Undergrads lose out

May 1, 1998

THE Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has savaged the standards of teaching for undergraduates at top United States research universities.

In a report just published, it concludes that they are treated as "second-class citizens", whose fees pay the bills, but who tend to get less than their money's worth. Many are allowed to graduate "still lacking a coherent body of knowledge ... without knowing how to think logically, write clearly, or speak coherently".

One solution, it suggests, would be to get undergraduates involved in research from the moment they reach university.

The report, Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities, blames the problem on the relegation of teaching duties to graduate students, who have little formal training and are sometimes from overseas and with poor English skills.

"Baccalaureate (undergraduate) students are the second-class citizens who are allowed to pay taxes but are barred from voting, the guests at the banquet who pay their share of the tab but are given leftovers," the report complains.

It calls for "radical reconstruction", recommending undergraduates be taught in smaller groups and become involved in research conducted by senior staff.

Undergraduates should enjoy "inquiry-based learning" rather than the old pattern of lecturing and note-taking, of "listen, transcribe, absorb, repeat". In the sciences, they should become junior members of research teams. In the humanities, they should have the chance to work with primary materials, it says.

The report recommends an "intellectual eco system", where everyone learns from each other and professors are "scholar-teachers" who "treat the sites of their research as seminar rooms", open to graduates and undergraduates to "observe and participate" in the process of discovery.

The report was produced by an 11-member commission, including Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, Stanley Ikenberry, president of the American Council on Education, and Chang Lin Tien, former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.

But it bore the stamp of Ernest Boyer, Carnegie's past president, who died in December 1995. Dr Boyer, a former chancellor of the State University of New York and a US commissioner of education, was the driving force behind other Carnegie reports - College: the Undergraduate Experience in America, and Scholarship Reconsidered - that in the past decade have deplored the weaknesses of undergraduate education.

In unusually harsh language, the new report takes to task the 125 US research universities. Defined as institutions that have substantial doctoral programmes and research funding, they include most of the country's best known names, from Stanford to Yale.

The research institutions make up only 3 per cent of all universities and colleges, yet because of their large size award nearly a third of US bachelor's degrees.

The panel singled out Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for criticism as well as the large public universities of Kent State and Alabama.

The criticism was especially noteworthy because large universities have for years been promising to put more emphasis on teaching in response to criticism from students, families and lawmakers.

But this has not occurred. Some studies suggest that university administrators and faculty staff are beginning to get the message but only "cosmetic surgery" has taken place rather than "radical reconstruction".

"Universities are guilty of an advertising practice they would condemn in the commercial world," charges the report. "Recruitment materials display proudly the world-famous professors, the splendid facilities and the ground-breaking research that goes on within them, but thousands of students graduate without ever seeing the world-famous professors or tasting genuine research."

It is unclear what immediate impact the report will have. Some of the recent political pressure on universities, with the demand for value for money and "accountability", may be easing with economic good times.

But its conclusions - and strong wording - were widely covered in the media, from the New York Times to the lower-brow USA Today, and generated 15,000 "hits" on a worldwide web site within a week.

"I hope the discussions will intensify," said Shirley Kenny, president of New York University at Stony Brook, who headed the commission. "From the response it has generated, it is clear that this is an issue of great concern. This really is a call to arms. We have got to get serious, to get this thing fixed."

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