Making cross-border comparisons

The Best American Colleges Still Have An Edge Over Even The Top Canadian Universities

DIANE BRADY November 15 1993

Making cross-border comparisons

The Best American Colleges Still Have An Edge Over Even The Top Canadian Universities

DIANE BRADY November 15 1993

Making cross-border comparisons

The Best American Colleges Still Have An Edge Over Even The Top Canadian Universities


At the University of Toronto, there is no higher praise than referring to its whispered designation—“Harvard of the North.” Even in casual conversation, the comparison can elicit a proud smile on the faces of faculty and students. With its ivy-clad towers, leafy walkways and busy, downtown neighborhood, the physical resemblance is clear. But the unofficial moniker reflects a larger aspiration: to match the elite U.S. institution’s reputation for excellence. That seems like a tough task for a school functioning on roughly one-fifth of Harvard’s operating budget per student. In fact, when looking for a twin south of the border, Toronto has more in common with the large state-funded universities. “In terms of structure and sources of funding, we are much closer to a University of Michigan,” insists Daniel Lang, assistant vice-president and registrar. Yet he admits

that “Michigan of the North” lacks the same ring. “Harvard is not our peer,” he says. “But it’s shorthand for being the best.”

In a highly competitive era, when attracting scholars and research dollars is a global pursuit, being the best matters a great deal. Certainly Canada excels in offering accessibility. ‘You would be hard-pressed to find a country that has done as well as Canada in achieving equality of opportunity at such a low cost, ” says David Johnston, principal of McGill University. The question is: Do we have a Harvard? In their zest to promote uniform funding and access from coast to coast, critics charge that Canadians may be settling for mediocrity as the norm. “We are not comfortable with elitism or excellence,” says Johnston. “We need to create conditions where the tall poppies can grow.”

Which begs another question: Just how well do Canada’s best universities fare in comparison with the leading U.S. institutions? A Maclean’s comparison of Canadian and selected U.S. schools, using common indicators, revealed that wealthy Ivy League colleges clearly come out on top. Although Canadian universities are truly world-class in their ability to compete with far fewer funds, the final comparison confirms a common suspicion among Canadians that their schools, historically dependent on transfer payments from the federal government, simply do not have enough financial fuel to win the academic race. As a result, top U.S. universities, with large private endowments, are able to bring in more faculty per student, keep their class sizes small, and still have money left over.

But, if sharing the pie from the University of Victoria to Memorial in St. John’s means that no university gets fat, it also means that none goes hungry. Each Canadian school offers its students reasonable value. In Canada, a healthy proportion of the dollars are spent on student services and libraries. By contrast, U.S. education experts agree that their worst schools exist as little more than degree shops, with ill-trained faculty,

poor facilities and minimal respect in the academic community. Unlike Canada, the lion’s share of research contracts, top students and scholars flow to a handful of America’s 3,541 colleges and universities—of which 1,976 are privately funded. “The gap between our best and worst schools is very, very wide,” says Iris Rotberg, an education specialist with the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Foundation. Still, such gaps have allowed some winners to emerge. “One of the clear virtues of the American system is its diversity,” says Johnston. “We need to encourage excellence without losing equality of opportunity.”

As with other social programs, access has traditionally been the cornerstone of Canada’s education strategy. Despite rising cutoff marks, Canadian schools remain relatively open to applicants in the first year. Once in the door, however, students are weeded out. Maclean’s comparison of freshman retention rates—the number of first-year students who return for second year—illustrates the point. Leading U.S. schools admit fewer students but find a higher proportion returning to the institution. In Canada, schools seem more willing to flush out their freshman ranks. Once the numbers are trimmed down, the remaining students seem as likely to graduate from universities in Canada. In fact, Canada still manages to outpace the United States in university participation, with 27.5 per cent of Canadians roughly between 18 and 25 enrolled in university, compared with 24.9 per cent of Americans in the same age group. Canada also has the world’s highest level of part-time participation—13 per cent of young adults versus nine per cent in the the United States and none in most of Europe. “Everyone is told to go to university,” says 19-year-old Carly Escott of Burlington, who returned to high school this year to upgrade her marks. “It’s just the thing to do.”

One reason for the higher numbers might be the comparatively lower prices. At Canadian schools tuition is around $2,000 per year, while American schools charge as much as $30,000. In 1991, according to the U.S. department of education, tuition fees funded more than 40 per cent of the costs at private U.S. universities and 16 per cent at public ones. In Canada, tuition accounted for 12 per cent of university revenue—a proportion that even some students

think is far too low. Says Peter Oriare, a Kenyan graduate student at the University of Western Ontario: “Students don’t realize how easy it is to get an education here.” Indeed, the decision to attend university may require years of financial planning in other countries. After high school, the U.S. government shifts more of the burden for education costs to its citizens while Canada continues to carry most of the load. In 1988, universities and colleges accounted for 26.8 per cent of public spending on education in the United States, compared with 34.8 per cent in Canada.

Some students argue that such reliance on public funds has helped foster an attitude of complacency among Canadians. University, it seems, is less a rite of passage than a birthright. “Canadians seem to

think we all deserve an education and we deserve it cheap,” says Paul Kemp, past president of the student union at the University of Manitoba. But Americans assume the opposite—high-school students often devote hundreds of dollars and cramming hours to prepare for the nationwide Scholastic Aptitude Test, which most colleges re quire applicants to write. If students score high enough to earn a place at a prestigious school, their families often have to cope with a byzantine maze of commercial lenders, government programs and other strategies to help pay off tuition,room and board fees that can exceed $30,000 per year. Even such public universities as Michigan rely primarily on private funds. “The state has run into some severe economic problems,” says Walter Harrison, a Michigan vice-president. “If we relied on that, we could not compete.”

Canadian schools, with their reliance on shrinking public dollars, face similar problems. Crowded classrooms, decaying buildings and inadequate supplies have become the norm at many cashstrapped Canadian universities. Ryan Craig of Toronto, along with his brother Aaron, chose to attend Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

Despite the hefty annual cost of $60,000 for both, paid entirely by his grandparents, he feels that his education is a relative bargain. “The resources here are amazing,” says Craig, 22, a fourth-year literature and economics major who is devoting his senior thesis to comparing Canadian and U.S. universities. In some ways, he argues, Canadian schools are actually more elitist than America’s upper tier. “My brother was rejected at some

Ontario universities because of his grades,” says Craig. “Yale let him in after seeing how wellrounded he was in high school.”

Still, Craig knows that Canadians might dismiss him as a spoiled rich kid for choosing an Ivy League education. The cost alone smacks of an exclusivity not found in Canada. “People need to justify why these places don’t exist at home,” says Craig. “So they dismiss them as elitist.” The obvious success of such schools in siphoning off Canadian talent has touched a sore spot. “Studying in the States seems disloyal,” says Katherine Philips, president of the student-run Alma Mater Society at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “It’s like some weird rivalry. Going anywhere else in the world is seen as broadening your mind.”

In the end, Canadian schools emerge as truly world-class, given the return on the investment. ‘When you consider the money we have to work with,” says David Smith, principal of Queen’s, “the results are quite impressive.” Faced with limited resources, many, including Queen’s, are attempting to foster pockets of excellence. That philosophy has led academics like Ken Wong, chair of the MBA program at Queen’s, to propose a complete overhaul of existing programs. “We will not be-

come world-class as a general management school,” says Wong, who is pushing a new MBA curriculum that makes science and technology the central focus. “There has to be a specific strength. It’s the only way we can compete.” In addition to radically altering his school’s mandate, Wong has dared to bring up the taboo subject of privatization. He has proposed to charge students as much as $20,000 for a 12-month program, starting in March, 1996. If approved by three academic bodies, it would be the first time that a Canadian university has privatized an existing program. Several part-time executive MBA programs started as private ventures. “It makes sense,” says Wong. “Governments are not going to keep pumping money into professional programs.”

Indeed, other universities are already reaping the benefits of setting priorities. The prestigious New York-based Rockefeller Foundation recently awarded a $250,000 grant to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., to carry out post-doctoral research in native philosophy and religion. “They have chosen such a unique focus,” says Lynn Szwaja, a senior research associate at Rockefeller who recommended the grant. “Boundaries are irrelevant when you are looking for excellence in scholarship.”


Maclean’s measured the proportion of small undergraduate classes at selected American universities and the Canadian Medical/Doctoral schools. Harvard and Yale do not collect comparable data, and were therefore left off the list. Here is how 15 top schools compare on class size:














14 UBC


Although pockets of excellence exist, many academics argue that the Canadian system’s greatest strength is uniformity—allowing almost every student access to a decent and inexpensive education. “We are all quite good,” says Toronto’s Lang, adding that, although Canadian universities might not make it into America’s top tier, they follow close behind. But, as Kemp points out, there can be hidden costs. ‘You don’t always get a sense here that education is special.” Without that sense, universities risk becoming breeding grounds for mediocrity. As Lakehead has discovered, rewarding excellence and fostering diversity can bring international recognition. “It’s not enough to be OK,” says Dr. Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “You cannot have an island of excellence in a sea of indifference.” For those charged with leading schools into the 21st century, the first step begins at home. “A nation must look at itself before it looks at the world,” says U.S. education secretary Richard Riley. “That’s where the world-class standards have to start.” □