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A group of Canadian university presidents apparently gathered a while ago and, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, agreed that undergraduate education isn't what it should be. Undergraduates across Canada will be discovering this reality as they shoehorn into classes this month and observe their professors through a telescope at the front of the lecture hall.

Undergraduates have been getting the shaft at too many universities for too long, as a handful of critics have argued. That the AUCC now recognizes what ought to have been clear a decade ago is, one supposes, a case of better late than never. Whether universities actually attack the problem forcefully is doubtful.

Undergraduates, who are paying more and seeing professors less, are part of a deep trend that afflicts many major public programs such as university education, health care and the law. In each instance, these public institutions are ostensibly there to serve the interests of the public, but too often they work to serve the interests of providers.

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The court system offers one example. The courts are supposed to be there for people who need them to settle disputes, or for authorities to enforce the law. But the courts are plagued with huge expenses and endemic delays, as Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin keeps repeating in speeches. Judges blame lawyers, and lawyers blame judges (and everyone, of course, blames government), but the system is heavily tilted toward the conveniences of the lawyers and judges, not the people caught up in the system.

Or consider health care. Seldom does a political speech or a report on health care not insist that we need a "patient-centred" system. Of course a health-care system should be about patients. The fact so many people feel obliged to repeat this must mean the system isn't "patient-centred" (or at least not as much as it should be). Instead, it's designed to suit doctors with their professional guilds and nurses and other employees with their collective-bargaining agreements replete with umpteen stipulations about work conditions.

In universities, research drives professors' time allocations. Tenure, promotion and salary depend more on research than on teaching, except in a very small minority of cases. Naturally, they pursue their own self-interest by focusing on research (which can help their teaching), so that today's professors generally teach less, and sometimes much less, than professors did several decades ago.

The losers are the very people for whom the universities were designed: the student, especially the undergraduates who don't figure, as do graduate students, in the research world of the professors.

The other day, a newly minted professor (a Canada Research Chair recipient, to boot) emerged from his first class to say he'd be teaching one class this term and none the next, courtesy of his research chair. He said in a quite straightforward manner that his hiring interviews had been almost exclusively about his research, past, current and future.

The young professor, like the doctors, nurses, judges and lawyers, are providers of a "public" service – in this case, imparting knowledge and encouraging critical and creative thinking. But the systems within which they all work have been crafted to suit the interests of the providers, not the public. Of course professors care about their students, as do doctors and nurses about their patients and judges about those seeking justice, but the way this caring is manifested within their large public system is circumscribed by the priorities of the providers.

Governments have largely gone along for the ride, since they're reluctant to confront strongly entrenched vested interests. Occasionally, a brave minister will try to create different incentives. But ministers come and go, as do governments, and the institutions they try to reform go on largely unchanged. As for those who run the systems – university presidents, health-care administrators, senior judges – they have a good deal less power than their mighty titles would suggest.

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