Tracing the evolution of Trent’s educational vision and practices over the last 50 years

stairsTrent University is currently undergoing a pragmatic evolution from its original vision of liberal arts and science-oriented education it was built on, 50 years ago.

As much as Trent tried to resist the change, it still had to conform to the realities of 21st century as driven by the financial and social pressures over the years.

“The education model broke down for Trent as it grew, and more students started appearing,” said Chair of Biology Department, Professor Brad White, who has experienced two other Ontario universities undergo the same changes during his more than 30 years as a professor.

He said that the original vision of Trent was based on small student enrollment with a small number of students per faculty member.

During the ‘80s and ‘90s more students started appearing, specifically in sciences.

The biological sciences became the area where Trent generated revenue and used those revenues to support programs that didn’t have as many students. And in those programs the original model held.

According to him, humanities in particular maintained that original model at the expense of what has been called the cash cows: the big programs such as the life sciences that did not receive much resource, but generated the revenues.

“It is not a philosophical change at Trent, but it is a reality of lower resources per student,” he said.

The only way Trent has survived, according to him, is through the introduction of professional programs such as Forensics, Nursing, and Education. If it wasn’t for them, Trent would not have even any Humanities because those departments do not have enough students to support themselves, he said.

“Really from my perspective it is business decisions, it is not just having visions of a particular educational philosophy,” Says Professor White adding that it depends on what the provincial government gives the university.

He is of view that the intention of students going to university has changed, which is now geared more towards career than education. This perspective is from his early days in UK. When he went to university, no one he knew ever had gone to university, with only about eight percent of the population pursuing a university education. But in the current society more than 50 percent go to a university.

Further, now the educational experience in the university is much broader and that breadth has led to more of those individuals looking at the university as a career path, which is obviously what professional schools are for.

Besides, as the college system became more university oriented more of the students in general coming to university had that same goal; they had a view in mind as to what their career would be.

Trent has become part college and part University to some extent. For instance, the Nursing degree was a Fleming diploma, but after province required all nurses to get a degree, it became a university driven degree, but with Fleming College faculty as a part of it. Then there are certain areas (restoration ecology, wildlife biology) where students do two or three years at Fleming College then come to Trent.

Professor White said it is partly because since Peterborough is a small community there is a lot of cooperation between the university and the college, but it is also a part of the continent-wide trend to bring the more career applied side of colleges to the more academic side of the university.

A number of things had been going on in the last 50 years, in terms of demographics, as well as the students’ view of what a university is. At the end of the day the students are the customers. The more the students pays the more the students rightly should get what they are paying for.

Associate Professor of the Sociology department, Jim Conley, a senior professor at Trent, said that the original vision emphasized undergraduate education on teaching. But by some time in the ‘80s the interest of the faculty and the pressures on faculties towards research had shifted, especially as there started to be a bit of turnover from the original generation of faulty towards newer people. That, according to him, shifted the emphasis away from teaching towards the research aspect of things.
Trent was already changing by the ‘90s, and it was around the time of the double cohort they started to get this pressure to document the kinds of skills students were getting, he said.

It was not necessarily teaching anything that was different, except that they were documenting what they were doing. It was not just teaching the kind of knowledge to be a good citizen and to think critically about the world, but that they were also getting skills. Part of the response was the change in job market for graduates, he added.

Still, Trent pushed back rather hard until the years of Bonnie Patterson when the professional schools started in, says Professor Conley. And it was hard to resist for a little university like Trent that so depended on government funding for revenue, with the government pushing in the direction of becoming more skills-oriented.

Liberal arts and science education, according to him, doesn’t teach such skills. Even if it does teach skills, that is not the main focus. The skills are softer and take the students a while to get the returns.

He feels that the addition of professional programs has not markedly changed Trent, since they have developed in ways that fit in, by and large, with the existing liberal arts and science orientation of the university.


Provost and Vice-President, Academic, Gary Boire, says “The original Trent vision was an educational institution that was focused on learning inside and outside the classroom, and on creating an environment that emphasized teaching and student interaction with faculty,” and it held true throughout the decades.

Like all universities, Trent has tried to preserve what is best from the past while introducing innovation in response to social challenges. Trent has been committed to accessibility and the concept of education as a means of social change.

With this increased participation there have been decades of challenges related to funding and finances, he said.

While Trent has a differentiation grant from the Ontario government in recognition of its distinct size and approach, most of the government funding over the last number of years has been tied to growth and increased enrolment.

Trent has struggled to preserve the personal educational experience, the various educational opportunities such as undergraduate research, and the student-faculty connection, versus what is now becoming the norm of post-secondary students being in large classes through much of their undergraduate experience, he explained.

Students are under increased pressure to think of their post-graduate careers, particularly if they’re facing student debt, said Boire.

It has meant that some programs have been able to increase enrolment more easily, while others have not.

On the positive side, Trent’s desire to offer an inter-disciplinary education in which students are encouraged to find their passion, develop their critical thinking, and engage with their learning is still strong, he said.

Further, Trent certainly has been examining ways to meet the student demand for job-oriented skills, because, quite simply, this is the reality for many students. Trent wishes to preserve education as its primary function. But training that is specific to individual jobs and careers is something that students increasingly demand.

Trent continues to try to manage this by balancing the two. An example he pointed out is the commitment to community-based research, which is done in partnership between Trent and community organizations, with the assistance of the Trent Centre for Community-Based Education.

In addition, partnership with colleges is extremely important for accessibility and the educational development of students.

In terms of professional programs such as nursing, the partnering of Trent and Fleming is definitely in harmony with the original intention of providing education and skills for the whole citizen.

This type of partnership is said to provide the best of both worlds, in terms of skills development and professional education.

As well, college transfer partnerships more broadly help students bridge into university who may not otherwise have been able to attend.

So rather than thinking of this making Trent half college and half university, this type of partnership helped with Trent’s mandate of accessibility and social equity, says Boire.

Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, Steven Rafferty, feels how back in the ‘70s and ‘80s it was possible to get education just for the sake of getting educated.

It is how university education presents even now, but considering the money people spend on tuition there is more of an expectation that they are going to get something that helps them out financially at the end of it. And that is what has changed; a change in the expectation towards what university education can get you.

In terms of how teaching at Trent has changed, it has not changed much for him. Why he teaches has not really changed but how he teaches is quite bit different, mainly because of the technology that exists now. The mechanics of how he teaches are better.

“The original vision of education at Trent according to my perception is if you get an education it makes you a better person, a more expanded person even if you don’t get a job in the field you studied for,” he said. “You always benefit from education, it opens your mind and that’s most important thing that they can give you,” added professor Rafferty.

Trent university PhD student, Rathika Balthasar said it is a reality that once students leave the University they need to find a job. Anything that can improve the transition of those skills students learn in university to the job market is important.

She feels that the universities are aware of changing times and demand but still don’t accommodate to that yet fully.

So, she can see universities moving in the direction of being more skills-oriented but nonetheless there is still a place for that higher learning.

However, Balthasar sees this diminishing and moving towards times where there will be two streams within the university— academic learning and skills building.

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Trent University, Dr. Raymond E. March, one of the earliest Trent professors who saw the beginning of Trent as he first joined Trent in 1965, recounted a brief history on how the vision of education at Trent has changed.

He said that initially there was this vision of the first president of the university, Tom Symons: a vision of the colleges to escape the growth of the university. Universities were growing to meet the demand that was happening not only in Canada but worldwide.

The vision was an attempt to increase the degree of intimacy, but without trying to reach everyone. There was a human dimension to the time spent at Trent—you will meet your fellow students, meet your professors, and what’s more is you will talk to your professors, he said. Two things sprang from this, one is tutorial, second is seminar, and another thing was the ‘supervisor of study’.

In the early years Trent had a ‘supervisor of study’ which was a very good system to give advice in the form of looking at a midyear report. It included three meetings arranged and contrived for students. But unfortunately after about 15 years the students voted it down, and he feels that students lost on that.

Tutorials were kept going for some time, then began to die off or expand to a much larger number and a lower frequency, while seminars have almost disappeared, he said.

March thought seminars and conferences were important as students had to learn to stand up and talk science on their feet. In the late 1970s he started what came to be know as the Trent Conference that was for graduates students only.

It still goes on but it’s no longer at Trent.

Now, there are lectures and labs, and that is it, he said. “I don’t know when students get a chance to talk, when students can ask a question in tutorial, or when students get asked something in class by a professor.”

The professional programs at Trent really started with business, when students wanted to do business but they didn’t necessarily want to lose out on university education, said Dr. March.

The other important step was when the normal school in Peterborough that provided a preparation of one year to high school graduates who wanted to be teachers of the lower grade, was closed.

It closed after the government decided it was not sufficient, and changed the requirements so teachers had to go to university first, and then take education later.

Trent saw it as a good opportunity to bring in the education stream, even though it was a professional program, and then came the concurrent education program at Trent.

“The main vision of Trent has changed mainly because of the faculty to student ratio. However, it is better to survive in this new regime,” says March.

About Ugyen Wangmo 87 Articles
Ugyen Wangmo is a self trained media personal, steadfast to 'right to information'. She has about six years of media experience through a variety of roles as Reporter, Editor, Stringer, and Freelance writer. She graduated from Trent with a degree in Chemistry and Biology. When not nosing around for leads to write a thing or two about, she indulges in books, fashion, and dance.