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University of Toronto Professor Brad Inwood is photographed while teaching his Ancient Philosophy Class at the University of Toronto, October 04 2012. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

University of Toronto Professor Brad Inwood is photographed while teaching his Ancient Philosophy Class at the University of Toronto, October 04 2012.

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)


Can Canada's schools pass the next great intelligence test? Add to ...

The pressure to raise more tuition dollars, along with public funding that is based on how many students schools accept, only sharpens the tendency to overcrowding.

Given the historical roots of higher education, it is not hard to see why universities are conflicted about their mission. The idea that a degree is a path to a good job has fostered a consumer model of education, that all that cash is paying for a career.

But the loftier ambition of liberal education has always been to create citizens who are well-read, critical thinkers, strong communicators and civically engaged – the qualities Mr. Pearson lauded when he told the students that a degree called on them “to serve their country” and not themselves. “I think it is possible to reconcile these two things,” he declared.

Nearly a half-century later, universities are still struggling to figure it out. “What we need are experiments,” Dr. Shepard says. “Lots of experiments.”

<QL>Ask a critic such as James Côté for an example of a school getting it right, and he points to Quest University Canada in Squamish, B.C., where students follow a unique class schedule: They take one course at a time for three weeks each. Classes are small and discussion-based, and often involve field trips. Professors teach across disciplines. But here is the catch: Quest has only 300 students. And they pay $28,000 each year to attend.

Adapting elements of that model – scheduling freedom, faculty flexibility, personalized education – into a mainstream public university with, say, 31,000 students, as at the University of Calgary, is a much trickier matter.

But many of the steps now being proposed or tested cluster around two central notions: First, that universities need to specialize to make programs and departments effective, as well as globally competitive. And second, that there should be clearer mechanisms of accountability to ensure that students, schools, employers and society are all receiving the tangible outcomes they require.

Today in Canada, every university has essentially the same mission: a broadly defined mandate to conduct both research and teaching, and to offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Of course, in reality, universities do differ, at least because of the de-facto benefits and limitations of size and location. Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., for instance, is known for liberal arts, small classrooms and a close-knit student culture. For a big, urban school experience, by contrast, with the widest range of programs and options, a Canadian student might apply to the University of Toronto, with its 80,000 students spread over several campuses.

If you wanted to study oceanography, you would not go to the University of Saskatchewan. If you’re an aboriginal student interested in northern governance, you probably would not apply to Dalhousie University in Halifax.

In the United States, however, the distinctions between different institutions are more clear-cut. First, obviously, there’s the split between private, Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, and the public, state-run university systems. But there are finer-grained differences as well. Babson College near Boston, for example, is known for focusing on entrepreneurship – all freshmen take a hands-on course in which they create and plan a new business, which accounts for one-quarter of their first-year marks.

Advocates for differentiation, such as Ian Clark, a public-policy professor at the University of Toronto and co-author of the book Academic Reform, argue that in order to create elite institutions – ones that will land Canada back in the top 20 of world university rankings – there must be a network of high-end schools that are given a priority in research funding, as well as the best faculty and graduate students.

The primary division would be between universities that would de-emphasize research and excel at teaching undergraduates, and research-focused institutions where undergraduates would have to be more self-starting and value their proximity to the top scholars and resources. Different schools might also strike varied balances between online courses and in-person learning.

Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, has been floating the idea of greater specialization with the province’s universities. In fact, he had each of them submit a proposed “strategic mandate agreement” last week.

According to Robert Campbell, the president of Mount Allison University, such a shift could not only allow our research institutions to blossom unimpeded but, importantly, also improve undergraduate programs, which currently get the scraps while prestige and the attention of private donors go to schools’ best-developed research facilities.

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