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Wipe that grin off your face

Wednesday, November 12, 2003 - Page A29

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Everybody seems so happy in the latest Maclean's magazine survey of higher education.

The photographs show happy (or intense) students, happy faculty, happy administrators at the top-ranked schools. What's wrong with these pictures?

Would you be happy sitting in a class with 150 or 250 students, never getting a chance to talk to your professor? Maybe you would, but most undergraduate students would not.

Behind all those happy faces in the Maclean's photos lies a different story, one actually told by Maclean's own credible numbers. And Maclean's is a credible source, courtesy of more than a decade in the field. It's got a first-rate higher-education writer/editor, too, in Ann Dowsett Johnston.

So what do those numbers show for would-be undergraduates? Well, there are plenty of numbers on library holdings, operating budgets and faculty research grants. But what undergraduates really want to know is who's doing the teaching and how large the classes are.

Now forget those happy faces. It's a shocking indictment that Canada's biggest research-intensive universities, the ones at or near the top of the Maclean's survey, offer such indifferent undergraduate experiences.

At Toronto, Queen's, McGill, University of British Columbia and University of Alberta, almost or more than half the first- and second-year classes have more than 100 students. At Toronto, McGill and Queen's (the top three in the magazine's medical-doctoral list), about a fifth of first- and second-year students are marooned in classes of 250 students or more, with 8 per cent of McGill's students and 6.3 per cent of Toronto's in classes of more than 500.

Don't think that the undergraduates are seeing senior professors all the time, either. With the exception of Western and Toronto (take a bow, please), the so-called top universities feature fewer than 60 per cent of first-year classes taught by tenured or "tenured-track" positions. At McGill, the number is a dismal 47 per cent; at UBC an even worse 43 per cent. The dirty secret is that many classes are taught in whole or in part by teaching assistants; that is, graduate students.

What makes this state of affairs the more unacceptable is that the presidents of these universities led the national fight for better funding for higher education. And they succeeded in convincing Ottawa to pour billions of dollars into universities for research and infrastructure.

But the sticks and carrots within these institutions still work against improving the undergraduate experience.

There is a mantra in universities: that the best researchers are the best teachers, that teaching is as highly valued as research, that promotion and tenure are based equally on both. Each part of the mantra is suspect. Not necessarily wrong, but suspect.

Indeed, the research monies pouring into the universities may have induced some professors to reduce their teaching time, to "buy" their way out of teaching to concentrate more on research. That isn't supposed to happen, but it does. It's a problem at the top U.S. universities, and it's creeping (some would say galloping) into Canadian schools.

Of course, the universities are underfunded. Maclean's could illustrate that point easily by running a couple of charts showing spending on health care compared to education.

The health-care juggernaut has eclipsed spending on all other programs -- including, and especially, higher education. University administrators are afraid to hammer home that obvious point, either because they have medical schools and associated hospitals, or because they know nothing can be gained by questioning the secular god of medicare.

Even if, however, more base-budget money flowed into the universities from provincial governments, as long as the sticks and carrots are as they are, then improvement in undergraduate education will be slow to non-existent.

Some governments are making things worse by freezing fees while not increasing base budgets. The combination, soon to be seen in Ontario and Quebec, will worsen the undergraduate experience. Quebec is especially perverse. It has the lowest fees in the country, a policy explained by recourse to Quebec "values," whereas every study shows poor citizens subsidize university students who tend to come from better-off families.

Elsewhere, students are paying more for less in terms of quality, which means face time with professors, the chance to explore in small groups, and be taught by senior people. The Maclean's survey, properly read, underscores the point.

Some schools are doing well. Memorial University in Newfoundland gets more than half its first- and second-year students into classes of fewer than 50. Largish universities such as Saskatchewan, Western, New Brunswick and Concordia are doing better than others. Good on them. Good on Maclean's, too, although digging into its own numbers would produce fewer happy photos.

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