Despite the university’s intention to shift undergraduate programs to the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses and focus the St. George campus solely on graduate and professional education as part of the Towards 2030 plan, undergraduate education has undergone a renaissance in the past decade.
Colleges have been the main drivers of this renewal, resuming the academic role that they largely gave up in the 1970s and 1980s. The renewal of the colleges’ academic role is symbolized by the “One” programs, pioneered by Victoria College, which allow first-year students to take integrated, small courses in a specific field. All the colleges — and, starting in the fall, the Munk School of Global Affairs — now offer their own “One” programs. The renewal of the colleges’ academic role seems set to continue. While the university administration has not repudiated the controversial Towards 2030 report, few steps towards downsizing undergraduate education have been made. Trinity and Victoria, under new Dean of Arts Michael Radcliffe and Principal Angela Esterhammer respectively, have both recently established new streams of their One programs, the former focusing on public policy and the latter on the arts and society. Victoria has also established a Vic Two program, intended to extend the experience of small, focused seminars into second-year.
For the next phase of this renaissance, college and university leadership should look beyond the One programs. These programs have been extraordinarily valuable, but do little for students during the rest of their time in university. Their goal should be to deliver on the oft-repeated line that the colleges offer students the unique opportunity to be part of small academic and social communities within a large university. Ideally, a student’s college should have almost as much bearing on the quality of their academic experience — and by extension, on their development as citizens and leaders — as their program of study.
In order to fulfill the promise of colleges as true academic homes for students, there are several steps that the college and university leadership should take. First, they ought to supplement the valuable work done by college-based writing centres and require that all students take at least one course intended to develop their public speaking and writing skills. These skills are not only crucial for success in undergraduate education, but more importantly for the further education and work that students pursue after university. While some departments attempt to impart these skills to their students, the quality of these efforts is inconsistent.
Second, the colleges should require that all students develop and demonstrate leadership skills during their undergraduate education. The simplest way to do this would be to require students to involve themselves in campus life or, ideally, in community service, as is currently done at Ontario high schools. The colleges could take a role in matching students with organizations that need volunteers. More ambitious colleges might sponsor service projects of their own in partnership with community organizations and institutions, and encourage students to take on meaningful roles in managing them.
Finally, the colleges should also generate opportunities for their students to be exposed to the big problems of our time in their fourth year, by creating courses to complement the One programs. These courses, which would focus on topics ranging from Canada’s relations with China to climate change to terrorism, would charge students on interdisciplinary teams with developing policy proposals to address these challenges. The colleges would be ideal homes for these “capstone” courses since they unite students from across the disciplines in a way that no other academic unit does. The college and university leadership, including university president-designate Meric Gertler, would do well to introduce these changes and thereby ensure that the renewal of the colleges’ academic role continues.
Patrick Baud, a Victoria College student, participated in the ethics stream of the Margaret MacMillan Trinity One program in his first year. His column appears every two weeks.