For the first time ever at UBC the contributions of student tuition fees exceeded provincial government contributions to UBC’s core budget. This startling fact was the backdrop to a strenuous grilling of UBC’s VP Finance and Provost Peter Smailes by governors at the Friday the 13 meeting of UBC’s Board of Governors’ standing committee for finance.
Given the fact students contribute more to UBC’s budget than the provincial government, governors asked why more wasn’t being done to enhance the student experience. By way of explanation the provost reiterated UBC’s commitment to the student experience. In a back-and-forth with a governor the provost outlined a range of programs that focus on enhancing the student experience. At several points the chair of the Board would intervene and press the provost for more explanations and elaboration. For his part the provost responded in a measured and deliberate tone outlining the programs in play, conceding more could be done, and affirming the importance of students in the overall process.
As a faculty member listening to this, I wondered about the background discourse undergirding the discussion. How is focussing on a student’s experience at UBC related to our core mission: education and research? What is actually being meant by experience? Why is no one questioning the inadequacy of the government’s core contribution? What about our contingent colleagues? Our part-time precarious colleagues pick up a great deal of the teaching responsibilities across our campuses. Is there not something we can do to improve their working conditions? Remember, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. From my perspective all these questions received short shrift.
I did take the opportunity to ask the provost, given how financially sound our university is, why more funds couldn’t be directed toward improving the living and working conditions of contingent faculty. However, this was never elaborated upon after the fact.
More questions followed highlighting how the student experience needed to be enhanced as a priority to which the provost engaged in lengthy and detailed elaborations of how that might be accomplished. One could be excused for concluding that it seemed that since students pay so much, their experience was to be front and center.
We all come from particular experiences and backgrounds. Student representatives build upon a time horizon of their studies and their annual terms of office. Appointed reps come from outside the university and have varying degrees of familiarity with UBC. Faculty governors tend to be lifers. We often have one, two, even three decades of experience at UBC by the time we consider getting involved at the Board. We do see things differently than our colleagues on the Board. Some of us are quiet — preferring to speak softly from the margins. Others are more brash and outspoken. But we all share a fundamental material experience of actually working at the front line of the student experience: in classrooms, laboratories, and our units. We do so from the vantage point of years of hands-on experience — we are not transitory visitors on our campuses.
Part of our experience is to see the various fashions of student politics and administrative plans come and go. Sometimes these movements have real effects; often they are fleeting and disappear almost before they are fully deployed.
There is much about the university as a total institution that seems driven to cultivate experiences. A lot of Board discussion circles around ideas of reputation and brand. Who pays and how much they pay (be they governments, donors, or students) is also a big deal. Cultivating a good experience for students is central to many of these discussions.
What is this experience that everyone is talking about? I hear about classroom experience, residence experience, and student experience writ large. Very little of it seems to be specifically tied to learning (unless it’s about more engaging, entertaining, learning with technology). While I’m sure some Board colleagues will disagree with this conclusion, it does seem to me that the experience being touted is really the experience of a customer seeking fulfilment through the purchase of a service. What is seen as important is not what is learned, but the grade; not the productive struggle of learning but the validation of self in a great experience as a member of an imagined community. A good student experience very likely leads to a productive alumni relationship — one where the alumni feels good about giving money.
If you are seeking an experience, take a year off and hike the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail Go to a circus. If you want an education then head on over to a lecture, read a book, join a seminar. Let’s focus on the real learning that is made possible by your faculty (tenure stream and contingent). Want to improve the student experience? Then bring on board more faculty to teach courses with smaller class sizes. Pay contingent faculty living wages. Better yet, create meaningful job security for contingent faculty.
If we are interested in improving the student experience, then we have to make sure that faculty working conditions are attended to. Our working conditions are student learning conditions. You can’t have the latter without the former. The solutions are pretty simple: reduce class size, increase support for faculty in terms of teaching (in class and for course development and professional growth), reduce reliance of customer satisfaction surveys and delink from performance evaluation (otherwise called student evaluations of teaching), decrease focus on star recruitment and improve working conditions and employment security for contingent faculty.
Charles Menzies is a professor of anthropology and an elected member of the UBC Board. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UBC or the Board of Governors.