What Makes A University Great

The best schools are committed to providing the best teachers

BRUCE WALLACE October 21 1991

What Makes A University Great

The best schools are committed to providing the best teachers

BRUCE WALLACE October 21 1991

What Makes A University Great

The best schools are committed to providing the best teachers

It is a bleary-eyed group of students who straggle into class at Montreal's McGill University for their 8:30 Monday-morning histo ry lecture on Tudor and Stu art England. The thin, be spectacled professor is the last to arrive, settling behind a desk to recount how Henry vu used strategic marriages and an armed force to fend off challengers to his throne at

the turn of the 16th century. To an outsider, there is nothing special about History 101-314D, one of hundreds of courses offered by the university to its undergraduates. But the fact that it is taught by Michael Maxwell, however, is different. Maxwell is McGill's dean of arts, one of the school's most demanding administrative positions. And by mak ing time to teach a course to upper-year students, he is sending a strong signal to his colleagues about the importance that McGill places on teaching. "Getting into the classroom with the students reminds us that our basic mission is to teach," says Maxwell after the 50-minute lecture. "It is teach ing that prevents us from turning into nothing more than simple bureaucrats."

A commitment to teaching is also one of the most important ingredients in fashioning a great educational institution. In a Maclean `s canvass of Canadian university presidents, academic qualifi cations and student-teacher ratios were cited as the two most important factors in assessing a university. And assessing teaching is a practice, according to some academics, that prospective university students should take more seriously. "Canadians are not as careful about picking their universities as are the British, Americans and Japanese," says McGill principal David Johnston, whose school ranked first overall in the Maclean's survey of 46 Canadian universities. Adds Johnston, who himself has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and law degrees from Cambridge and Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.: "We tend to assume that what is provided will be reasonably good-and content ourselves with that."

Certainly, the fact that Canadian universities receive more than 80 per cent of their operating budgets from public funds ensures a degree of uniformity in those institutions. But how universi

ties use their resourcesfrom the number of residence beds they provide to how many PhDs they hiremakes some schools better than others.

Reputation is yet another distinguishing factor. With limited objective data on which to base their choice, many entering students pick their university for its pres tige. Heather Wright, for

one, a third-year applied sciences student at Queen's, remembers sensing the school's mys tique after seeing people wearing Queen's jackets while attending high school in Burlington, Ont. "To see graduates walking around with the Queen's name on their back said so much about

I their school pride,” she says. That image, Wright insists, will also help her get a good job, even in a depressed economy. “It all comes down to having the Queen’s name,” she says bluntly. “You’ve got to come from the best.”

Indeed, when Maclean’s invited Canadian university presidents to rank the Top 10 undergraduate universities for arts and science, they overwhelmingly made Queen’s the number 1 choice. But that emphasis on prestige is the bane of some university presidents’ existence, particularly those from newer schools that lack a storied tradition to help them compete for talented students and faculty. Says Harry Arthurs, president of 32-year-old York University, which struggles under its image as Toronto’s “other” school when compared with the University of Toronto: “ “Reputation often does not have a lot to do with reality. It is often based on very out-of-date information.”

But a university’s reputation cannot be discounted, because well-known schools continue to trade on their names. Just as some college athletes go to the University of Western Ontario in London because of its hallowed intercollegiate sports tradition, a university’s academic prestige is a magnet for other highly qualified professors and students. McGill’s Johnston acknowledges that Dr. Wilder Penfield’s pioneering mapping of the brain, conducted at McGill after the

Second World War, still helps attract leading scholars—and the research funding that accompanies them— from both Canada and abroad. As well, the most renowned schools are a beacon to foreign and out-of-province students, offering undergraduates a more cosmopolitan school environment. Among those universities with more than 10,000 full-time undergraduate students, McGill ranked highest for its ability to attract students from outside the province and country.

The quality of those students is another crucial element of rating universities. One measure is the average grade of those students entering first year. University presidents surveyed by Maclean ’s rated the average grade of accepted applicants to be the fourth most important of 15 factors in assessing a university. And in the Maclean’s survey, Queen’s topped that category—its 1990-1991 entering class had an average of 84.5 per cent. The percentage of undergraduate applicants who are accepted into first year also gives some indication of how tough the competition is for student places. The University of Montreal, ranked 11th overall, accepted only 36.4 per cent of its applicants, the lowest rate of the 46 universities surveyed.

Anecdotal assessments of student quality vary widely. Some academics argue that despite the swelling size of undergraduate populations, the calibre of


How university presidents rated their Top 10

1. Queen’s

2. Toronto (U of T)

3. McGill

4. British Columbia (UBC)

5. Mount Allison

6. Dalhousie

7. Western (UW0)

8. Alberta

9. Trent

10. Laval


Schools with fewer than 5,000 full-time undergraduates

1. Mount Allison

2. Acadia

3. Lethbridge

4. Sainte-Anne

5. Bishop’s

6. St. Francis Xavier

7. Trent

8. Mount Saint Vincent

9. Moncton

10. Brandon


Percentage of out-of-province/foreign students

1. Bishop’s

2. Mount Allison

3. McGill

4. Acadia

5. St. Francis Xavier

6. Ottawa (U of 0)

7. Dalhousie

8. Manitoba

9. P.E.I.

10. New Brunswick (UNB)

Source: Maclean's Ranking, 1991

students is rising. “The quality of their work is improving,” says Graeme Decarie, chairman of the history department at Montreal’s Concordia University. But at other schools, some professors are concerned that the decision by universities to open their doors to more students over the past 25 years has lowered standards. “We are giving degrees to undergraduates who still lack fundamental skills because professors simply refuse to fail anyone for bad work,” says Stephen Scott, a professor at McGill’s faculty of law. Adds Scott: “Frankly, if you have a heartbeat, you are going to get a degree.”

In the Maclean ’s rankings, the quality of the faculty and the university’s financial resources were the categories given the heaviest weighting—each accounted for 30 per cent of the total. But even highcalibre faculty members can be a problem if they are far removed from the students. Indeed, one of the strongest student critiques of U.S. universities is that undergraduates seldom, if ever, are taught by their star faculty members.

In Canada, the Maclean’s survey revealed that students at smaller universities are more likely to have tenured professors teach them in a first-year course. Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.,

ranked third overall, has a long-standing tradition of involving its 1,979 full-time undergraduate students in research projects with their professors. “I’ve had chances here that I never would have had anywhere else,” says Darren Nickerson, a fourth-year honors chemistry student who has worked on research projects with faculty since the summer after his first year. “I’ll go on to do graduate work somewhere else, but Mount A. will always be special for having given me this opportunity.”

Smaller schools, for the most part, also avoid huge and often chaotic first-year classes. A low ratio between faculty and students helped the tiny and little-known University of Sainte-Anne in Pointe-del’Eglise, N.S., attain its 15th overall ranking. The picturesque, French-speaking university, located in a fishing community along St. Mary’s Bay on the province’s west coast, caters mostly to Acadian students and specializes in training teachers. “Our graduates are aware of the minority experience in this country, and they, in turn, sustain the culture by teaching in areas where francophones are in the minority,” says registrar Murielle Comeau.

But smaller schools fare poorly in the highly competitive hunt for federal re-

search grants, a category dominated by the largest universities. Says Ross Barclay, a chemistry professor at Mount Allison, which ranked 27th in the category of federal grants for non-medical research: “The federal government should be putting a large endowment aside for the use of small universities, which don’t have their own big endowments.” Indeed, the large universities, especially those with graduate programs in business, the sciences and medicine, receive the lion’s share of government research funding, as well as being the favored targets of private-sector donations.

The extra funding offers undergraduates at those schools the added attraction of big laboratories and better-equipped libraries. In the Maclean’s survey, schools with more than 5,000 full-time undergraduate students held down 11 of the top 15 positions overall, and that advantage may continue as universities increasingly come to rely on the private sector for funding.

The question of university financing is a major concern for students. Says Sylvia Sioufi, a 1988 University of Ottawa political science graduate who now works full time as a researcher for the Canadian Federation of Students: “An underfunded university has to make too many sacrifices, usually at the expense of students.” Some students may even want to attend a school because it devotes a greater portion of its operating budget to student services. It is for good reason that some students at Bishop’s University in Quebec’s Eastern Townships refer to the institution as “the country club.” The school, which boasts its own nine-hole golf course, finished first overall in spending on athletics and student affairs. But its ability to attract top students from across the country, among other factors, allowed Bishop’s to finish 17th overall.

Other students may define the best university as one that offers more universal access to scholarships or bursaries—Sainte-Anne was the top school when per capita assistance to its students was measured. Still others are most interested in whether or not they can get a bed in residence, a criterion in which even topranked McGill fares poorly (35th). Again, Sainte-Anne was first in the category, providing more residential beds than needed for its 333 full-time undergraduate students.

Financial resources—how they are used and how much can be raised—will be critical in

determining which Canadian universities can meet the standard of greatness in the years ahead. “I’m beginning to doubt that we can have good universities based on government support only,” says McGill University’s Johnston. “Canadians must develop a much greater sense of loyalty and generosity towards their universities.”

Clearly, the best schools are those that produce graduates who have the intellectual rigor to meet the future’s host of social and economic challenges. In 1958, in the wake of the technical challenge to the West posed by the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite, the incoming University of Toronto president, Claude Bissell, wrote in Maclean ’s: “The challenge of Sputnik is Qot how can we direct more human material to the production line of technologists, but how can we make sure that our highest intellectual resources in all areas of knowledge are developed and made available to the nation.” In 1991, Canadians face less dramatic but equally significant challenges to their future. And Bissell’s measurement of what makes a great university remains just as relevant.