SPECIAL REPORT

The Smith Report Card

‘Canada’s universities fundamentally are healthy and serving the country well’

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 21 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

The Smith Report Card

‘Canada’s universities fundamentally are healthy and serving the country well’

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 21 1991

The Smith Report Card

‘Canada’s universities fundamentally are healthy and serving the country well’

As a young intern freshly graduated from medical studies at McGill University in 1962, Stuart Smith says that he considered himself “full of wonderful, complex medical theories.” But when the time came to apply those ideas in real-life practice at the Montreal General Hospital, Dr. Smith says that he quickly discovered basic gaps in his education. “I knew nothing,” he recalls, “when it came to day-to-day things like treating wounds or giving injections to patients.” In order to gain that knowledge, Smith says, “I asked the people who really knew about the practical aspects of medicine—the nurses in the emergency ward.” Declared Smith, now 53: “I think most doctors would admit that they have learned a hell of a lot of their practical knowledge the same way.”

That memory of how poorly prepared he was to apply what he had learned in academia came to mind frequently, Smith says, during the past 14 months as he conducted his one-person Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education.

Said Smith, who last week released the report that was conducted for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC): “One of the crucial questions is whether universities give their students enough practical education to match all the theories they learn.” That is also an issue that Smith is well qualified to discuss. After his basic medical training, he became a psychiatrist, served as leader of the Ontario provincial Liberal party from 1976 to 1982, then became chairman of the Science Council of Canada and now is president of his own high-tech management consulting firm in Ottawa. On the question of providing adequate training, and most other issues, Smith eventually gave Canada’s universities a passing grade.

In fact, in the introduction to the report, released to a mixed reaction, he declares: “Canada’s universities today are fundamentally healthy and are serving the country well.” And he adds: “The commission has received the general impression that most, if not all, Canadian universities would, on balance, rank with the top half of United States universities, taken as a whole.”

But the 179-page report, commissioned to determine “how well the universities were carrying out their educational mandate,” is also scathingly critical of some current university teaching practices. In fact, it declares, “Teaching is seriously undervalued at Canadian universities and nothing less than a total recommitment to it is required.” At times, Smith went beyond the classroom. On the issue of the proportion of women university professors and administrators

compared with men, he found that “There is still a great deal that needs to be done to make our universities gender neutral.” As well, the report concludes— based on studies supplied by researchers and some universities—that the average full-time professor teaches “between 6V2and seven hours per week.” And that unacceptably small total, Smith says, appears to be decreasing.

Because of such findings, Smith told Maclean’s, “I know that there are some eminent people in the academic community who have been readying themselves for the worst.” In fact, the blunt tone of the report reflects Smith’s determination that his own conclusions should be more practical than theoretical. While Smith agrees with most university presidents that increases in government funding to universities are required, his other solution is bound to be controversial: universities should be allowed to increase tuition fees, he says, provided student loans are more available and paid back through the income tax system. And much of his study deals with ways that institutions can reform and refocus their operations without any significant increase in spending. To that end, he concludes with a list of 63 recommendations ranging from curriculum design and representation of minorities and the underprivileged, to ways of measuring the quality and overall performance of universities.

Some of the key recommendations:

• Control of education should remain with the provinces—but Ottawa should increase its contribution to universities.

• Student fees should be increased gradually to cover 25 per cent of a university’s general operating costs, compared with the current level of about 17 per cent. However, Smith also calls for the establishment of an income-contingent-repayment student assistance plan, whereby student loans would be widely available and would be paid back as a surtax on the federal income tax once the recipient’s income rose above a certain level.

• Unspecified steps should be taken to promote more women into positions of higher authority and to increase their representation in doctorate-level (PhD) programs.

• Universities should simplify the complicated processes that make it difficult to transfer academic credits from one university to another.

• All universities should agree on a shared system of quality control to measure their performance. Such a system could include polling of university graduates, confidential employer surveys and writing proficiency

tests when students have finished their degrees.

• Universities should also agree to measure and publicize statistics on how they operate, including average hours taught by full-time professors, class size and the proportion of firstand second-year courses that have tutorials given by teaching assistants and graduate students, rather than by the professors themselves.

Still, the section of the report that has generated the most controversy deals with the preoccupation of universities and most of their professors with the importance of research, at the expense of teaching.

Writes Smith: “The reputation and mobility of the professor is far more dependent upon his/her articles than upon the professor’s local fame as an inspiring teacher.” In some cases, he found, universities lure well-known academics to join their staffs through explicit promises that they can devote almost all their time to research and will not be required to lecture. Partly because of that attitude, Smith continues, most universities were either unable or unwilling to provide statistics on the average number of hours each professor lectures per week—which led Smith to cite figures from the handful of universities willing to provide them.

As well, the report says that many universities devote neither time nor money to preparing and improving teaching methods. In one of the report’s

most striking comparisons, Smith wrote: “A recent study of teaching assistants in Canadian universities found that more than $93 million was spent on [their] salaries, but less than $25,000 [was earmarked for their] training.” Despite that lack of training, much of the teaching of undergraduate students is conducted by such assistants, whom one commission witness called “rent-a-profs.”

To counter that attitude, Smith’s report suggests a range of solutions. Among them:

• All senior professors should “take some share in the teaching of early undergraduate courses.”

• Universities should set an average minimum of eight teaching hours per week for all professors.

• Professors should have a say as to whether their performance evaluations should be based on research or teaching. Subsequent promotions would be based on their performance in their field of choice. Professors who concentrate on teaching would be expected to work “a slightly larger number of teaching hours.”

• Every PhD candidate should demonstrate “reasonable competence in the teaching function.”

• Universities should establish an agreed-upon national standard for measuring teaching performance. Students would participate in those evaluations.

Those findings drew a mixed reaction from some people in the academic community—including members of the AUCC, which commissioned the report. In

TOP WESTERN SCHOOLS

1. British Columbia (UBC)

2. Alberta

3. Lethbridge

4. Manitoba

5. Simon Fraser

TOP CENTRAL SCHOOLS

1. McGill

2. Queen’s

3. Toronto (U of T)

4. McMaster

5. Guelph

6. Montreal (U of M)

7. Ottawa (U of 0)

8. Western (UWO)

9. Bishop’s

10. Laval

TOP ATLANTIC SCHOOLS

1. Mount Allison

2. Acadia

3. Dalhousie

4. New Brunswick (UNB)

5. Sainte-Anne

Source: Maclean's Ranking, 1991

BEST JOCKS

The Top 10 schools in varsity sports, compiled by Maclean’s from the 1990-1991 results of the 16 national finals In men's and women’s competitions

1. British Columbia (UBC)

2. Toronto (U of T)

3. Manitoba

4. Western (UWO)

5. Calgary

6. Alberta

7. Victoria

8. York

9. Saskatchewan

10. McMaster

interviews conducted by Maclean ’s with university heads across the country, praise for Smith’s overall efforts was interspersed with near-equal amounts of criticism for some of his conclusions. Kenneth Ozmon, the newly elected AUCC chairman and president of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, said that “overall, the report is a positive contribution.” And, he added,

Smith’s criticism of the apparent underemphasis on teaching “is absolutely dead-on as an issue that we have to immediately look hard at.”

But Ozmon also said that Smith, through his criticism of the lack of quality measurement at universities, “may have unwittingly strengthened the hands of our opponents in [provincial] governments.” Declared Ozmon:

“[This report] does not give adequate justification for giving us more money. I might have wished he [Smith] spent more time walking around campuses, seeing frazzled professors and excessively large classes.”

For their part, other university heads echoed Ozmon’s overall praise for the report, but disagreed with several of Smith’s basic conclusions. Said David Johnston, the principal of Montreal’s McGill University: “I do not see how you can regard teaching and research for professors as different functions. To me, they are inseparable.” That complaint was shared by George Pedersen, president of the University of Western Ontario in London. “No one denies the importance of teaching at universities,” said Pedersen. “But to me, the fundamental rationale of a university is its research capability—because you can only teach what you have already learned yourself.”

All the university presidents, however, agreed on one thing. As Patrick Kenniff, rector of Concordia University in Montreal, put it, “The only person who will agree with everything in this report is Stuart Smith. But that being said, most of us find a lot more to like than to dislike.”

Still, the reaction was more positive than the stormy response that greeted an earlier issues paper prepared for Smith’s commission by a consulting firm last June. The report, conducted by Toronto-based Public Affairs Management Inc., declared: “Universities have not kept up with societal demands, have not remained relevant and are either unwilling or unable to change.” Those findings were based on confidential interviews with provincial ministers and senior bureaucrats who regularly deal with universities in five different provinces. Smith says that he requested the study because “university presidents did not seem to be taking those feelings [of provincial officials] seriously.” But the issues paper led to furious responses both publicly and privately from university representatives. Many educa-

tors were also startled by the tone of the paper because they had expected that Smith, after being hired by the AUCC, would refrain from criticizing the practices of its members. Declared Smith: “Many people in the university community whom I respect and regarded as friends said some very critical and personally wounding things. It was a dismaying experience.”

Still, Smith says that he sympathizes with the constraints and problems facing most university presidents. In many cases, he added, the combination of powerful teachers unions and the need to focus on fundraising has severely curtailed the presidents’ powers. Their dilemma in dealing with employees, he said, is reminiscent of his own political past as leader of the opposition. Declared Smith: “A university president and an _ opposition leader face the same I headaches: you are not in a posi£ tion to give anybody anything, I you cannot fire anybody and you

0 cannot take anything away from them since you had no power to

reward them in the first place.”

At the same time, Smith found much that he liked among Canadian universities. He said that some universities—including the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Ontario’s McMaster University in Hamilton and the University of Guelph, and the University of Quebec’s provincewide system of 11 schools—have made “exciting” progress in adjusting their curricula to meet the changing needs of students. He also had particular praise for programs at Manitoba’s Brandon University, Ontario’s Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and Quebec’s University of Sherbrooke for being “admirably tailored to meet the needs of the society and economy of a specific region.” And he welcomed the growing co-operative education movement, where students alternate between full-time study and work at various participating firms.

In fact, most of Smith’s conclusions reflect his determination to be practical, rather than theoretical. “It is true that universities need more money,” Smith told Maclean’s. “But it is also true that they have to recognize the growing trend in North America to try to do more with less.” And he added: “If universities are going to insist on the right to

impartially study the society around them, they have to realize that society has the right to demand the same in return.” At the same time, Smith emphasizes, “Our universities are a very good thing that can be made even better. If my work is accepted in that friendly spirit, they can achieve that goal.” For both Smith and Canada’s educators, the quest for academic excellence clearly demands more than just a passing grade.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

THE FUNDING SQUEEZE

Operating grants to universities per full-time equivalent student 1990-1991 (estimate)

1. Newfoundland

$8,545

2. Quebec

8,051

3. Alberta

7,606

4. Manitoba

7,429

5. Prince Edward Island 7,384

6. New Brunswick $7,242

7. Saskatchewan 6,968

8. British Columbia 6,926

9. Ontario 6,838

10. Nova Scotia 6,217