'This concept that high school students are systematically ill-prepared has a whiff of old fogeyism about it’


November 13 2006

'This concept that high school students are systematically ill-prepared has a whiff of old fogeyism about it’


November 13 2006

'This concept that high school students are systematically ill-prepared has a whiff of old fogeyism about it’



Q: How do you think our high schools are doing in terms of preparing students for university?

A: Virtually every generation of professors is convinced secondary schools are deteriorating. I suppose this is inevitable, this view that, “Well, I struggled off to an extraordinarily rigorous school through 10-foot-high snowdrifts, fending off polar bears and wolves on the way.” But a few things reassure me. One, I don’t see a dramatic deterioration in grades given in undergraduate courses in arts and sciences. From 1976 to 2006, the proportion of A’s has gone from around 17 per cent to about 28 per cent. Two, we’re certainly taking [incoming] students with higher averages. This might be grade inflation. But if the student body really was deteriorating, it seems to me we would have a rapidly deteriorating pace of innovation in our society, that the level of creative discourse would be stunted, and we would not have the blossoming of culture, at all levels, that’s very obvious in the Western world. Now, people may not like modern culture. Old fogeys are alienated by the younger generation’s cultural preferences, decade after decade. And this concept that high school students are systematically ill-prepared, there’s a whiff of old fogeyism about it.

Q: But about 300 students at New College, just one ofU of Vs seven colleges, are on academic probation because they can’t handle the work. Isn’t that a danger sign?

A: We’ve put money into writing workshops and we’re very strongly focused on making sure that students who’ve hit some bumps get support. I don’t see it as a negative that we’re willing to put funds into remediation. U of T is unabashedly somewhat elitist in its academic standards. We take some really capable students, but we’re also a big place and we’re going to have some students who aren’t as strong.

Q: Are you in favour of standardized testing of high school students?

A: Whenever I confess to those instincts, some of my colleagues in the educational policy realm accuse me of being a neanderthal. But I am positively predisposed toward standardized testing. Many universities are asking themselves hard questions about focusing on entering grade point averages, and that may be one of the perverse effects of ranking systems, such as Maclean’s, that reward institutions for their selectivity.

Q: You withdrew from the Maclean’s university rankings because you have a problem with the way dissimilar data are aggregated, and the fact that a single number is assigned to each university. So are you going to stop issuing report cards with GPAs?

A: That’s a remarkably specious analogy.

Q: I think it’s a good one. Both aggregate dissimilar data and assign si7igle numerical ranki7igs.

A: But in the case of students, they know in advance exactly what the aggregation will be, and they’re able to exercise some choice

about what courses they take. The real analogy here is not the GPA of the individual student. It’s as if you took the individual student, took the GPA of his or her entire class, then weighted it arbitrarily: oh, we’ll give more marks to those who sat on the far side of the room.

Q: The weighti7ig in the rankings is7ita7iy 77iore arbitrary than the subjectivity in any marki7igsche7ne. Professors mark differently from each other, and the chemistry course 77\ay be a lot harder than the English course.

A So you’re willing to face an employer knowing that your GPA reflects not your personal effort but rather reflects your class? That’s analogous to what happens when a department of history or a faculty of medicine is [lumped] with all the other departments and faculties and some overall aggregate score is produced with arbitrary weighting. It’s meaningless to students who have to pick a department or faculty or program. And to me, the problem with rankings is that they reduce everything to a single firstpast-the-post number.

Q: U ofT is the largest university in the country, by far. Would it be easier to provide high quality education if there were fewer students?

A: It would definitely be advantageous if we could address the student-staff ratio. We simply don’t have the number of faculty and staff we need to provide the type of direct interaction students deserve, and that’s felt

right across Ontario, and to a slightly lesser extent it’s a problem right across Canada. The big advantage American institutions have right now is the simple numbers of faculty they have on the ground. They’re able to put more professors into play because of their massive budgetary advantages, with the result that you have smaller classes, and if your research professor is not necessarily the next Laurence Olivier or Meryl Streep, at least in a smaller group there’s more opportunity for personalized interaction. We’re working to look at how the distribution of class sizes can be managed in a fashion that provides more opportunities for those personalized interactions. A simple example. Let’s imagine we hire five professors and have 2,000 students. You could put them each in a course with 400 students and that experience would not necessarily be particularly personal for any student. But if you scaled up to 1,200 or 1,600 students for one teacher, the marginal loss in terms of personal interaction is minimal. With really great audiovisual support, the best large group communicator on the stage, excellent tutorial assistance, and online resources including the lecture webcast and [later] archived, you’d probably be just as far ahead or better off than having five 400-seat lectures.

QVm sure that idea scares the pants offyour facidty.

A: But if you do that, then the other colleagues are able to deal with much smaller classes. We’ve been looking at this with the unashamed view that the marginal loss of going from big to bigger is small, and the marginal gain of getting some of these small classes in play, with more personal interaction, is huge.

Q: Do you view American universities as your main competitors?

A: Certainly they’re a big competitor for the best and brightest Canadian students. In Canada, spending on post-secondary education has lagged for 15 years. In the early 1980s, we were getting about $2,000 more per student in publicly assisted universities than they were in the U.S. Fast forward to now, it’s a $5,000 per student gap in favour of American public universities. Everyone says, “Oh, here we go, another cash call, these are bottomless pits.” Well, universities in general are 10 to 15 times less expensive per capita than health care, they’re tremendous contributors to productivity, they’re an investment in the next generation. Yet in Ontario, which has fully one-third of Canada’s post-secondary students, spending on universities is 30 per cent or more below the national average.

Q: Why then woidd any student who has the marks and the money to go to the Ivy League bother to come to U ofT?

A One of our huge advantages is that we sit here in a great city with an enormously exciting and diverse population, where tolerance and a sense of inclusivity are very much part of the fabric of daily life. The other reality is that regardless of what you have to spend, Canadian higher education is a bargain. If you go to the Ivy Leagues, you’re looking at spending a good $50,000 per year more, I’d guess. That said, I would make no bones about the fact that unless and until we increase the funding levels for Canadian universities, through whatever meansfederal, provincial, tuition, whatever—we are going to continue to see some gap between American and Canadian institutions, and the quality of the student experience. And they will continue to lure wealthier Canadians and even some not so wealthy Canadians who make sacrifices to send their children.

Q: You spent much of your medical career promoting the importance of measuring outcomes in health care. How do you do that at a university?

A: The measurement of outcomes in higher education is still in the dark ages. There’s still a very strong sense that universities are ultimately measured by the quality of their professoriate and their scholarly output, with relatively less attention paid to the quality of the student experience and the calibre of the learning that goes on. We profile creative and illustrious alumni, and we rub the latest prestigious report or ranking in our hair, but I worry that the actual serious measure of what we’re about is still in its early stages. Very little is done even in terms of employer surveys to figure out whether graduates of school A are actually better than graduates from school B. Much of this is confounded with anecdotage: “The last employee I had from Harvard was great, and that employee from U of T was okay, but the one from University X was dreadful.” Well that’s not very rigorous. I don’t think we’ve actually come to grips with what we’ve done for the student and for society.

Q: Well, what is the principal business of a university?

A: We are terrific at generating new ideas, and producing patents and disruptive technologies that change the world. I believe that invention is the mother of necessity and not the other way around. But the primary reason we exist is not just for our professors but overwhelmingly because we are here to educate the next generation to make a positive difference in a complex and troubled world.

Q: Who should pay more to support all that: the federal government, the provinces, or both?

A: If the federal government would get involved selectively—supporting graduate

scholarships, enhancing Canada student loans, providing generous infrastructure renewal grants and proper overhead funding on research grants—it could play a transformative role. Currently, a federal research grant draws on average about 26 cents on the dollar of coverage of indirect costs, while the actual costs across any large researchintensive institution, depending on the amount of physical and bioscience, are probably closer to 50 or 60 cents on the dollar, and at least 40 cents. The bottom line is a chronic deficit in covering indirect costs. Furthermore, the larger the institution and the more federal funding it gets for research, the smaller the coverage, so U of T gets only about 20 cents on the dollar. It’s a truly perverse sliding scale. If you want to have firstrate institutions compete internationally, doing it on a third-rate budget is not easy.

‘The big advantage U.S. institutions have is the simple numbers of faculty they have on the ground’

Q: You once told a reporter, “The most striking thing about governments is that even though they may be of substantially different ideological stripes, they behave in remarkably similar ways.” Do you still believe that?

A: Yes.

Q: Why bother to vote, then?

A: Democracy is like peer review. It’s the worst imaginable system, except all the others. If you’re not voting and you’re not participating in the debate, then you’re not a citizen and I happen to care a huge amount where the country goes. M