SPECIAL REPORT

MEASURING EXCELLENCE

Every student deserves the might to make informed choices

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON November 14 1994
SPECIAL REPORT

MEASURING EXCELLENCE

Every student deserves the might to make informed choices

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON November 14 1994

MEASURING EXCELLENCE

Every student deserves the might to make informed choices

SPECIAL REPORT

UNIVERSITIES

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON

a purpose in with a neck, us to stick it out. —Arthur Koestier, Encounter

Call it the theory of relativity. To the big thinkers—the ones focused on cost-benefit analysis—the university is the “axial institution of the post-industrial society,” “the creator of human capital” for the global race. But for the 17-year-old sitting in Red Deer, Alta., or Bathurst, N.B., casting forward to an uncertain future, university is a question mark.

And for those students, the question marks just got a lot bigger. This fall, Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy unveiled his proposal to deconstruct the university funding system as we know it. His plan: Ottawa would cut billions of dollars in direct support to postsecondary education—effectively forcing universities to introduce massive hikes in tuition. Read: the death of the notion, perhaps quaint, that an affordable university education is every Canadian’s birthright. The architects of higher education have been working on a new blueprint, and many see the Americanization of the Canadian system in the drawings. “We’re becoming penny-wise and pound-foolish,” says University of Toronto student Ray Westcott. “There’s a general small-mindedness:

‘God damned kids, we aren’t going to give them anything for free.’ ” Meanwhile, Janet Halliwell, chair of the Nova Scotia Council on Higher Education—who herself has been busy “rationalizing” that province’s university system, is highly suspicious of Axworthy’s proposal. “Few would

deny that change is needed—but the pace of change worries me,” she says. “There is a very dramatic shift in onus onto the student.” With that shift would come the need to comparisonshop. “When a student puts down however many thousands in tuition, they need to know that they’re going to get something that will be an asset in later life,” says Halliwell. “Public comparison of universities becomes increasingly important.”

For the fourth straight year, Maclean’s has set about the task of collecting data for its annual ranking of Canadian universities. But the main rankings tell only half the story. For the first time, the magazine presents a full array of supplementary charts—a comprehensive display of all the numbers behind the rankings. In tough times, even the best schools are being forced to rob Peter to pay Paul. Cut the library acquisitions or the scholarship fund? Let class sizes balloon, or chop student services?

In the end, while Waterloo and Victoria tied for first place in the Comprehensive category (narrowly overtaking last year’s winner, Simon Fraser), the two universities clearly have unique priorities. Each placed first in different supplementary charts. In all, 26 of the 36 participating schools ranked first on at least one performance measure. Here is the guide to small classes, bright students, good access to tenured faculty.

When it comes to education, every student deserves the right to make an intelligent and informed choice. With that guiding principle, Maclean’s has once again stuck out its neck. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard once said: “If you think education is expensive—try ignorance.”