Private university? Don’t be vulgar

A U.S. newspaper notes strange Canadian phenomenon: “an almost philosophical opposition to private universities”

The recently opened Quest University — Canada’s first secular, private, non-profit university — is being cautiously watched by the post-secondary community both in Canada beyond. In an excellent feature in the U.S.-based Chronicle of Higher Education, Karen Birchard discusses whether the private Quest U will be accepted by the largely public Canadian post-secondary community.

It’s not surprising that Quest U has raised some eyebrows, considering that not only is it the first of its kind in Canada, but also conceived out of a number of criticisms of the current post-secondary system. Founder Dr. David Strangway hatched the idea for the small, education-focused university out of what he saw as shortcomings in the public system. In an interview with Maclean’s last year, Strangway was highly critical of the current university model, which focuses heavily on research and less on undergraduate teaching

You can’t easily dismiss Strangway’s criticisms. He was the president of the University of British Columbia for 12 years and served as acting president and provost of the University of Toronto. He’s knows what’s up with research too from six years as president and CEO of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, a body that funds research infrastructure.

Strangway said the school was modeled on the small undergraduate-focused, liberal arts schools of the U.S. Speaking with Maclean’s last spring, Strangway said that Quest takes a different approach, starting with faculty hiring. “You’re not coming here to do research,” he said of Quest professors, who are known as tutors. “You’re coming here to teach and share your experience with students… We will not be building research facilities. But if you want to do research on your own time, more power to you.” Strangway said that this philosophy hadn’t scared potential professors; he said that two job postings attracted 600 applications last spring.

One of the most striking differences between Quest and other B.C. universities is the cost. Tuition and fees for a standard two-term academic year is $28,200 plus another $8,000 for room and board. Quest’s website states it is committed to helping make the Quest experience affordable and accessible to all qualified students through a combination of merit and need-based awards, student loans and campus employment.” But $30,000+ per year surely still induces sticker-shock.

The price tag is another reason that many people in Canada swallow hard when the topic of private universities like Quest comes up. The national average tuition fee for undergraduate students at public universities is $4,524. Critics of Quest worry about eroding accessibility if more elite universities like Quest start popping up.

Strangway noted that top Canadian students have traditionally paid big bucks to study at elite American colleges. He added: “The greatest teaching and research universities in the world are private,” Strangway told Maclean’s last year. “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with private universities.”

In her Chronicle article, Birchard echoes this sentiment, as if witnessing a strange, Canadian phenomenon. “There seems to be an almost philosophical opposition in Canada to private universities and colleges, except religious ones,” she writes. Birchard quotes Canadian Association of University Teachers executive director James Turk saying that CAUT has serious concerns about Quest. CAUT’s position seems to be that they oppose degree-granting private institutions because they believe the public system is doing the job of granting degrees already. Turk told Birchard that Quest adds “nothing useful to the Canadian post-secondary scene.”

But not everyone agrees that the public system is doing a good enough job granting degrees. Brichard interviewed UBC president Stephen Toope on the debate. “Canada has to get over the impression that it has an outstanding university system,” he said. “We have a solid system, but it is largely in stasis, and standing still is a recipe for mediocrity.”

Strangway agreed with Toope in his discussion with Birchard. “We have this Canadian syndrome that says it’s OK to be good, but it’s not OK to be excellent. Everybody in higher education agrees to get to this level,” he said. “So we don’t allow the tall poppies to stand out. It would be nice if we had a higher-education culture that allowed the tall poppies.”




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Private university? Don’t be vulgar

  1. I don’t see how this new university will be “allowing the tall poppies” if research is not part of the mix. The “tutors” are not expected to do their own research, but rather to teach and share their experience and knowledge? If it is not constantly renewed, that experience and knowledge will get old pretty quickly. Being taught by active researchers is at the core of the university experience, so those who are skeptical of this model are right to be so. The article does not indicate if the compensation is on par with the national average, even at small undergraduate institutions. I suspect, despite the huge tuition, that it is not, and that the interest from prospective employees has more to do with the job market than with the appeal of having research demoted to the level of a hobby.

  2. You know, I am not in the least sympathetic towards private universities. But I also don’t believe in deploying the oft-cited conceit that “[b]eing taught by active researchers is at the core of the university experience” to undermine the education that private universities may offer. These are two completely different issues. And while your goals may be laudable, Miriam, you are swinging an awfully big stick indiscriminately with your claim, and at the same time bashing every public undergraduate teaching institution in the country. There is great undergraduate education going on at institutions that make no pretense of conducting research. I hope you didn’t intend to attack them as well?

    There may be a sound basis to defend the troubled marriage between instruction and research that persists at many universities today. But the argument that research-oriented professors are integral to the educational experience of undergraduates is among the poorest of the bunch, so much so that it approaches the ludicrous. You could poll a class of students in almost any undergraduate class in the country, and I’d be amazed if you find any class where even a sizable fraction could so much as identify an area of research where their professor specializes – unless the course they are in happens to be named after it. I’ll accept that a small strata of the best and most active students do benefit from and interact with the research work of their professors. The large majority aren’t even aware of it. Most students I talk with can’t tell me the difference between a tenure-track professor and a sessional. You realize that means they can’t even point out the professors who are doing research, much less what it is.

    Again, I’m opposed to private universities for reasons that have nothing to do with research. But if they invite a debate about the justifications, or lack thereof, to the notion that undergraduate instruction demands active research then I welcome that debate. This isn’t about some hypothetical ideal where classes are small and every student really does interact with research. I can agree that ideal would still be, well, ideal. This is about the reality. Classes are large. Undergraduates don’t interact with research nor do professors even pretend they have time to bring it to their students. From the perspective of undergraduate interests alone, I’d sure as hell rather have an instructor teaching twice as many classes with half as many students, than a researcher spending half her time sequestered in a laboratory or a library, under the thin fiction that she’ll somehow bring that work back to the mass of students she instructs. It’s a fine vision, but completely divorced from the modern reality.

  3. Even for the few who will be able to afford it, is it really worth paying the cost of a whole undergraduate degree in tuition for just one year at this university?

    I went to a private high school in Quebec, where they are 60% subsidized by the province (go figure why). Still, for 2000$ a year that my parents had to pay, I wonder how much I wouldn’t have got from the public system (it was the same curriculum, for one thing).

    Similarly, a BA stays a BA wherever you got it. There are amazing and horrible profs in every university and what you get from an education is a function of how much work you put in it, wherever you are.

    If Quest University does like the private high schools and selects the most successful students to start with, there will still be the question of whether these are people that would have accomplished much whether they went there or to any other place.

  4. As a product of a small private liberal arts school in Arkansas and as a former visiting student to Queen’s University, I can say the experience is worth it, especially if the non-profit private university is supported financially by dedicated alumni and is generous with its aid packages to students. Especially at the liberal arts undergraduate level, where the emphasis here in the States is more about a well-rounded as opposed to a specific curriculum, I can see the merit in going private as long as the institution does its best to remain accessible and promotes a more intimate learning environment than a huge, traditional university. Usually, high achieving students are brought here, but the private school covers most of the tuition via merit scholarships. That weeds a lot of people out, but it is not inaccessible just because it is private. Also remember that these institutions are non-profits–they must reinvest in themselves and their students.

    That said, in order to remain competitive, private institutions also have a tendency to build large expensive structures that somehow tie into their educational philosophy and serve to create a “gee whiz” factor designed to draw in more students. This detracts from the educational experience, I think, because the focus becomes more about which school has the newest gizmo and the largest, highest achieving student body as opposed to which provides the best instructional value and atmosphere.

    That said, my impression of Queen’s seemed to indicate to me that Canada’s post-secondary education system is much more math and science oriented than here. At the graduate level, where students are more sure of their academic and vocational goals, I think an environment like Queen’s is excellent. Students need the research exposure and rigorous academic standards. But I’m not sure dividing a prof’s time between research and teaching and handing classes off to T.A.s is a good idea when inexperienced undergraduates are often the students most in need of personalized attention and quality instruction.

  5. Pingback: 10 Reasons to Attend Canadian Universities - CBS MoneyWatch.com

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