Despite the claims of some observers, Ontario’s professors are teaching as many students as they did a decade ago, and face mounting workload pressure.
Claims that faculty members are teaching less – made by a small collection of policy merchants — are based more on anecdote than observation. More to the point, they are misdirected. The only publicly available information on the number of courses taught by full-time faculty is found in collective agreements which stipulate the number of courses considered to be the “normal” teaching load. It is no coincidence that before the double cohort almost none of the university faculty association agreements identified a specific number of courses. It was much more typical for course assignment to be based on the norms of the respective academic units, taking into account such factors as class size, the level and type of the courses, etc.
To be sure, faculty members may seek to teach fewer courses because they have a more research-intensive workload, but it is important to acknowledge how much course load reductions can be understood as a reaction to government decisions and their effects on faculty workload. The double cohort increased the number of undergraduate students. The subsequent expansion of graduate studies not only increased (and continues to increase) the number of students, but affects the type and intensity of engagement between students and faculty. The increase in undergraduate and graduate students has outstripped growth in the number of full-time faculty; no wonder, then, that workload has increased. A recent OCUFA poll found that 73 per cent of faculty believed their workload had increased. Whether through the adoption of language stipulating course load maximums or the application of teaching load norms, the simplest way to cope with this workload pressure is to manage the number of courses taught.
But the number of courses taught does not directly correspond to the number of students taught. We know that class sizes have been steadily increasing; the decision to teach fewer courses (with more students) allows a professor to accommodate more students – and the increase in workload that comes with them – by reducing the time needed to prepare for additional courses.
There are no publicly available data from which to infer class sizes with any precision, but we can use student-faculty ratios as a proxy to illustrate what happens when class sizes increase and the number of courses taught by a faculty member is reduced. The following table shows how many students a faculty member might teach if they were to teach 4, 5 or 6 half courses. If someone was teaching six courses in 2000-01 and five courses in 2005-06, they are teaching approximately the same number of students, and even more in 2010-11. The picture is much the same for someone who moves from teaching five courses to four.
Ontario currently has the worst student-to-faculty ratio in Canada, at 28-1. This means larger courses, fewer course choices, and less face-to-face contact between professors and their students. The solution is simple: allow universities to higher more full-time faculty through renewed government investment.