Thursday, October 08, 2009

Our Universities

The Times Higher Education newspaper published its annual ranking of the world’s top two hundred universities this last week. The top five Universities in the world remain relatively constant – Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, University College London, Imperial College London, Oxford. What is more interesting is the position of Canadian Universities and the rapid emergence of Universities from Asia.

Canada’s top university, according to the list, is McGill (18th) followed by the University of Toronto (29th) and the University of British Columbia (40th). Dalhousie, which was on the list last year, no longer makes the top two hundred. Alberta has two universities of the list – the University of Alberta (59th) and the University of Calgary (149th), both of whom have made substantial gains over the last year, with the University of Alberta gaining fifteen places and the University of Calgary twenty one places, mainly due to their scores from students and employers.

Asian institutions are gaining ground. Japan has two in the top thirty – University of Tokyo (22nd) and the University of Kyoto (25th) - and China’s University of Hong Kong is also in this group. The National University of Singapore (30th) also ranks highly. This top thirty is dominated by the United States with thirteen and the United Kingdom with seven.

The lists are broad indications of the performance of institutions and only tell us a little about actual performance. The Times Higher Education list is largely about perception and experience. Other lists focus on actual performance and research – using measures of activity as opposed to staff, student and employer ratings as the basis for the ranking.

But such a list is timely. It reminds us to consider the quality of our Universities when making tough choices about funding, as Governments across Canada are now doing.

Strange things have happened in the world of Universities. We have the top five Universities in the country arguing that, due to their importance in terms of research and innovation, they should be treated and funded differently from other Universities. We have the growth of private universities offering undergraduate and graduate programs in a variety of modes – Meritus University, part of the group that also owns the University of Phoenix, Lansbridge, Yorkville, University Canada West, Quest and the University of Fredericton – all competing for students on pure market conditions with no funding from government. We have established private, non for profit university colleges, such as Concordia University College in Edmonton, offering quality undergraduate and graduate degrees. Then various Governments, but notably British Columbia and Alberta, have converted former community colleges to Universities. Two such conversions occurred in September, when Alberta converted Mount Royal College and McEwan College to universities.

It’s a confusing scene. What is actually happening is that being a “university” has been confused in the minds of politicians and administrators with being granted the right to award degrees. The result is a growing plethora of degree granting institutions competing for a declining population of students and demanding more from a shrinking pool of funding.

In all of this rush to upgrade our institutions, we are in danger of losing sight of three things. The first is the fundamental nature of a university – a place where scholarship and imagination is nurtured and research enabled, with the discovering minds of academics helping the growing minds of students come nearer to the frontiers of knowledge. Not all of the “new” universities and none of the private’s are engaged in research as a core of their beings as institutions. When this is absent or minimized, then the meaning of the “university” is devalued.

The second thing that is in danger of being lost is the conception of quality. Most quality assurance processes in Canada, and I am directly engaged in several, focus on student protection and the assurance that the institution is capable of sustaining the offering of quality programs to students, thus giving emphasis to teaching and minimizing (and, in some jurisdictions, ignoring) the role of a University in terms of research or the engagement in community service.

The third thing we are in danger of losing sight of is our academic standing in the world. As we diversify the offering of degrees through a range of different institutions and de-emphasize research, we lower Canada’s profile in the world. While a few institutions make modest gains on the league tables, such as the Times Higher Education ranking, the “new” and private universities operate knowing that they will never make the ranking process, never mind the list.

Universities are complex places. They have a teaching function, a research function and a community building and service function. In the rush to have a better educated work-force for the knowledge economy, we may be in danger of diluting our resources and creating several different leagues of institution that compete for resources, students, faculty and research funds. We are in danger of lowering our sights and missing the target: excellence.

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