Who asked students?

The ’Big 5’ debate in review

When the presidents of what have been named the “Big 5” schools — the University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill University, University of Alberta and Université de Montréal — met via video conference with Maclean’s Paul Wells this summer, what they had to say was sure to ignite some buzz in the academic sphere.

Though some smaller schools are up in arms about the thought of losing their place in competitive Canadian research, as the ‘Big 5’ presidents propose, perhaps by creating these research-intensive graduate schools, a new focus on undergraduate learning that would directly benefit students is a worthwhile flipside.

Most recently, a book funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education argues that undergraduate education is in need of an overhaul. The authors argue several points, the concept of focusing on teaching and not research for undergraduate faculty needs to become the new norm ties into the ‘Big 5’ proposal.

Despite the fact no one has actually asked the students what their take is, it’s fairly easy to say students would not be opposed to smaller class sizes, where professors are accessible and solely focused on their learning. After all, it’s their tuition dollars that go towards funding these research-based programs and whose enrollment these schools set up in booths in high school gymnasiums to obtain.

Already boasting a combined 40 per cent of the country’s research funding, the presidents of the ‘Big 5’ schools spelled out their dissatisfaction with the current state of universities in Canada.

Having to spread funding and resources to educate the masses — a disproportionate number of undergraduate students to graduate researchers — these presidents argued for a change of focus at these ‘top’ schools, enrolling fewer undergraduates and transforming these institutions into primarily graduate research-based schools.

Their reasoning being that in order to “attract the world’s best scholars” and pump out graduates who can match or best their world colleagues, a greater focus needs to be paid to these programs and leave the undergraduate population to the smaller schools.

“If you strongly support the very highest forms of international peer review,” said Indira Samarasekera president of the University of Alberta, in the article, “and you drive toward excellence, and you create pools of funding where people can compete at an international standard, you will then encourage and enable certain institutions to differentially excel.”

Now almost five months later and the merits of the proposal for higher education institutions as set out by the schools’ presidents is still being debated.

In August, the smaller schools retorted in a second Maclean’s article, including the University of Waterloo, Lakehead University, Laurentian and the University of Guelph, who collectively argued their graduate research programs, many producing high-caliber researchers, should not be designated to instruct solely undergraduates.

While the ‘Big 5’ argue that Canadian research is not measuring up, the smaller schools have said that’s a reflection of the large programs and they’ve had their chance to prove their worth. “They had their opportunities to clearly demonstrate that they can make a difference,” said Frederick Filbert, president of Lakehead University.

Other schools responded through other media outlets. Roseann Runte, president of Carleton University wrote an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, arguing that differentiating schools as proposed squanders competition and collaboration.

“Canada needs to create an environment in our universities, our cities, our provinces that will support and generate such innovation. This will not happen by closing the door to potential players or instituting an intellectual caste system,” she wrote.

Since then provincial governments, bloggers and other media outlets have chimed in on what is to become of higher education. When Katie Engelhart talked to Canada’s provincial education ministers many expressed the fact that differentiated schools already exist, as it is not the intention for all universities to be “top researchers.” But none are eager to openly support the ‘Big 5’ proposal.

It seems imperative that all these voices, both larger and smaller schools along with governments and the students attending Canadian universities each have role to play in the decision. Regardless, as with most politics, a change won’t happen overnight.

– photo by dcJohn