intrigued. The series put forward important questions about higher education that we as a society should be considering. As I continued to follow the series over the next two weeks, I began to see connections between the Globe and Mail articles and themes emerging from the Supporting Student Success research project.

Our Time to Lead Theme #1: The purpose of higher education should be to prepare the next generation of citizens.

The Our Time to Lead articles have different ideas about just what is meant by the statement above. Mark Kingwell and James Bradshaw argued that developing critical thinking in students who have a breadth of knowledge is most important while Erin Anderssen and Graham Carr stated that practical skills and real world experience were most important.

The focus of the Supporting Student Success research project is to understand students, staff, faculty, and senior leader’s perceptions of how their campus organizes to support student success. Clearly, we are not looking to determine the purpose of higher education Ontario. However, over the course of our interviews and focus groups, several themes have emerged which speak to the Globe and Mail’s first theme regarding higher education and a well-trained citizenry.

At many of the institutions we have visited the faculty, staff and administrators talk about the role students play in the success of their peers. Students are partners with their institutions in helping support student success serving in para-professional roles and as student leaders of campus clubs and organizations. Student involvement with student affairs and student clubs provides them with the practical experience and skill development they will need in the workforce.

I see myself as a partner, and when someone taps you on the shoulder, you need to be sure to go with it and be ready to do the same later on ~ University Student Leader

We heard from both colleges and universities how the institutions are embedded in their communities. Service learning projects in the local community, whole classes providing a service for a local business through project work, or local field placements or internships are all examples of the types of experiential learning described in our interviews.

it’s helping them to understand more than just what they are studying. I also see students as citizens and we need to think about how to get them involved more in the communities ~ University Faculty member

Our Time to Lead Theme #2:Higher education in Canada needs more consistency in order to train future generations.

The Globe contributors argue about just how to accomplish the training of the future workforce, the future citizens of Canada (theme #1).  Different authors offer solutions for the postsecondary sector; some call for universities to create a core curriculum; others think a  national strategy is the answer; while still others insist that cooperation between colleges and universities is the ultimate solution.

In the Supporting Student Success research project, we heard a lot about inconsistency and duplication of efforts, but we also heard about comprehensive multi-year plans developed through broad consultation with faculty, staff and students. Canada’s colleges and universities are large complex bureaucracies which operate largely along academic disciplines and where decentralization has long been the custom. Research participants spoke of the large role accountability now plays in university operations. They commented on the struggle to provide the best possible student experience in an environment of stamping out inefficiencies and following regulations .

We are offering just in time service delivery. In terms of the team approach everyone will be housed together we are creating hubs of service delivery. The team that will work collaboratively to make sure we customize the experience for each student as best we can. ~ College Senior Administrator

In a time of fiscal restraint, different areas within the institutions are competing for resources. The academic mission of the college or university must be supported. However, viewed holistically, student success also means supporting students in their personal and professional development in addition to the academic development. We heard student affairs staff, students and administrators tell us about the push and pull between academics and extra-curriculars.

There is a huge communication gap and awareness gap between [different] sides of the university. ~ University Senior Administrator

Our Time to Lead Theme #3:Teaching in postsecondary education needs to be explored and reimagined.

In her article Have universities forgotten how to teach?, Erin Anderssen explores the tension between teaching and research in universities. She examines issues of faculty incentives for good teaching, as well as funding models which use sessional instructors instead of full tenured professors. The article questions the idea of creating purely undergraduate teaching institutions.

In our interviews with students, we heard over and over that faculty play a key role in supporting student success. Faculty are the front line of any college or university. A student’s postsecondary experience is profoundly affected by what happens in the classroom. Both students and faculty gave us numerous examples of faculty acting a mentorship role for students both inside and outside of the classroom. We heard how the relationship between students and faculty play a role in student success; influencing the student’s on campus experience as well as future career directions.

Students need to know you care before they care. And I can take so much, just from that one idea, if they know that you care, and you’re concerned, then all of a sudden they can become connected. And to me, everything else comes from that. ~ College Faculty Member

However, faculty, especially younger faculty told us about the tension between teaching and research. These faculty members, seeking tenure, face immense pressure to ensure their research is progressing and they are publishing whenever possible. Because their tenure is largely based on their research record, many faculty place more effort on their research. Many reported feeling overwhelmed and overcommitted.

That is a little bit, the balance between expectations of the institution for us to teach and research and also to contribute to student success in a broader form of student success is a challenge and I have not been able to find a good balance for that lately. ~ University Faculty Member

The connections between the Globe and Mail articles and themes emerging from the Supporting Student Success research project give me comfort that we’re on the right track. Both the newspaper series and our research project demonstrate the real need to keep students and their success at the forefront of our national conversation


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