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President’s message / The quandary of academic accommodation

President’s message / The quandary of academic accommodation

By Peter McInnis

Recent studies of Canadian universities and colleges indicate an exponential increase in the percentage of undergraduate students seeking academic accommodations. This is a global phenomenon exacerbated by the pandemic, the spiralling cost of a post-secondary degree or diploma, and familial anticipation that students will make the most of their educational opportunities.

Surveys of the transition to post-secondary studies show significant declines in grades when undergraduate support is insufficient, leading to a decline in retention. The mental health of students, for too long inadequately addressed, is a consistent theme in the rise of requests for more help. We are now more aware of the harmful consequences of extended social media use for developing minds.

Human rights codes and institutional policies support efforts for academic success and an accessible learning environment. Indeed, the duty to accommodate has been embedded in provincial human rights codes, sustained by numerous arbitration cases, since the 1990s.

Less emphasized in this process are the expectations placed on academic staff when accommodating students. Such provisions usually include help with notetaking, extra time or different formats for exams, and flexible deadlines for assignments. In the past, a small number of students sought academic accommodation, and this was duly addressed by instructors.

This situation has changed dramatically as statistics indicate a doubling or tripling of cases over the last ten years. While academic staff remain supportive of the needs of their students, this increase has often not been accompanied by the necessary institutional framework. Budgetary restrictions exacerbate the prospect of remedial action.

The result is a patchwork of improvised responses that may fail to adequately support everyone’s academic success.

The rapid expansion of international students, over one million in 2023, offers another angle to the need for accommodation. There remains a consensus that international students offer positive cultural diversity to a society still wrestling with equity and multiculturalism. Given chronic underfunding, however, international students have become an indispensable source of revenue. Seeking equilibrium in the admission of such students is proving challenging as academic preparation may fall short of expectations.

This is particularly prevalent for proficiency in English or French languages. Research studies in English as an Additional Language (EAL) suggest a consistent gap in fluency and ineffective administrative oversight when the target is to maximize intake rather than to ensure spaces for the most qualified students. Pathway programs for admission may address some of these issues, yet problems persist and inevitably land on the desk of the academic staff supervising these courses.

The CAUT Policy Statement on International Students makes clear the responsibility to manage this situation rests with senior administration. “Where appropriate, institutions should provide academic staff with resources and professional development opportunities to facilitate teaching, supervision, evaluation methods, provision of library services, etc. that may assist in accommodating the special needs of international students. Such accommodations may in no way be imposed on academic staff or detract from their academic freedom rights to determine pedagogical methods and standards. Any increase in workload or exacerbation of workload inequities among academic staff that may result from their provision of assistance to international students should be recognized and remunerated accordingly.”

The advent of generative artificial intelligence further complicates the responsibilities of academic staff. Student evaluations may require significant changes to comply with institutional directives to curtail the use of ChatGPT or similar chatbots. The time necessary to redesign course materials and scrutinize submitted assignments adds to the course load of instructors. Student anxieties about effective time management or functioning in a second language may offer an irresistible enticement to resort to AI-assisted solutions.

Call this a technological accommodation or the brave new world of post-secondary teaching, but the consequence is more work hours for academic staff.

So, how must we best accommodate these accommodations? As the requests increase, there needs to be careful assessment in the application of such remedies to sustain students, staff and faculty. The capacity for adequate support in many instances far exceeds demand.

Academic staff associations must be active participants in any ongoing dialogue. Collective agreements should include language that clarifies expectations based on realistic assessments of workloads. Contract academic staff are especially vulnerable and must be duly compensated. The issue of sustainable academic accommodation has been lurking beneath the surface, and it’s time we address it in the spirit of fairness and equity.

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