TAKING A CAMPUS PULSE
A Maclean’s/Decima survey paints a revealing picture of students’ attitudes on issues ranging from education to sex
It is a place for working hard and spreading wings, for forging friendships and value systems, and for looking ahead, however reluctantly, to the real world. The university, in an era marked by apprehension over matters both economic and sexual, has also become a place where students who survive its rigors and distractions do so by combining skepticism with steely determination. In the words of Patricia Patterson, a psychology major at the University of Victoria, B.C., “Sometimes you just have to sit back and think hard about all the things that could go wrong, and then decide very carefully how you can get what it is you’re after. Then, you just hope for the best.” Patterson, 21, is one of 500 university students who were questioned in a cross-Canada Maclean’s/Decima poll after settling into the new academic year, and among about two dozen poll respondents interviewed by Maclean’s afterwards. Holding forth on subjects ranging from the education they are getting to the sex that they are sometimes not, their opinions present a revealing picture of the current habits and attitudes on campus in Canada.
Despite present uncertainties and anxieties about the future, the prevailing mood is strongly positive. “As far as the quality of their education is concerned, students are a fairly content bunch of consumers,” says Decima senior vice-president Michael Sullivan, “and the main thing they are happy with is the quality of teaching—it seems to be teachers that make or break a university’s reputation in a student’s mind.” But students are also prepared to level criticism, frank and unapologetic, at overcrowded classes and courses that threaten to leave them ill-equipped for future employment. About life outside the classroom, and especially about the relations between the sexes, they are equally opinionated, and often clearly divided by gender. Although there is much that the sexes have in common—three out of four say that they have, in fact, had intercourse in the past year— men and women are often at odds with each other when it comes to the critical issues of mutual trust and intimacy, as well as the pursuit of learning and leisure.
Even when they broadly agreed in the poll, students often qualified their responses in followup interviews on the basis of personal experiences. In the poll, 84 per cent of the respondents say that they are getting a good or an excellent education, and 82 per cent claim that they prefer studying at a Canadian university rather than an American school. But most of those interviewed cited specific aspects of their schools where they see room for improvement.
Still, along with the strong satisfaction over the schools that they attend, the students polled are also powerfully positive about the cornerstone of education—teaching itself. In all, 83 per cent of those polled said that their teachers are doing a good or excellent job. “I have professors who are terribly concerned that everybody is getting what they need,” says Susan Scottinwood, 47, who has taken a leave from her job as a manager at Bell Canada to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Toronto. “More than just knowing a lot about their subject area,” adds Scottinwood, “the good teachers are the ones who go out of their way to make sure that you come to know it, too.”
Teaching suffers, say many students, when overcrowded classes make it next to impossible for professors to give personal attention to everyone, even outside the classroom. Almost one-third of those surveyed were harsh in judging the size of their classes, rating them from bad to fair. “I have had two or three classes with over 300 people in them,” says Stephanie Duffitt, 22, who is studying primary education at Memorial University in St.John’s, Newfoundland. “In that situation,” she adds, “you might as well just be reading from a textbook. You certainly aren’t going to learn anything from the professor.”
Despite such obstacles, the vast majority of students (84 per cent) say that they are gaining useful knowledge on their way through university, and that the process is helping them to think more clearly. “In some ways, the crowded classes and the demand on professors force you to learn to look after yourself, to learn to learn, and to make your thinking more proficient,” says Shawn Drybrough, 20, who is a history major at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
And although more than half of the students predict that it will take them more than six months to find a job
when they graduate, many say that it is more important to be educated from the university experience than immediately employable. In all, 76 per cent say that the skills they are learning are more important than the degree they will obtain. “A classical education should be valued for its own sake rather than for job training,” says Sandra
Holmes, 35, who last year completed an undergraduate arts degree at the University of Calgary, and who is currently working towards an education degree at the same school. “Knowing how the world works in the very broad sense, that is what is valuable to me.”
Some students emphasize pragmatic attitudes. Bonnie Banerjee, a commerce major at the University of Ottawa, is among a minority interviewed who say that the degree itself—not the education—is what they are after. Said Banerjee, 20, who estimates that it will take her more than a year to get a job in her field: “There is only one reason I’m here—because I can hand a university $10,000 and after four years they will hand
me a degree that, eventually, will get me in the door of a business.”
Others express doubts about the extent to which a university degree will ever open career doors. In the poll, only 56 per cent say that a university degree is absolutely essential for success. In a separate question, more than 20 per cent say that a community college diploma represents a wiser investment. “It’s a myth that you have to go to university to get ahead,” says Andrea Dore, 21, a history major at Simon Fraser
HOW STUDENTS WOULD PREFER TO SPEND THEIR FREE TIME, GIVEN THE FOLLOWING CHOICES: MEN WOMEN Discuss your dreams with Freud 24% 40% Drink beer and have sex 43% 14% Discuss music with Mozart 20% 21% Visit and work with Mother Teresa 13% 25%
University in Burnaby, B.C. “The reality is that people graduate with degrees and go to work at the paper mill in their hometown.”
Often cynical about where their education is leading them, many of those interviewed complained that their high school left them ill-prepared for the university experience. Loren Boisvert, who is studying mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says that he had trouble making it through a required English course in his first post-secondary year. “I was learning things about grammar that I should have been taught in Grade 4,” says Boisvert, 22. Others complain that their high school failed to prepare them for the lecture-style format of university learning. “I didn’t know even simple things,” says Simon Fraser’s Dore, “like when to take notes and how to recognize important information.”
Some students find that dealing with the intensely
GRADING EDUCATION EXCELLENT GOOD FAIR POOR FAIL Teaching 28% 55% 16% 1% -Class size 29% 35% 20% 8% 4% Providing knowledge 35% 49% 14% 1% — and ability to think clearly Preparation for 17% 41% 28% 6% 2% the job market Education overall 23% 61% 14% 1% —
social pressures of attending university is as much a challenge as adjusting to the post-secondary crucible of intellectual and professional development. For many, it is a time of establishing independence from family and hometown friends, and for coming to terms with an adult world in which
the pleasures of dating, and the joy of intimacy, coexist with fears of date rape, sexual harassment and AIDS.
The strains of that world are especially evident when students talk about the question of trust. Just over onequarter of those polled say that they do not trust the opposite sex as much as they used to. Among women, the number jumps to one-third—a figure that several of those interviewed, including some men, blamed on the persistence of chauvinist ideas. “I know guys who view women as little more than a goal to be bedded,” says James Davies, a student of veterinary medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. Adds Davies, 20, on a note of concern: “That kind of attitude is bound to produce a certain amount of low-level paranoia and distrust on the part of women.”
And sexist attitudes are not restricted to pubs and dormitories: five per cent of women said that they had experienced sexual harassment from professors. For part of one semester, University of Winnipeg drama student Lynne Scott endured one teacher’s lewd comments, including references to the fit of her jeans, before threatening to report the man to university authorities. Still, Scott, 36, says that the experience did not diminish her trust of other men. Says Scott: “I see a real willingness from many men to try to understand the kind of things that men have done to make themselves untrustworthy. They’re honestly asking ‘What do we do that scares you? What things can we do to improve the situation?’ ”
For victims of even more serious abuse, the effects can be broader and long-lasting. Seven per cent of female respondents said that they have been raped by a date, and an additional 15 per cent said that it has happened to a friend. Among those women, 43 per cent say that they trust the opposite sex less than they used to, compared to 31 per cent among the rest of the women polled who hold that view. One University of Ottawa student who asked not to be identified is among them. She said that last November, after she ran into a
high school acquaintance at a pub where both she and the man had been drinking, he pulled her into a back room of the bar, which was owned by one of his friends. “There was just no stopping him,” she now recalls. Although she declined to press charges—“If it went to court I’d be put on the stand and made to look like a whore”—she says that the experience has changed how she interacts with men. “It won’t happen again,” she says adamantly. “Now I always make sure there are friends within arm’s length when I’m out with a guy.”
That victim is not alone in her preference for fun in larger numbers. In total, 52 per cent of all students polled, and 58 percent of women, say that they favor group activities to dating. For many, the decision has more to do with the pursuit of fun than the fear of violence. “With a guy, you’re watching what you say, your language, your appearance,” says Stephanie Sinai, 19, a first-year student in a psychology degree course at Brock University in St.
Catharines, Ont. “With friends, you just go out and party.” When men and women do get together one-on-one, sex is often a part of the equation. In all, 74 per cent of university students polled said that they have had at least one sexual relationship in the last year, and 25 per cent have had multiple partners. But although al-
most 70 per cent of students—and almost 80 per cent of women—say that they reserve sex for serious relationships, many clearly have a selective definition of that term. Calgary’s Holmes, for one, stresses that she has “never been a person who has found much value in the one-night stand,” and that she likes to find “at least some emotional depth” in a relationship before engaging in intercourse. Still, she estimates that she has had four sexual partners in the last year, and describes intercourse as “probably my main recreation.” Others are more solemn about the relationship of love and lust. “I don’t take sex lightly,” says Michael Wood, a 19-year-old business major at the University of New Brunswick
in Fredericton. Wood, who has had two sexual partners in the past year, describes sex as “not just something to do, but an expression of love and bonding between two people.” The prospect of disease, and death, is also making some students think more seriously about sex. “All my friends are wary of who they date and who they sleep with because of AIDS,” says Memorial’s Duffitt. And members of both sexes say that they are beginning to come to terms with the need for greater sexual discretion. Winnipeg’s Scott says that although she continues to feel “a fair bit of pressure to have sex before I’m really serious,” men are getting the message that in the age of AIDS, dating and sex do not always go hand-in-hand. “You have to say ‘No’
more than once before they get the message,” says Scott, “but they do get the message.” For both potential partners, the risk is often too high a cost. Of her own increasingly conservative attitude to casual sex, she adds: “I figure, better safe than dead.” Still, the poll indicates that many students are decidedly casual about taking safety precautions in sexual encounters. Overall, including married students, 40 per cent of those polled said that they did not use a condom on the last occasion that they engaged in sexual intercourse. Almost one-quarter of the poll respondents said that they never use a condom, and another 12 per cent said that they seldom do so during sexual intercourse. “I don’t think AIDS is making all that much of a difference,” says Simon Fraser’s Dore. “Bungee jumping may not be too safe,” she explains, “but if it’s fun, people are going to do it.”
NUMBER OF SEXUAL FREQUENCY OF SEX IN THE PARTNERS IN THE PAST PAST MONTH: YEAR: Men Women Men Women None 15% 21% None 30% 27% One 48% 61% Once 3% 6% Two 13% 9% Two to five times 33% 28% Three 10% 5% Six to nine times 10% 16% Four or more 13% 4% 10 or more times 24% 24%
For others, sex without condoms is simply unthinkable. “A smart woman always carries them,” says Memorial’s Duffitt, “and if a guy thinks any less of her because of it, shag him.” That is an attitude shared by many men as well. “I never have unprotected sex—never,” says Kyle Lewkowich, a French and English major at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “If a woman didn’t want me to wear one,” he adds, “I’d say, ‘Let’s just forget about having sex altogether.’ ”
However much the threat of AIDS has dampened enthusiasm for easy, unprotected sex, the thought of getting intimate remains a pleasing one to many men. One poll question sought responses to four options: talking about their dreams with psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, discussing music with composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, working with missionary Mother Teresa, or drinking beer and having sex. The result: 43 per cent of male students chose sex and suds—by far their most popular option. Says Steven Novo, 21, a second-year economics major at the University of Western Ontario in London:
“Ask any red-blooded Canadian guy, and if he’s being honest, he’ll tell you he’d rather have a little beer and sex than talk to anybody.”
By contrast for women, it is intellectual rather than sexual pursuits that hold the greatest appeal. Only 14 per cent, the lowest fraction among women’s choices, selected the beer-and-sex option. The greatest number of women, four out of 10, opted for the opportunity to discuss their dreams with Freud (24 per cent of men did so). Still, several women confessed later in follow-up interviews that they would use the opportunity to vent their disgust with his ideas. “A lot of his theories were obnoxious and offensive to women, and I’d let him know it,” says
Victoria’s Patterson. Adds Joanna Brooks, a psychology major at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.: “His notions are totally lunatic, and I wouldn’t mind telling him so.”
The notion of working with Mother Teresa was certainly the least popular choice among men: 13 per cent selected that option. That compared with one-quarter of women who said they would like to work with the renowned Roman Catholic missionary. “I figured maybe some of her might rub off on me,” says Marlene Michasiw, a 19-year-old languages major at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. But that choice holds little appeal for other women. Memorial’s Duffitt objects to putting any of the choices ahead of a night of drinking with a little intimacy for good measure. Says Duffitt: “For the last few years, with exams and papers and just concentrating on getting to the end of all this, I haven’t had time to even breathe. I would love to do something where I didn’t have to think.” Indeed, despite their enthusiasm for extra-curricular pleasures, students clearly have more on their minds than each other. Along with concerns about love and sex, many are adamant that Canada’s universities continue to be a place for young minds to develop and grow. “Politicians are always talking about the
importance of a good, educated workforce,” says Simon Fraser’s Dore, “but you get to university and, boom, you find out that education in this country is really fighting to stay alive.” Others
say that, despite the pressures and the problems, and even because of them, universities will always be a place for intellectual and personal growth. Says Calgary’s Holmes: “If you can take what is good, like the teachers and the ideas, and then see through all the frustrations—not just the school work itself, but also the hassles over large classes and small minds and shrinking budgets—then you’re ready for anything they can offer out there in the real world.”
The complete poll is reproduced on page 79.
Sneaking a peak, plagiarizing a paragraph, jotting some keys words on the palm of the hand: cheating has always been a big temptation at university. In the Maclean's/Decima poll of students, one out of four admitted to having cheated on exams or having handed in work that was not their own. That indicates, says Decima senior vice-president Michael Sullivan, that “students are definitely under some pressure to perform.” Poll respondents who were interviewed later gave examples of how some students yield to such pressures. Andrea Dore, a history major at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said that she has loaned essays from past courses to some of her friends, although “if I really sat down and thought about it, I would have to admit it wasn’t very fair.”
Cheating on exams has gone high-tech, according to some students. Stewart Meikleham, a chemical engineering student at the University of Western Ontario in London, gave an account of one trick in which students exchange information in the exam room, where calculators are permitted, by using calculators that have wireless transmission and receiving capabilities. But the old-fashioned hidden crib notes remain a staple among students: one respondent said that using notes hidden in a washroom cubicle during an exam is routine. “Cheating is not officially accepted,” Meikleham said, “but it definitely happens.” Decima’s Sullivan concludes that the high number of confessions to such practices, in the poll, indicates that among modem students, “cheating has probably become a more acceptable behavior than it might have been in the past.”