John Fraser is master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. His advice first appeared in the 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings.
The agony of “getting it right” when choosing a university to kick off the higher academic experience in life is one I never had the privilege of experiencing. I had only three humble criteria: (1) is there a university that would actually take me, (2) could I afford it, and (3) please, dear God, can there be enough distance between my home in Toronto and this mythical, inexpensive place of higher learning—preferably with water in between?
Those are not generally the concerns of either parents or students, but variations on those themes are actually not a bad way to figure out where to go. The endless searching for exactly the right high-profile place, the relentless reliance on university evaluation guides (including the highly popular one this magazine puts out every year), the phone calls to well-connected friends, the trauma visited on the victim-students, the over-the-top ambitions of concerned parents: all these ingredients can add up to a roiling broth whose only parallel seems to be the hysteria of a bride’s mother the day before the wedding.
It’s all so unnecessary. This is a very hard reality for many Canadian parents and students to comprehend, but there is actually not a bad university in Canada. We could argue that there is a standardizing process that prevents some universities from getting up there with Harvard or Cambridge or one of the grandes écoles in Paris at the graduate degree level. But that’s another issue and not what we are talking about here.
Here, what we are talking about is the undergraduate experience. We are talking about going from high school to a more advanced high school. We are talking about three or four years to decide, truly, how life is to be understood, lived and enjoyed. The good news then is that we live in a country where first-degree education is largely standardized and largely solid and reliable, whether you end up at institutions in Toronto or Brandon or Fredericton or the Okanagan Valley.
The inherent promise is that somewhere along the four years to a B.A. or a B.Sc. or a B.Ed. or a B.Whatever, you will encounter—at a minimum—one truly outstanding teacher, a majority of good teachers and—for sure—a few duds for comparison’s sake. There will also be friends made for life. There will be crises confronted and dealt with (or not) and learned from. There will be a leap in maturity. Most of all, there will be a mind opened up to possibilities never quite imagined before, with big decisions to be made. All this and more is precisely the same offering you would get at the greatest universities in the world, and it is available today at every Canadian university, without exception.
Facilities vary, of course, but I would say to any high school student on the university prowl (and their pushy parents) that a far more important criterion for a decision than “facilities” or figuring out if a particular institution can provide “a good degree” is to find a place that seems a bit of a chance, that offers a different lifestyle or setting than the one you are used to, that speaks to your sense of adventure and curiosity rather than your search for security. Leave security concerns to middle age, or at least till graduate school.
And from that experience at the undergraduate level, a student with ambition can then begin to narrow down the next steps. With a bit of industry, he or she will have a pretty good average and can decide whether to enter the current challenging job market or head for graduate school, where, for sure, there are more refined choices to be made.
My own academic career may not have been typical, but it was nevertheless instructive. I grew up in the old Ontario school system where everything was geared to the almighty senior matriculation examinations—an all-or-nothing roulette game where your final exam mark, and nothing else, determined your future direction. I failed Latin composition and physics, and so my direction was to repeat a year at Jarvis Collegiate night school in Toronto and find a job to justify my existence.
In a strange way, my dysfunctional family—famous locally in its day—was a help. My mother had been carted off, under dramatic protest, to a private hospital for the mentally ill in Guelph, Ont., before my 17-year-old eyes, the same year my father’s business had gone bankrupt and he began a dangerous friendship with Johnny Walker. When I failed exams, therefore, there was no one to take exception or get angry with me, and I was astute enough not to blame myself or fate for the pickle I found myself in. Survival was the goal: then as now.
By failing those Ontario senior matric exams, I had ensured that the “better” universities of the day—like the University of Toronto or Queen’s or McGill—would not even accept an application, but in any event I didn’t want to linger around Toronto any longer. I made some brutal calculations about earning power, since it was I myself who was going to pay for this academic exercise, and this led straight to $400-per-year Memorial University of Newfoundland, which also had the advantage of being on the other side of the Straits of Labrador, separating me from the disasters of Toronto.
How lucky was all this. I got at least four outstanding teachers. I learned that there was an Anglo culture in Canada of outstanding breadth and richness and uniqueness to match the French culture of Quebec. I made friends for a lifetime. I learned one of the great secrets of life: that all things and all people are connected if you make the effort to connect. No place on Earth could have given me a greater academic education. No place on Earth could have set me up better for the rest of my life. No place on Earth was better. At least that was what I felt, and in feeling that, I also felt that I was armoured against adversity and setbacks for the rest of my life. And so, I feel to this day, it has been.
But I expect the same claim could be made by a Newfoundlander who wanted to get away from the “almighty Rock” to what he or she might think was a less claustrophobic place like Concordia in Montreal or Simon Fraser in Burnaby, B.C. Truly, it’s what you make of the choices in life that count far more than the actual choices.
I love the University of Toronto, for example, where I have both administered a residential interdisciplinary college and taught for nearly two decades, but I don’t fool myself by thinking I missed out on something because my spotty high school record barred me from the place. Instead I thank my lucky stars Memorial University of Newfoundland nurtured my curiosity and thirst to understand, and I have my best professors’ names carved in my psyche and gold-embossed in gratitude.
So when I get called by friends and relations to offer advice on undergraduate education and the best locales, I am prepared to absorb some referred irritation after I deliver my humble oration to the parents to back off and let their kids try to figure out where they themselves would like to spend what for many will be the most formative adventure of their lives.