Initial and on-going challenges continue as TRU transitions into a research university

Samantha Garvey, Contributor Ω

Huge lecture halls, like this one at UBC, are common at large research universities, and some worry TRU is on a path toward that fate. - PHOTO COURTESY LEOBOUDV/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Huge lecture halls, like this one at UBC, are common at large research universities, and some worry TRU is on a path toward that fate. – PHOTO COURTESY LEOBOUDV/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Andrew McKay remembers sitting in class as a University of British Columbia (UBC) freshman. The lecture hall was large, he said, with capacity for 400 students. The professor told each of them to look to his left and to his right and know that only one of three people would make it to graduation.

It was a daunting sentiment and not an uncommon one. McKay did make it to graduation, as well as further graduate studies and now serves as TRU’s associate vice president of research and graduate studies.

UBC is a research university. There are four in total in B.C., including University of Victoria (UVic), Simon Fraser University (SFU) and University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). There are five other universities that are classified as teaching universities. TRU is not classified as either. The school is not even included in the province’s University Act, which outlines and defines the purposes and procedures of B.C.’s universities.

TRU’s technical classification is a special-purpose university and its legislation is the Thompson Rivers University Act. The defining characteristic of the institution is its Centre for B.C. Open Learning, the flagship of courses and degrees offered in the online format. Up until 2011, TRU has had no identity in the research/teaching division of B.C. universities. But in October 2011, TRU joined the Research Universities Council of British Columbia (RUCBC), a council that supports and collaborates with research universities to improve the quality accessibility and coordination of university education. Through this, TRU declared its intentions of its future course.

But what does this mean for students? Does becoming a research university mean TRU undergrads will sit in a 400-seat lecture hall and expect two of every three students to flunk out? Probably not, but the transition to a research university will not be a simple or easy one.

The story up until now

TRU is in its infancy as a Canadian university; the institution is still developing its identity and future in the landscape of post-secondary education. The school evolved from University College of the Cariboo (UCC) in 2005. According to McKay, one of the reasons the school wanted to change into full university status was to introduce graduate programs. Master of science in environmental science, master of education and master of business administration were subsequently added.

However, TRU graduate studies get no extra funding from the provincial government. McKay said this was agreed to between the government and university when creating the new school.

“It’s a base grant to fund all direct, indirect and support costs of the school,” he said.

Even through a declaration of intending to become a research university, there is no immediate boost of government funding to match the research school level.

Although the level of funding from the B.C. government has increased by 20.7 per cent since 2005, this is still far less than that of other research universities in the province. (From 2001 to 2011, UBC’s government funding increased approximately 77 per cent, UNBC’s approximately 58 per cent and Royal Roads University approximately 93 per cent.) TRU is funded by taxpayer dollars in accordance with teaching universities in B.C., according to a spokesperson with the ministry of advanced education.  In the 2010-11 school year, TRU received approximately $8,800 per student, which is similar to that of teaching universities in the province (Capilano University received approximately $6,700, University of the Fraser Valley, approximately $7,937). Research universities UBC and UNBC each received more than $13,000 per student in the 2010-11 school year.

According to Will Garrett-Petts, associate vice-president of research and graduate studies at TRU, the government grant is altered to add approximately $20,000 per graduate student at other research universities. He added that TRU has approximately 170 graduate students.

The government grant is not the only category in which TRU’s funding falls short of other research universities. The major research grant councils in Canada are Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and they are responsible for major contributions to research in Canada.

In a study by the University of Ottawa published in August 2012, TRU ranked 55th out of 55 Canadian universities in funding from NSERC in sciences and engineering research. In social sciences and humanities, the school ranked 46th out of 55 in funding from SSHRC. These low ranks in funding were indicative of the rankings for research output (54 in sciences and humanities and 36 in social sciences and humanities).

The school may have declared intent to increase its research status, but government funding, grant funding and research output are major challenges to overcome.

Royal Roads University in Victoria is one of the six members of the Research Universities Council of B.C., which TRU joined in October 2011. - PHOTO COURTESY MUHAMMAD GHOURI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Royal Roads University in Victoria is one of the six members of the Research Universities Council of B.C., which TRU joined in October 2011. – PHOTO COURTESY MUHAMMAD GHOURI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Research Universities Council of B.C.

In October 2011, TRU joined the Research Universities Council of B.C. (RUCBC), a group that consists of the four research universities in the province and the other special-purpose university, Royal Roads (specialized in applied and professional fields). Membership in the RUCBC has no bearing on provincial government funding.

“The government decides on allocation of funding based on (the school’s) program mix,” said RUCBC vice-president Blair Littler.

“If you’ve got a medical school, your funding will be higher than just undergraduate programs,” he said. “Research is a different kettle of fish.”

What membership in the council does provide to TRU is linkages to similar universities, better sharing of information and best practices. For example, “there’s a committee of VPs of research that meet every six or eight weeks. There’s a learning process from each institution of what activities are going on, discussion of granting councils which allows to TRU to better apply,” Littler said.

It was TRU that approached the council to join. According to Garrett-Petts, this serves as “a public declaration of our intention.”

The member schools fund the council. Littler estimated that TRU contributes approximately $60,000 to $70,000 per year, made up of a small base fee and then allocated based on the school’s budget and government grant.

Despite TRU’s low rankings in funding from granting councils and research output, Littler said he thinks the school is doing well in its applications for a new university. He explained that funding from organizations like NSERC and SSHRC are competitive.

“TRU is starting out and doing well in those competitions,” Littler said. “TRU is a relatively new university and you don’t go into it… at first place. It’s a gradual process. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

The research university transition

The Thompson Rivers University Act was written to include graduate studies in addition to baccalaureate, post-secondary and adult-basic education. Under its purpose it also states that the school is “to undertake and maintain research and scholarly activities…”

In a 2005 meta-analysis by the Canadian Council for Learning, a review of 30 articles on the subject found a common observation among quantitative, qualitative, editorials, reviews and reports:

“Institutions appear to have realized that there is, at least in perception if not fact, too much emphasis placed on research, which may be detrimental to undergraduate students’ educational needs,” the study stated.

Garrett-Petts said this dichotomy between teaching and research does exist, mostly in large research-intensive universities, but is not yet a concern to TRU, which is much smaller and has a long history of teaching.

“We’re nowhere near that kind of scenario,” he said.

“It is incumbent upon all of us… to ensure that the learning environment of students does not start to slip,” McKay said.

Other findings of the study indicated that “faculty believe themselves dutifully engaged in their simultaneous roles as educators and researchers.” However, it also concluded that “the reward system at research universities favours research and publication over teaching” and “the attempts of institutions to change curriculum and focus are often met by resistance from faculty.”

Garrett-Petts said there is always hesitation with change but he feels the faculty is very supportive. He added that the incentives, rewards and recognition for faculty based on their teaching merits is an indication that TRU will not change focus to overlook the university’s commitment to teaching.

Faculty at the school also came from a research-void environment.

“There is untapped research capacity in many faculty,” McKay said, noting that many might feel uninvolved in research but the school has the ability to change that. So far, the institution set up an internal research fund for faculty of $150,000 provided in $3,000 to $5,000 grants.

Because the school evolved from an undergrad-only institution, there is a lot of research being done at the undergraduate level. Garrett-Petts said TRU has been successful in incorporating research into undergraduate programs. The school has set aside $160,000 to fund undergraduate research projects through its UREAP program (Undergraduate Student Research Experience Award Program).

“By the time you get to third and fourth year you should be engaged in research,” Garrett-Petts said.

According to the same meta-analysis, undergraduate students who participate with faculty in research are more likely to pursue graduate studies.

Going forward

Garrett-Petts said the office of research and graduate studies is beginning a new strategic research plan over the next nine to 10 months to increase the level of research done at the university. The plan will include an examination of what kinds of research should be done and how to balance that with a long-standing commitment to teaching.

He said there are not definitive answers to what the strategic research plan will conclude, but some obvious areas of discussion. One is infrastructure and what kind of external funding to bring in to support new facilities. Another is which areas to develop graduate programs for based on what areas are already established in research output. Finally, the plan will look at creating a collaborative research culture that connects those already conducting research with one another to become mutually supportive.

Garrett-Petts said he recognizes the shortfall in graduate studies funding from the government.

“Those are real constraints, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved in research,” he said.