Montreal Gazette COLUMN
The government has undermined CEGEPs' early promise
Colleges have lost their flexibility. Students no longer have the opportunity to experiment with several fields of study
Sunday, March 14, 2004

Dawson College is Quebec's largest CEGEP. Bureaucratic impediments stifle its teachers' creativity.

As a teacher in the largest department of the largest cegep (Dawson College) since 1972, I have been following the debate about cegeps and the teaching profession with great interest. Both sides are correct: cegeps are still very effective institutions staffed by highly professional teachers, but their effectiveness has been systematically undermined for years.

Notwithstanding the self-serving policies of Quebec school-board directors and universities (that wish to bag Grades 12 and 13 for their own institutions) and the criticisms of some members of the government, almost anyone who has attended a cegep or who has a child in the system knows the Quebec colleges are a resounding success despite government moves that reduced their funding, chipped away at their foundations and drastically limited their flexibility to serve both recent high school graduates and returning adults.

Ask 18-year-old students how their cegeps compare to high schools. You won't hear many students advocating the handover of post-secondary education to the high schools, as the school boards would like.

In fact, ask the Education Department how the cegeps fare. Programs and colleges alike have been rigourously evaluated. Most proved excellent.

And anyone old enough to remember when 16-year-olds entered university directly from Grade 11 should appreciate the advantages of an institution created for kids too old for hall monitors, uniforms and detentions, but too vulnerable for the sink-or-swim environment of a huge university.

Cegeps work well because cegep teachers are passionate professionals and researchers as well as enthusiastic educators, and because the college system allows young people to try out post-secondary options and to experience post-secondary freedoms without the high price that failure in a university entails. Unfortunately, both these strengths have been gradually eroded over the years.

Cegep teachers are equally educators and subject-matter specialists. High school teachers, in contrast, are primarily deliverers of learning; they hope to teach their areas of academic expertise, but their contracts do not protect them from sometimes having to teach unfamiliar or uncongenial subjects.

Often, they must follow a rigid provincial curriculum or use board-wide materials even if their own creativity and experience suggest a better way to teach the subject. University professors, on the other hand, are hired primarily for their research accomplishments and potential, with their teaching experience and ability secondary considerations at best.

Cegep teachers, uniquely, are both full-time teachers and specialists in the fields they teach. In the academic pre-university departments, cegep teachers usually hold research masters degrees - at Dawson, PhDs are common - while technology teachers are active, experienced members of the professions for which they are preparing students. These teachers bring their passion for their subjects to the classroom.

Many cegep teachers pursue professional development on their own time and expense. They publish creative work or academic research, even though the colleges do not require, support or reward research. Some of my colleagues are world-recognized experts in their fields. All cegep teachers, however, "publish" the results of their research in their classrooms every day, where they continually examine, criticize and generate knowledge.

The response of the Education Department to this exemplary professionalism has been: first, to create a steady stream of bureaucratic impediments to teachers' creativity while reducing their access to resources; second, to argue colleges ought to be able to ask teachers to teach outside of their areas of specialty when required; and third, to insist cegep teachers don't work hard enough and must, therefore, put in more hours. (When, I wonder: midnight to 4 a.m.? Mid-July?)

Unfortunately, our unions have been unwitting enablers in our deprofessionalization. Our unions' response to increasing workloads has been to negotiate elaborate, rigid formulas for computing workload that inadvertently restrict our flexibility.

In saving members' jobs, unions insist on seniority as the sole criterion for employment, ironically supporting the administrative desire to treat all teachers as interchangeable and forcing inexperienced teachers to take on maximum workloads in order to protect their place in the hierarchy.

Our unions rightly insist we are full-time professionals. Unfortunately, though, they also insist cegep teachers should work only at specifically enumerated and remunerated tasks.

A doctor walking past a person lying bleeding on the street does not fail to stop and help simply because her hospital shift has ended. A teacher does not cease grading essays or preparing classes at 5 p.m. on Friday just because he has already worked his contractual 361/2 hours for that week.

As professionals, we cannot continue to boycott these non-teaching activities without losing control over our professional lives and becoming mere technicians paid to carry out tasks designed by others.

Cegep founders wisely understood few 15-year-olds had the knowledge or maturity to select appropriate high school electives for a future profession or a specific area of post-secondary study. So Cegep admissions were flexible. Program changes were common. Sometimes, students took a term or two to discover where they belonged. We believed this student-centred flexibility meant we were doing our jobs.

Over the decades, however, successive governments thought differently. Success is now defined as getting in and out fast - and God help the 16-year-old who doesn't know where he's going.

In fact, 16 is now too late. A 14-year-old's choice of electives in Grade 9 or 10 limits her subsequent choice of cegep programs and, hence, of professions or university programs. No more second thoughts or second chances.

The cegeps also used to admit adults who wanted more education or retraining. In the past, we could accept almost any adult willing to learn, regardless of education, and we created programs tailored to the needs of adult.

No more. Our once-excellent programs through which so many people got a second chance at learning are now history. The high schools and universities can still admit these students but lacking cegep preparation in study skills, general education and confidence-building, these adults might have difficulties if and when they reach university.

The cegeps still work well but we must fight to return to the flexibility and vision of our founders, to win recognition for the professionalism of our teachers and to ensure that the mission of the cegeps remains not the creation of a narrowly trained work force, nor the preservation of jobs, but the education and professional formation of our students, something we do exceedingly well.

Elaine Bander teaches English at Dawson College.