Small Canadian universities smart to team up

’U4 League’ highlights benefits of eastern schools

If you’re a high school student in Alberta or Saskatchewan, I bet you can’t tell me where Bishop’s, Mount Allison, Acadia or St. Francis Xavier are located. That’s a shame considering they’re all ranked in the top half of their category in the Maclean’s University Rankings.

The presidents of all four institutions have just announced a new group they’ve formed, the U4 League, which will spread the word out about these lesser-known campuses located in rural New Brunswick (Mount A.), Nova Scotia (Acadia and St. FX) and Quebec (Bishop’s).

The U4 isn’t just about spreading the word. These presidents want to provide more opportunities to their students than are currently possible with populations of fewer than 4,500 students apiece. They also want to share information to cut costs.

The plan, though short on details, seems smart. Small enrollments are both the greatest assets and biggest curses of these schools. The U4 will show off the benefits and counteract the weaknesses.

When a university is as small as these four (a rarity in Canada, though more common in the U.S.), there are obvious benefits. The bread and butter of undergraduate education—communication skills, critical thinking skills and group work skills—appear to be better delivered in small classes on small campuses, at least according to the results of the National Survey of Student Engagement.

These are truly universities where professors know most of their students’ names. (They’re also universities where students are unable to avoid past romantic partners, but never mind that.) As Michael Goldbloom, principal of Bishop’s, points out, many Canadian students are “living on transit.” The U4 students, meanwhile, are living on campus seven days per week. Seven days sounds impressive. At the University of Guelph, a school bigger than the U4 combined, my younger brother says it’s so crowded that he only went to campus a couple days per week last semester.

Being small is a weakness too, however. It means limited course offerings, fewer potential dates and fewer choices in general. The U4 might overcome this somewhat with their combined population of 12,500. If one school has a field trip to Malawi, students from the other three campuses might tag along. If one has a course in American history, students from other campuses could take that class remotely. Purchasing power and marketing expenses can be shared too, keeping costs down.

Marketing is especially pressing for the U4. Although they’ve managed to grow in recent years, they’re in regions like Nova Scotia where the pool of applicants is small and expected to decline. Each campus already gets about half of its students from other provinces and that ratio will need to grow just to maintain current populations. The U4 also wants to become better known internationally since foreign students pay big bucks that can somewhat offset declining funding.

Most interesting is that the U4 project trumpets a “teaching focus.” Students might assume all universities are teaching-focused, but that’s not exactly true. U4 professors participate in research, but it’s less of a priority on their campuses than at McGill or Toronto, where 600-seat lecture halls can make undergraduates feel like low priorities compared to research and graduate students.

Of course, some undergraduates are fine with big classes so long as they’re near the action of a research-intensive school. That makes the U4 League a good reminder that there are trade-offs when choosing a university. It’s best to consider all the options and pick what’s right for you.