Cuts & the curriculum

Vice-Principal (Academic)’s discussion paper calls for quality to be kept high despite drastic cuts

“Contexts and Imperatives for Renewing the Curriculum,” a discussion paper on the curriculum released by Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane is seeking to start a conversation about keeping curriculum quality high despite financial challenges.

“In the context of our academic mission, change is on its own neither good nor bad, desirable nor undesirable. For the quality of that mission, however, it is vitally important that at least the opportunity for change present itself at reasonable intervals, that basic questions be regularly asked and answered, that what is taught and the structures within which it is taught, be confirmed as appropriate to the state of learning within any particular discipline,” Deane said in the report.

The report goes on to discuss the budget cuts the University has been forced to make in recent years and the effect they have had on the academic milieu.

“At Queen’s University we have seen budget cuts, averaging 2.5 per cent per year in 12 of the last 16 years, for much of which period year-to-year uncertainties have impeded our ability to make decisions properly informed by our goals and ambitions in the longer term,” Deane states in the report.

“While one or two years of short-term, contingent decision-making need not be significantly damaging in a context such as ours, it is obvious that such cannot be the norm—at least, not without seriously negative consequences for the quality of our programs and academic activities in general.”

Deane said Queen’s predicament is more complicated than money alone.

“Circumstances are what they are, yet they need not dictate the quality of our response; no more need they preclude academic values as the basis on which program and other institutional decisions will be made,” he said. “On the contrary, in the context of our determination to offer the highest quality education in Canada, they require us to make decisions according to the most rigorous academic principles and with the utmost creativity and invention.”

Deane said when he began working on the report, the University’s financial prospects were considerably less dire, adding that the paper changed in tone as the financial crisis deepened.

Deane said he wants the paper to foster dialogue about the curriculum.

“It was to be a catalyst to discussion,” he said. “The curriculum is that range of courses in both the fostering of skills and subject matter that the faculty members believe is applicable for students who would like to graduate with a degree in that area of study.”

Deane said it’s necessary to continue a dialogue about the curriculum of each department to ensure it remains relevant.

“The discipline does shift. … It’s in the nature of academic disciplines to change themselves,” he said. “The belief is that our excellence is tied up to the currency of our program.”

The range of courses offered in a given department isn’t always an accurate reflection of the current state of the discipline, Deane said.

“Courses get on the books because of the people who want to teach them. … There are other things that are there that perhaps shouldn’t be there.

“The curriculum becomes this peculiar mixture of courses the academics in the department wish to teach because they think they’re essential and courses the budget will allow them to mount.”

Deane said he thinks department heads should design degree programs with the cumulative result in mind.

“Departments are required now to talk about outcomes and objectives. … Any good professor will have always thought about outcomes.”

Deane said he doesn’t think it’s necessary to cut departments entirely in situations of budgetary constraint, but acknowledged that some sacrifices might have to be made.

“I think it’s a very serious time for the University. … There are many aspects to the challenges we face.”

In order to uphold its reputation of quality, Deane said Queen’s will have to use the resources it has to the best academic effect.

“When resources are scarce, not every department will be capable of achieving the same level of distinction. I think to some extent the University has to make some strategic decisions,” he said, adding that he thinks major erosion of departments is unlikely.

But Deane remains optimistic that the University will be able to maintain its high standards.

“Logic would suggest that as resources decline, quality is bound to suffer,” he said. “That’s why the curriculum paper suggests not accepting that view.”

To read “Contexts and Imperatives for Renewing the Curriculum,” go to queensjournal.ca

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