very so often, canada goes through a period of time when it
is in vogue to criticize universities and the role they play in society.
We seem to be in one of those cycles right now, where hardly
a week goes by without some article in the media commenting
negatively on how universities are managing research, teaching,
academic freedom, or commercialization and innovation. Some
of this is generated by the annual release of university reports
Globe and Mail
. On the whole, these reports
present Canada’s universities in a very positive light, even while
highlighting areas where they can improve. Perhaps it is inevi-
table that more critical commentary is also published, just in case those of
us who work in universities become too complacent.
However, there are also times when there are concerted efforts to ques-
tion the fundamental structure of Canada’s university system. Because it is
decentralized, these critiques usually focus on specific provincial systems.
Having spent most of my professional career in Nova Scotia and then six
years in British Columbia, I am all too familiar with the cyclic attempts to
question and fundamentally reform the university systems in those provinces.
Today, it seems to be Ontario’s turn to be subject to such scrutiny, with
the publication of
, in November 2011 (excerpted in
’ December 2011 issue) 1. Like its 2009 prequel,
2, this book contains a great deal of valuable information and insightful
analysis, especially its review of university systems worldwide. Where the
book falls down is in its attempts to make bold recommendations for
radical changes in Ontario public policy towards higher education.
proposes the creation of a number of “new universities” focused
on undergraduate teaching and very limited research, as the answer to
meeting the educational needs of the growing population in the Greater
Toronto Area in a manner that is cheaper than the “traditional university.”
Yet this radical proposal is based upon a combination of questionable
assumptions and simplistic analysis of the options.
Two basic assumptions running through
are that the
Ontario university system is broken and that the quality of education
in the system is declining. Yet when I look for evidence to support these
assumptions, there is precious little to find. The notion that the Ontario
university system is broken derives from
concludes that the research university model is too expensive and the
current funding framework is unsustainable. That funding framework is
based entirely on significant growth and as we move towards a demographic
environment that does not support such growth, there is no doubt that
the funding approach will have to change. But that does not mean that
the whole system is broken.
Indeed, the Ontario university system has responded very successfully
to virtually all of the policy demands of the provincial government in
recent years. This includes increased access, increased opportunities for
first-generation students, higher rates of retention and graduation, higher
rates of employment after graduation, and increasing student satisfaction
with their educational experiences. Not bad for a broken system!
The issue of quality seems to come down to one specific issue related
to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) – a survey that is used
widely by North American colleges and universities to measure how engaged
students are with their learning experience and that is mandatory for
Ontario universities. The specific issue is that on average, Ontario univer-
sities, and Canadian universities in general, score lower than American
universities in certain key quality-related questions, including student-
faculty interaction and the level of student engagement.
The United States has a much different postsecondary system than
Canada, with a diverse mix of public, private non-profit and private for-
profit institutions. Also, for the past two decades, per-student funding in
the U.S. has significantly exceeded that in Canada, and Ontario lags behind
the rest of Canada in that category. Now that the financial crisis is having
severe impacts on the funding of public universities south of the border, with
some state institutions facing bankruptcy, it will be interesting to see if
these changes have any negative impacts on NSSE scores in the future.
Many of the best U.S. universities charge tuition fees that are eight to
10 times higher, or more, than the Canadian average and have considerable
wealth from endowments. Their huge variations in funding, costs and quality
are very different from the situation in Canada, where those factors are
relatively consistent across the country, despite some provincial variations.
Yet, based on these few average NSSE scores,
seems to be
mesmerized by the U.S. system and proposes emulating it with the creation
of a number of U.S.-style, four-year baccalaureate institutions in Ontario.
Unfortunately, these are often the very institutions that constitute the lower
echelons of the American system.
There are two other important factors in the NSSE survey that also
reflect quality: rates of student retention and of graduation. In both catego-
ries, Canadian universities perform significantly better than U.S. universities
overall. Interestingly, the authors of
ignore these data,
and if they hadn’t they might have noticed that U.S. undergraduate insti-
tutions have some of the worst retention and graduation rates. Buying a
bad education with a second- or third-rate credential, or not even completing
a degree, is not the same as buying a bad meal – it has severe, long-term
implications and comes at great cost to the individual. We do not want
to move Canada into the realm of creating universities that cannot meet
the same standards of high quality that are currently the hallmark of our
university system. And we certainly do not want to make such a move
without very rigorous and detailed analysis.
In comparing operating costs of the proposed new universities with
those of a new campus of a traditional university,
simplistic financial analysis that excludes a whole host of critical factors
that come into play when creating a brand new institution. These include
setting up an entirely new administrative structure and team; new academic
infrastructures and supports; recruiting and hiring the entire professoriate;
and developing and getting approval of completely new curricula for every
program on offer. Ask anyone who was involved with the creation of the
University of Northern British Columbia how much it costs to set up a
brand new institution and how many years before the new university is in
a position to admit even a single student. By comparison, when establishing
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