Columns

Measuring the quality gap

Only a parents’ revolution will move education to the top of the public agenda

Ann Dowsett Johnston November 27 2000
Columns

Measuring the quality gap

Only a parents’ revolution will move education to the top of the public agenda

Ann Dowsett Johnston November 27 2000

Measuring the quality gap

Columns

Only a parents’ revolution will move education to the top of the public agenda

Ann Dowsett Johnston

David Smith, the Harvard-trained economist who steered Queen’s University through several of its more challenging years, was a man of impeccable integrity and remarkable scholarly breadth. Personally modest, he made a significant contribution to the world of higher education in this country. Only weeks before his death this spring, the 68-year-old Smith had put the finishing touches on two seminal reports for the Council of Ontario Universities. The first, titled “Will there be enough excellent profs?” examined the urgent need for faculty hiring to meet the coming needs of students. The second, “How will I know if there is quality?” reviewed a variety of evaluations of university performance—including the annual Macleans rankings. With characteristic economy, he opened the second report with a cautionary quote from Albert Einstein, going straight to the heart of the matter:

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Which, of course, is true. How can you measure the unique impact of a university education in raw numbers? How can you tally the reverberating effect of a brilliant professor? How can you capture the lifelong rewards of the experience, except in words? In short, you can’t.

Still, there are essential ingredients that contribute to the quality of the undergraduate experience and, yes, some of those ingredients can be counted. Between the 1995 Macleans ranking and this year’s report, published last week, universities reported a seven-per-cent drop in the number of full-time faculty. And not coincidentally, the number of first-year classes taught by tenured faculty dropped by seven per cent as well. Meanwhile, the proportion of students arriving at university with grade averages of 75 per cent or higher rose, too: again, by seven per cent. Given that undergraduate enrolment in Canada has been on the rise, these factors paint a clear picture: there are fewer faculty to learn from, and admission standards are rising.

In other words, what Macleans is counting counts. Let’s take a look at Ontario, home to 40 per cent of Canadian high-school and university students. Since the 1977-1978 academic year, basic operating grants on a per-student basis have plummeted by 50 per cent: from $4,000 to $2,000 in real terms. In ranking the rate of public investment in higher education over the past five years, Ontario places 57th out of all 60 North Aanerican jurisdictions. Only Newfoundland, Quebec and Hawaii have diminished their support at

a more rapid rate. Is it any coincidence, then, that for the first time this year more than half of the 17 Ontario universities fell in the Macleans rankings? Can anyone predict what this will mean for the thousands of Canadian students heading to university in that province over the next decade?

This fall, David Smiths former university has appointed a dean’s task force to examine the quality of a Queen’s arts and science education. As dean Robert Silverman points out, some of what counts at Queen’s has been cut: in 1990, the student-faculty ratio was 14.7:1. Today, it sits at 19.3:1. The task force, composed of three faculty and three students, will determine what is needed to restore quality. The group’s first priority? To figure out what is desirable, what is measurable, and then put a dollar value to it. “The primary question,” says Silverman, “is determining what level of quality we want to return to.”

If the decision is to return to the quality of 1990, Silverman has two options. He needs to cut 2,000 students or hire 131 professors. Neither will fly with the Ontario government: it’s not about to approve enrolment cuts, or ante up the necessary $ 13 million to hire the faculty. A third option? Boosting tuition fees, a move that would also need government approval. “What’s the best thing that could happen?” asks Silverman. “A miracle that would have government recognizing that an educated society is worth the investment. We’re a lot cheaper than health.”

Even Smith would agree: sometimes what counts can be counted. For 10 years now, as Macleans has taken the measure of undergraduate education at public universities across Canada, government support for higher education has faltered. Ten years ago, the provincial operating grant for McGill accounted for 70 per cent of its operating budget. Today, it accounts for 50 per cent. At more than a third of Canadian universities, the government operating grant accounts for half or less of the operating budget. Let’s get the nomenclature straight: these are now publicly assisted universities. And perversely, as government support has decreased, the political will to control the agenda has risen.

Last February, when federal Finance Minister Paul Martin transferred $2.5 billion to the provinces for postsecondary education and health, health got all the thunder. What will it take to move education to the top of the public agenda? A parents’ revolution, which will come as the baby boom generation begins to grasp the quality gap. Until then, all I can say is: don’t shoot the messenger.