Universities urged to collaborate on courses

ERIC SMITH | Graduate students should have more access to faculty and resources at other Quebec universities.

This is one recommendation common to all the disciplines studied by two task forces mandated to find ways of maintaining and enhancing academic quality in Quebec universities at a time of staff depletion and other cutbacks.

CREPUQ's Commission des universités sur les programmes examined physics, math and computer science in its fifth report. In its sixth report, the commission looked at chemistry and what it calls life sciences which, for McGill, include the Departments of Biology, Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology, Physiology, and Anatomy and Cell Biology.

To varying degrees, and across the Quebec university network, all of the disciplines are experiencing a loss of faculty to retirement. Although, for the most part, student demand in these disciplines is stable or growing, new hiring isn't replenishing departments.

Physics is especially hard hit across the province. At McGill, the report projects that the Department of Physics will have lost seven of its 30 professors, close to 25%, between 1995 and 2001.

Associate Vice-Principal (Academic) Nick de Takacsy is McGill's representative to the commission. He is one of the authors of the subcommission's fifth report and is himself a physics professor. He says that although the situation with his McGill department looks particularly dire, the numbers can be misleading since, unlike Concordia and Université de Montréal which are deprioritizing physical sciences and even shutting down some departments, McGill has no policy preventing the department from hiring new professors.

Some of physics' difficulties are compounded by the fact that the discipline is not generating the same enthusiasm among new students as biological or computer sciences. "Students who, in the past, might have picked physics for a challenge to the intellect are now more likely to choose bio-sciences," says de Takacsy. "There's a lot of fun stuff going on there right now."

The report recommends that physics students be encouraged to take courses and use facilities at other Montreal universities as early as their third undergraduate year. And although according to de Takacsy "there is nothing to prevent a McGill student from taking an advanced astrophysics course at U of M," he adds that the department will be looking at ways to make that easier through joint course planning.

The intent, de Takacsy stresses, is to provide students with added value. "We will make sure that a student admitted to McGill will be able to graduate with an honours degree in physics entirely at McGill."

For computer science, some of the challenges are similar to those facing physics, but unlike physics, demand here is growing rapidly. The demand is coming from industry where, in Quebec alone, according to the report, there are 2,000 unfilled positions requiring computer science graduates and 100 times that many in North America. It's also coming from prospective students who are applying to computer science departments in record numbers. And universities must compete with industry to hire top computer scientists.

As with physics, the report recommends students take advantage of all Montreal university course offerings starting in their third undergraduate year. But it also makes some recommendations to attempt to spread demand for computer science graduates to other disciplines.

Computer science, as a discipline, is not always well understood. It is often equated with computer programming both by employers and by prospective students. In fact, no programming is taught in university computer science programs, which focus on algorithmic thinking and the theoretical underpinnings of computer systems.

As a result, across Quebec, computer science has the highest drop-out rate of students, who are surprised to discover the academic nature of the discipline after they are enrolled. According to the report, a better explanation of computer science is required at the CEGEP level, where there are computer programming courses but no computer science.

Of course computer science departments do produce graduates who are very skilled programmers, but according to de Tackacsy, industry is as likely to find this talent among graduates of other science disciplines. "To what extent do people need computer scientists or curious, research-minded, innovative people who know computers?" asks de Takacsy. "A lot of the demand can be met by using people who have developed creative problem solving in other disciplines."

With respect to mathematics and statistics, the commission again found a need to provide better access to interuniversity resources at both the graduate and advanced undergraduate level, but it also identified a couple of challenges specific to the discipline.

One is a lack of mathematical training of teachers at the high school level. Math departments, the report concludes, need to enrol more prospective teachers into their programs and rely less on education faculties to provide all their training.

The report also recommends that math departments be solely responsible for all mathematics and statistics courses given at a university. Although de Takacsy presided over the subcommission, he expresses some doubts with respect to this recommendation.

"My purely personal opinion is that it is important for math and statistics to be closely allied with the math department," he says, "but I'm not excited by the idea that all statistics courses are given by people in the math department. Statistics are used as a tool integrated to many other disciplines like psychology and epidemiology. It's something to think about."

Biology professor Daniel Schoen sat on the subcommission studying chemistry and biological sciences. Its report reflected some of the strategies in the other report, though it stressed interuniversity solutions primarily for graduate students.

McGill's biology department has been hard hit by staff depletion with a net loss of seven out of 40 professors between 1992 and 1997. As a result, according to Schoen, McGill's Department of Biology has focused on what it does best -- molecular biology and ecology and evolution -- at the expense of some other facets of the discipline. Although Schoen says "there is enough strength at the undergraduate level," he adds, "It's clear there is an effort to make better use of expertise across Quebec."

As with computer science, molecular biology and biotechnology are two disciplines that are in heavy demand both from industry and prospective students. In Quebec in particular, the biotechnology sector is currently expanding.

Schoen's subcommission heard from industry that "there is a need for students to be able to communicate better with people outside." One recommendation in the report is that students be encouraged to take courses in related but peripheral disciplines like management and ethics.

Overall the chemistry and biological sciences report made fewer recommendations than the report on physics, math and computer science. "It's a pretty innocuous report," says Schoen. "There's good news in the sense that no serious damage to existing programs seems to be on the horizon."