UNIVERSITIES 98

Measuring Excellence

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON November 23 1998
UNIVERSITIES 98

Measuring Excellence

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON November 23 1998

Measuring Excellence

UNIVERSITIES 98

From the cmcible of underfunding, heroes have emerged

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire —W. B. Yeats

It’s a balmy Friday afternoon in downtown Toronto, absurdly warm for late September, and hundreds of teenagers have headed out to do some serious shopping. Skateboards stuffed in their backpacks, yoked in twosomes or parties of five, they crowd down the escalators of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. A trio of private-school girls, prim in blazers and kilts, look like they’ve crashed a Friends convention—a sea of black jeans, white T-shirts

and glossy, perfect hair. Kilted or jeaned, they all look a bit edgy as they head into the second annual Ontario Universities’ Fair to check out the future. One by one, they take their turn at the brightly lit booths, queuing for on-the-spot counselling. Earnest faces absorb the details: the cost of tuition, the price of residence, the marks they need to get in. One by one, they leave with their educational loot bags full of pamphlets and glossy brochures, heading out past the draw for free tuition at Carleton. Three sanguine students emerge by the hotdog stand, one step closer to choosing a school. "You tell me where I belong,” moans a fourth. “I’m just a guy who likes French and Latin.” Welcome to the class of 2003, a generation well-

schooled in truth and consequences: the truth that their lifelong employment prospects will improve with a university degree, and the consequence that they may be saddled with a hefty debt load on graduation. Make no mistake: their dreams are as large and as lofty as their parents’ before them. But they’re aware of the price tag attached, and who can blame them? In 1993—before most of them even began to date, let alone drive— governments began slashing what now amounts to $880 million out of higher education. With virtually no warning, the cost was downloaded onto students’ shoulders: since that time, tuition has skyrocketed 67 per cent. And in the process, students have become co-funders of Canadian universities: in 1977, tuition fees accounted for only 14 per cent of the cost of running a school; on average, today’s students foot a third of the bill.

This spring, Acumen Research took a random sample of 5,500 applicants to Ontario universities from across Canada, asking them to rank their main reasons for choosing a particular university. What topped their lists? Academic reputation and graduates getting high-quality jobs. A new Maclean ’s/Northstar poll underscored that

CONNECTING THE DOTS BETWEEN LEARNING AND EARNING

view: a significant number of young people said they believed that the university’s primary role was to train students for jobs. The new student con-

sumer chooses a school with care, and connects the dots quickly between learning and earning.

That fact was not lost on 10 of the country’s most powerful university presidents at their biannual get-together two weeks ago. Retreating to the home of University of Toronto president Robert Prichard, the so-called Group of 10—leaders of Canada’s major research universities—imported a tutor for the weekend. Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford and author of Academic Duty, led what Prichard describes as a “grad seminar on academic renewal”: four intense hours on Saturday night over dinner, and four more on Sunday morning to discuss

“what they were struggling with most.”

Renewal is just what the doctor ordered.

If students have weathered a period of extraordinary change, so, in fact, have university leaders. Having hunkered down for the past five years to deal with major downsizing, the smartest have looked up and realized that the world has changed.

Namely, the North American public is shifting its views on the role of the university itself. Once needed for the dissemination of knowledge, universities were then asked to

become research institutes, largely in the name of economic development. After the Second World War, they were expected to educate the baby boom: the university system was well fed for decades, and propagated. But with the recession of the early 1990s came a public questioning of the massive investment in university research. Cancer had yet to be cured, and the Cold War was over. If the country’s most competitive factor was human capital, how well was the undergraduate being looked after?

And so it follows: if the 19th century belonged to the university president and the 20th century to faculty, the 21st surely belongs to the student—a fact not lost on the Group of 10. “If we believe our own rhetoric,” says McGill president Bernard Shapiro, “namely, that there is nothing more important for this country than to have a larger number of people participate in education, to be able to think at the conceptual level, then we need a heightened level of focus on the

lived experience of the undergraduate.” The renewal, according to Kennedy, comes from abandoning what he calls the “400-year-old business of distance education”—namely, the lecture. “The most interesting thing that came out of our weekend,” says Shapiro, “was the focus on proximity learning.”

What this means is a radical rethinking of the learning experience. Next year, the University of British Columbia plans to renovate 15 per cent of its classrooms. Says UBC president Martha Piper, ‘We could do them in the old I-speak-and-you-listen model—meaning, ‘I have the mike and you write as fast as you can. ’ Or we could consider something more open, more dynamic, where all the seats can move around

to suit the class, where the students can debate, be interactive. That’s the real sea change: becoming student-focused.”

When Kennedy asked Piper what her two most important issues were, she named the learning environment and internationalization. Piper has vowed that by 2003, all faculties and schools will have developed co-op options, many of which will involve international placements. And unlike some of her peers, who view co-op as gimmicky and too skills-related, Piper champions the choice.

“Co-op is not job training,” she says. “It’s experience in the world of work, and if that work can be international, all the better. This is a global environment we’re entering, and the leaders of tomorrow will be citizens of the world, culturally fluid in every way.”

For many students, co-op may be the golden egg in the current educational henhouse. Those with a co-op background graduate with lower debt, and with a leg up in the world of work. Piper’s focus on international co-op is proof that she has grasped one of the most critical tenets of leadership in these tough times: understanding her corner of the broad educational landscape. Given her geographical location, her focus makes sense. And crass as it may sound, strong university leaders must become smart niche marketers with a clear understanding of what is it they can offer students. Wave goodbye to the myth that all universities can be all all students. ‘Worldwide, there’s enormous shakeout

taking place, and only those who understand their niche are finding success,” says Prichard. “If you don’t focus on your mission, you fade into the mediocre middle.”

A big part of focusing on your mission means attracting the students you want to your school.

While tuition has gone through the roof, the growth in scholarship and bursary dollars has been phenomenal as well. In this year’s ranking, scholarships and bursaries—measured as a proportion of the operating budget—are up 43 per cent since 1995. Place a call to a certain public relations person right now, and this is what you’ll hear: ‘This is Sue BlochNevitte in the public affairs department of the University of Toronto, which expects to award $44 million in graduate and undergraduate student aid this year. I’m not available at the moment, but...”

This is the same university that upped the bar on student recruitment this year, using Janet Wright—the headhunter of choice when it comes to fdling presidential posts—to find a director of student recruitment. Even bigger was the news that this person would be part of the university’s senior management team.

Perhaps another harbinger of things to come is the fact that Noel Levitz, the largest specialist in enrolment management consulting in the United States, is considering opening its doors in Canada two months from now. The firm has signed up Andrew Ness, 37, who worked for seven years in student recruitment at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., to study the feasibility. Ness believes there is “a high likelihood” the firm will decide to go ahead when they meet next month. “Noel Levitz has the tools that allow you to assess what you’re spending on your student awards to optimize your enrolment,” says Ness. “Are you giving money to stu-

A MESSAGE IN THE RANKINGS

All figures represent the percentage change between the 1995 and 1998 surveys, refecting data from the 1994-1995 and 1997-1998 academic years.

dents who would have come anyway? Are you optimizing your awards? Are you meeting your quota of engineering students, or out-ofprovince students?”

All of which begs the question: how much are we witnessing the Americanization of Canadian education? ‘We’re already seeing much of the American model,” says Arthur Stephen, vice-president of university advancement at Wilfrid Laurier. “The best students are now getting the full package on acceptance: scholarships and bursaries, work opportunities.” And forms of tuition discounting: last year, Wilfrid Laurier established a scholarship grid, making it clear that students with entering grades of 95 per cent and higher would receive, in effect, a signing bonus of $2,500; for those with 90 per cent and above, $2,000, and so on. Those details were trumpeted in the 50-page Admissions Viewbook that Laurier was handing out at the Ontario Universities’ Fair. Stephen says his school spent three times what it did on last year’s event. His office also has instituted annual surveys of satisfaction of firstand fourth-year students in all undergraduate faculties. “When students are paying the freight of 40 to 50 per cent of the funding of a university,”

says Stephen, “there is a lot more attention to customer service.” From the crucible of underfunding, everyday heroes emerge. Stephen is one of those people, a man who has responded creatively in tough times. Patricia Clements, dean of arts at the University of Alberta, is another. When the world seems hungry for high-tech graduates, she champions the talents of liberal arts students, trumpeting their ability to think critically and independently, to communicate well, to problem solve. Clements cites the following from Matthew Barrett, chairman of the Bank of Montreal: “It is far more important that students graduating from university

Canterbury Tales than understand the practice of double-entry accounting.”

Perhaps, for the sake of the class of 2003—computer and literature students alike—it’s best to buy

into the rhetoric of the learning-earning connection. Call them customers. Call them knowledge workers. Call them the human capital of tomorrow. Perhaps that will help the political powers-that-be

understand just how central these students are to the hopes and ambitions of society as a whole. And perhaps, grasping that truth, those who control the purse strings will understand that this generation deserves the challenge of an innovative learning environment. In the end, no amount of imagination can overcome the chronic, shortsighted underfunding of higher education. For all our futures, so much depends on that next generation, so much on the lighting of the fire. □