A CONSUMER’S REPORT ON CANADA’S TOP UNIVERSITIES
Bricks and mortarboards do not a university make. It’s the scholars and the quality of their scholarship. Here’s how you can tell the best of Canada’s 50 universities from the rest
C. WELLINGTON WEBB
Dr. Wehb. an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. has spent several years researching the problems facing modern universities and has published a number of critical articles on the subject. He prepared this report and the academic rankings in the chart on the opposite page in consultation with graduate students specializing in education.
BY THE INTERNATIONAL yardstick of Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, Canada has only one university that even approaches the first rank — the University of Toronto. By an internal yardstick, we have at least half a dozen universities that do us credit in terms of the history of higher education in Canada and the resources of the country as a whole.
How is it possible to make such objective general evaluations at all? Large modern universities are complex organizations that display an almost unbelievable variety of facets. Not only do they have several faculties (each incorporating many departments), but also numerous schools, colleges, divisions and institutes. Each segment has its own special job to do. Obviously, an evaluation of a university cannot be taken as an indication of the excellence of all parts of it. An excellent university may have some poor departments, and a poor university may have some good ones.
However, educators recognize five criteria for evaluating the general excellence of a university: graduate offerings, library holdings, science facilities, wealth, and prestige staff. These are obviously interrelated factors, and it would be unwise to assume that any one is the most important or that any of them is an infallible guide to quality. But taken together, they represent a rough measurement of the relative strengths of the university.
Application of these criteria reveals some enormous disparities among the 50 odd institutions in Canada that call themselves universities. At the top end of the scale are the true universities — such as the U of T, McGill. Laval, Queen's and the University of Montreal — which are multidepartmental institutions and maintain a high quality in the traditional faculties of law, medicine and arts. At the bottom end arc some solitary, nonaffiliated institutions that arc little more than mediocre liberal arts colleges. In terms of library holdings, laboratory facilities and staff, such universities as Bishop's in Quebec would have to rate at the very bottom of the scale.
Between these extremes there are many intermediate positions occupied by various universities, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. In general, universities in the Atlantic provinces occupy lower positions in the rating scale, and Ontario and western Canada
universities higher positions among English-speaking institutions.
The situation in higher education in Canada is changing rapidly and some universities may achieve striking advances in quality very quickly. This will most affect the universities in the middle part of the scale and will undoubtedly improve the general standard of the university in Canada. But it’s unlikely the broad pattern will change within the next decade. Because of differences in economic power, Ontario and western universities will vie for the upper positions, and the Maritimes will continue to be lower on the scale. Quebec's McGill and the province’s excellent French-speaking universities will remain in their high positions.
One way in which to obtain a measurement of the vigor of a university’s graduate school is to determine the percentage of total enrollment that represents graduate students. This yardstick was recognized in the Macdonald report (Higher Education in British Columbia and a Plan for the Future, 1962), in these words:
“British Columbia, with all its wealth and with the second largest English-speaking university in the country, is well behind seven other Canadian institutions and behind the very low Canadian average. And yet, it is precisely from our graduate schools that our most distinguished scholars, scientists, teachers and various other leaders will come. The magnitude and gravity of this situation has not been grasped by the vast majority of our citizens.”
This measurement would seem to indicate a general increase in the quality of Canadian higher education. According to E. F. Sheffield’s Enrollment in Canadian Universities and Colleges, 1966, the percentage of graduate students rose from 4.9 percent of total enrollment in 1951-52 to 8.4 percent in 1965-66. This indication, however, must be taken with a grain of salt in view of the limitations of Canadian graduate instruction in general. According to the Spinks report (Development of Graduate Programmes in Ontario Universities, 1966), there is cause for alarm in the tendency in Ontario "to copy Toronto habits and to set up little research fields that can never prosper alongside the giant.” (The “giant” referred to is. of course, the University of Toronto.) It is to be feared that not all of the increase in graduate enrollment in Canadian universities represents new strength. It may to some extent represent new panic — at the difficulty of obtaining professional staff without offering the lure of graduate instruction. This was also noted in the Spinks report: “We constantly heard the complaint that new staff are unobtainable unless one is able to guarantee facilities for ‘graduate work.' In other words, the potential professor asks, ‘Can I have graduate students?' ” / continued on page 88
CANADA’S TOP UNIVERSITIES continued from page 14
A clue to a university’s standing; the size of its library
There is little doubt that universities in other provinces are experiencing the same kind of difficulty. There seems to he a general acceptance in the academic community of the view that there is a close connection between graduate work in a university and excellence. Whether this works to the detriment of undergraduate
students is a good question. A thinly disguised contempt for undergraduate teaching is not unknown among those professors who yearn to give graduate courses. The commonest argument, however, is that, on the contrary, it improves undergraduate instruction to have a professor do some of his work in the graduate school. The truth
seems to he that on the one hand a professor who gives good graduate instruction will also give good undergraduate instruction, and on the other hand that one cannot guarantee quality simply by multiplying graduate courses.
By far the most important measure of the academic excellence of Ca-
nadian universities relative to one another is their library holdings. Here the results of applying objective standards are often shocking. According to the Spinks report, only five of the 14 Ontario universities have library facilities sufficient to support their undergraduate work, let alone their graduate programs. These five are U of T, Queen's, Western. Ottawa, and Windsor. Incidentally, as an external comparison of our universities with the best in the world, the Spinks report also found that no Ontario university had sufficient library holdings to support its graduate work.
That the extent of library holdings is an indicator of the excellence of a university was emphasized by the Cartter report (An Assessment of Quality in Graduate Education, published by the American Council on Education, 1966). This point has not been lost on perceptive Canadian educators. In a review of the Cartter report in the Bulletin (October 1966) of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, Edward J. Monahan, Associate Executive Secretary of the C.A.U.T., reported as follows:
“It comes as no surprise that Dr. Cartter reiterates the judgment that academically strong universities without exception are possessors of major research libraries. The 17 universities in the top 20 institutions (omitting the three leading institutes of science and technology) had total library holdings averaging 2.7 million volumes, ranging from a low of 1.3 million to a high of almost eight million. By comparison, the lowest 20 institutions in the Cartter survey averaged 465,000 volumes. How far below this standard of quality the great majority of Canadian universities stand at present needs no elaboration.”
The place among North American universities occupied by the University of Toronto, with respect to library holdings was pointed out by the chief librarian in the U of T’s President's Report for the year ending June 1966, as follows:
“According to a report compiled last winter by the Association of Research Libraries, our collection was 12th largest among universities on the continent. In annual additions we were fifth, preceded by Harvard, the two Californias, and Cornell.”
The chief librarian also reported total holdings for the library system of the main downtown campus to be 2.257,650 volumes, Although scientists at the University of Toronto continued on page 90
CANADA’S TOP UNIVERSITIES comimini
Good pay lures good faculty—but money alone isn’t enough
grumble, the combination of an imaginative and technically competent librarian and a president trained in the humanities has ensured that Toronto is the only Canadian university that has attained eminence in humanitarian studies.
A third yardstick for measuring academic excellence is that of costs.
The problem of determining costs per student of various kinds of studies in a university is very difficult. But one correlation between cost and excellence can be fairly easily determined: namely, that between faculty salaries and faculty quality. The Cartter report found a close connection between high-quality faculty, especially among
professors and associate professors, and high salaries. But one must take into account not only current faculty salaries, but also the history of pay scales in the past few years. Some Canadian universities have only recently begun to raise salaries substantially, and the current attractive salaries at some institutions, therefore,
do not necessarily represent the possession of an excellent staff, but a last-ditch attempt to recruit sufficient staff in the face of severe competition.
The extent to which Canadian academic salaries lagged behind those of other countries and lagged behind those of other occupations within Canada is not well known. In 1945, Canadian academic salaries were at an absurdly low level, as was pointed out by the pioneering (and largely ignored) Brebner report of 1945 (Scholarship for Canada):
“Here it must be said that the salaries paid to most Canadian scholars and teachers can be described as stupid, even by comparison with the modest remuneration paid elsewhere in the English-speaking world. They are so low, and their recipients are so overworked anyway, that a very large proportion of their potential usefulness is continuously being poured down the sewer of domestic or other drudgery and hackwork for extra income ... In Toronto and Montreal minimum salaries roughly equal in available amenities to American and British competitive levels would be: instructor, $2,000; assistant professor, $2,850; associate professor, $4,000; professor, $6,000.”
Personal note: When I was hired at the University of Toronto in 1955, I was granted a salary that was $500 a year less than what I had received as a repeater attendant (a kind of glorified telegraph operator) nine years before, in 1946-47, in the Yukon.
Among Canadian universities, the University of Toronto since 1957-58 (when the first big pay increases to professors were made) has always heen at the top or close to the top in pay rates. In recent years, however, the western universities — e.p., Saskatchewan. Alberta, and UBC — have successfully challenged this supremacy. Significantly, the Maritimes universities have paid salaries consistently lower than those of Ontario and the west, are still doing so in spite of recent gains.
The new universities, particularly in Ontario, have had to begin operation with substantial salary scales since they could not otherwise attract competent staff. Even so, they have had difficulty in attracting senior staff of real quality. In some cases, where a new university has succeeded in attracting a scholar of international renown, the innate provincialism of Canadian university power complexes has quickly alienated him. (A prime example was the bitter feud between York University and sociologist John
R. Seeley, co-author of Crest wood Heightf. ) The new universities have trieel to offset the disadvantage of their newness by granting somewhat higher salaries to junior staff than the older universities are willing to do. This policy is not having the best of results, however, since the older universities seem to be able to hire whatever new PhDs they really want to go after.
Although prestige names certainly add toa university's lustre, it is doubtful whether this factor is important enough to provide an objective criterion for evaluating excellence. Everyone will agree that an Einstein on the stall w ill increase a university's stature, but such geniuses arc rare. Furthermore, it is often the case that the true brilliance of a scholar is not recognized until after he has retired or died. Consequently, what is perhaps more important for current assessments of universities is their accumulation of large numbers of promising men. But this accumulation is usually found in conjunction with the operation of a vigorous, multi-discipline graduate school. Men of superior, independent intellect want to teach in a good graduate school for two reasons. F irst, there they have more freedom to tr\ out new ideas, and second, there they are able to make meaningful educational decisions concerning their students with less outside interference. Thus, it is no accident that universities blessed with outstanding professors usually have excellent graduate schools, which are turning out a continuous flow of MAs and PhDs.
Freedom: the impossible dream
If quality in university education goes with the operation of a graduate school, then it follows that quality costs money. The reason is that graduate instruction is so much more expensive than undergraduate instruction. But if quality can only be had by inaugurating expensive graduate schools, it would seem that the dream of having institutions that are endowed ami free (especially of government control) in Canada must be discarded. Only governments can afford the very large sums of money necessary to operate a good graduate school offering advanced degrees in many different fields. It seems likely, therefore. that we can expect more governmental control to he exercised over universities in Canada.
A serious problem in each of the provinces is arising which may force some kind of governmental intervention in the actual academic business of the universities. This is the problem of co-ordinating the various educational institutions in the province from primary school on up. through technical as well as academic institutions, so that a genuine educational system obtains. Thus, the problem of improving our universities is intimately connected with the problem of improving our educational provincial systems. In Ontario, as Robin S. Harris points out in his book. Quiet Evolution, there is a lack of overall co-ordination even though the province is richly endowed with educational resources at all levels and in all fields. Undoubtedly, this lack of
co-ordination has harmed the quality of the general university education, in Ontario.
In the final analysis, what is the outlook for a bright young person who wants to attend university in Canada? What level of excellence can he expect from what is available to him here? Perhaps the best answer to these questions is to be found in the performance of Canadian young people when they compete on equal terms with graduates of universities
in other countries. It would seem that where we are concerned with our best young people graduating from our best universities, we have nothing to be ashamed of. A case in point is the number of Canadian students who win the U.S. Woodrow Wilson Fellowships. These fellowships, which carry a substantial financial reward and a great deal of prestige, are intended to be a means of encouraging promising young people to enter the field of college teaching. For the past eight
years graduates of the University of Toronto have always been among the top six among North American universities in numbers of Woodrow Wilson fellows. In 1966, with 26 winners. Toronto was behind only Harvard and Michigan, and ahead of Princeton. Yale and other distinguished U.S. universities.
What we have to remember, however. is that many of our universities are much too far below the standards set by our best ones. ★