The verdict, Dr. Smith?

Maclean’s first rankings issue featured his controversial university study. Two decades later, he weighs in again.

The verdict, Dr. Smith?
In 1991, Smith said universities must better prepare students for 'the real world'. Now, he says: 'I think that remains a question.' | Photograph by Andrew Tolson

Canadian universities look strikingly different than they did just 20 years ago. For one thing, there are more students populating the hallways and dorm rooms of virtually every institution: since 1995, full-time enrolment has grown by 57 per cent, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). More than half of today’s faculty members were hired within the last 15 years. Technology has enabled new teaching methods and models. And provincial funding for operating budgets has more than doubled since 1995, the AUCC says, while government research funding has increased almost fourfold. With all this fresh blood, new tools and money, you’d think higher education would have changed a lot. But in some ways, argues Dr. Stuart Smith, a long-time observer of the system who was featured in the first-ever Maclean’s ranking issue almost 20 years ago, things look remarkably the same as they did back then.

A medical doctor and psychiatrist by training, Smith has been a politician, a student, a professor and administrator (he now serves on the board of governors at Humber College). In 1991, he penned a controversial report for the AUCC on the state of Canadian universities—and didn’t spare them from criticism. Here, Smith revisits some of his points, and takes a look at how they stack up today.

“One of the crucial questions is whether universities give their students enough practical education to match all the theories they learn,” Smith told Maclean’s 20 years ago. Today, “I think that remains a question,” says Smith, now 72. One of his most talked-about points in 1991 was that universities weren’t doing a good enough job of actually teaching their students, focusing on more prestigious research instead. “Teaching is seriously undervalued at Canadian universities and nothing less than a total recommitment to it is required,” he wrote then. Today, “it hasn’t changed very much,” he says. To get ahead, academics still prioritize research; “those interested in teaching do so at the peril of their career.”

Concordia University finance professor Arshad Ahmad, president of the Society for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, agrees. Research remains closely tied to “rewards, promotions, and how you get tenure,” he says. And in a Ph.D. program, “you’re taking one course on teaching.”

“The pendulum went too far in the direction of research, at the expense of teaching,” adds Alastair Summerlee, president of the University of Guelph. “We’re in the process of rebalancing that.”

Summerlee and Ahmad agree that universities have three critical roles: teaching, research, and community service. At Guelph, professors don’t just get ahead based on their list of publications. For the past 15 years or so, they can be promoted based on teaching, research, service (anything from working in the community to serving on a government committee), or a combination. (Professors report on their activities in a dossier.) At McGill University, all tenure-track faculty are required to teach, meaning they can’t hide from students in their labs. Guelph and other universities now have teaching support units or centres for learning and teaching services, which provide teachers with new ideas, workshops and demonstrations.

And teaching itself is increasingly looked at as part of traditional scholarship, Ahmad says. There are now literally hundreds of journals devoted to the topic, and an increasing number of awards for good teachers. The 3M National Teaching Fellowships have been around for 25 years now, and have grown immensely in prestige over that time. “I got [the 3M award] in 1992, and almost nobody had heard of it,” Ahmad says. “Today, it’s a different beast. We have lots of applications, and the teachers are celebrated.” (Summerlee is also a 3M recipient.)

Beyond a publish-or-perish mentality, professors are struggling with a “huge increase in students,” Ahmad says. Smith has noticed it, too: classes are increasingly taught by graduate students or teaching assistants, he says. “They’re putting a TA in front of larger and larger classes.”

At the University of Toronto, “growth has been extraordinary,” says president David Naylor. “We had about 42,000 full-time equivalent students in 1991. Now, we have over 75,000” across three campuses, and class size can reach over 1,000. Still, there are ways to cope. Professors have to increasingly rely on new technologies—a good sound system, big screens—to reach their students. Naylor says that, done correctly, it can work. “We see that some of the big classes here get very strong evaluations when they have the right teacher, the right technology and the right teaching assistants,” he says.

If U of T students will take some huge classes, they should take some smaller ones too, the thinking goes. At the downtown campus, roughly 40 per cent of students starting in the arts and sciences faculty will take a seminar with 28 students or less. Smaller, primarily undergraduate schools continue to tout the small classes they can offer: at Cape Breton University, says president John Harker, “we might have a class of 12 to 20 students. We think that’s valuable.”

As more women enter the ranks of professors and administrators, Smith is hopeful the emphasis on teaching will grow, since “a slightly larger proportion of females are interested in it.” In 1991, he criticized universities for not being “gender neutral” as there weren’t enough women in these roles. Neutrality hasn’t been achieved, but it’s getting better. In 1999, says the AUCC, 27 per cent of Canadian professors were women. Ten years later, it was 35 per cent. Promisingly, changes have been most pronounced at the highest teaching levels: among full professors, it went from 14 to 22 per cent. “If we took out science and engineering,” where there’s still a large gap, “it would be even higher,” says Christine Tausig Ford, corporate secretary at the AUCC. And with female students now outnumbering males, those numbers will keep changing. “They’re our future faculty,” she says.

Students today “want to be educated and skilled,” Smith says. “Both.” Preparing students for life after university “is the ultimate role teachers have,” Ahmad says. Most school presidents agree that, outside of the professional schools, it isn’t a university’s role to train students for a specific job. “But it must be our role to teach people to function in the world of work,” Summerlee says. Community service, he believes, is part of that: 70 per cent of Guelph students volunteer more than five hours a week, compared to a national average of 40 per cent. The University of British Columbia, too, is a leader in community service learning, which combines volunteer work with related lessons in the classroom. “The program is around 10 years old, and it’s expanding dramatically,” says UBC president Stephen Toope.

Community service learning offers students the chance to interact with people they might not otherwise meet. Administrators at Cape Breton University have thought about this, too. “When I came here, in 2003, there were 10 international students,” Harker says. Today, there are about 400, from 43 different countries. “We’ve deliberately tried to internationalize so our students from the area will encounter people from other countries,” he says. “That will get them to start thinking somewhat differently.” CBU, which has a satellite campus in Cairo, is still very much focused on serving the community around it. It was the first university in Canada to hold a formal, degree-granting convocation at a First Nations community, since CBU runs degree programs in Aboriginal communities. “We’ve got more Aboriginal students than any university east of Montreal,” he says.

Today, many “get their undergraduate degrees and don’t have anything they can use for employment,” he says, so they enrol in college afterwards to learn practical skills. This works fine for those who can afford a trip to university and then to college, but for others, it “doesn’t make sense.” For students looking for real-world prep, there are some new options. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), which welcomed its first students in 2003, is the first “laptop-based university” in Ontario. (Every student has one to access course materials, make presentations and communicate with faculty.) “Our central purpose is very specific: to provide career-oriented education,” says president Ron Bordessa. Smith agrees there are pockets of change across the country, and promising signs. But if preparing students for life after university is a teacher’s ultimate role, he feels we’ve still a long way to go.

Melissa Mendes, a 20-year-old student at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, agrees. Accepted at all five universities where she applied, she enrolled in media studies at Guelph-Humber, a joint effort of the university and college, which opened in 2002. Unlike the other programs, Guelph-Humber offered a chance to graduate with a university degree and a diploma, something that would typically take an extra trip to college to do. After four years, she’ll have a bachelor of applied arts and a diploma in mass communications, learning the finer points of media theory, or how to bang out a press release in 20 minutes.

The Guelph-Humber collaboration has been a runaway success, with applications exceeding all expectations; there’s now talk of expansion. University watchers might not be surprised to hear that Smith is one of its biggest supporters. Mendes, too. “I feel more prepared,” she says, “for the real world.”