Small schools. Big advantages.

Canada’s northern universities have arrived

The library at Nipissing. By Cole Garside.

From the Maclean’s Student Issue, on sale now.

It’s the time of year when twelfth graders realize that they need to choose a university—and soon. Let the road trips begin.

But if their travels take them to the libraries at the University of Calgary or Guelph, they may stumble over students sitting on the floors. Study space is in short supply.

If they tour residences at Dalhousie or McGill University, they may find themselves in a converted hotel or see bunks stacked in former study spaces. Each school has had room shortages in recent years.

And if the tourists crash classes at Western or Toronto, they may rethink the whole university thing after they see students shouting to professors in 900-seat halls.

Then again, they may just accept the noisy libraries, overstuffed residences and stadium seating. What else would they expect after the population of Canada’s universities grew by 50 per cent in the past 15 years?

Not every campus has been so squeezed. If applicants tour the new library at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., they’ll walk past students sprawled on plush benches, deep in concentration under natural light.

If they tour either of Laurentian University’s new residences on its Sudbury, Ont., campus, they’ll find enough space to accommodate not just all first-years who apply, but many second- and third-year students too.

If they check out the pristine classrooms at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in Prince George, they’ll see most classes have fewer than 25 students.

It’s not that Canada’s small northern campuses haven’t grown too. The difference is these campuses were so small they had plenty of room to grow. A decade ago, they couldn’t afford some basic amenities. But as the big southern schools show their age, Canada’s northern schools have arrived.

“A lot of universities are crowded and suffering from huge deferred maintenance,” says Ken Steele, a post-secondary marketing guru with consultancy Academica Group. “They have a lot of older infrastructure, and students are noticing.”

There is, of course, such a thing as being too new. In 2002, Nipissing was 10 years old and students joked that it was just like a high school; with a population of 1,960 full-time students and a one-building campus of brown brick and lockers, it felt like one. A school that size couldn’t afford much. But as the school approaches 4,000 full-time students, it’s got enough per-student government funding to afford its $25-million library, a new sports facility, and double the amount of lab space that it started with.

Lesley Lovett-Doust, Nipissing’s president, says the institution’s relative youth has also allowed it to leapfrog over its peers. “The old schools are retrofitting old libraries, sending tonnes of books into storage to try to open up their libraries for collaboration,” she says. “We skipped that phase.”

Ashley Ryan, a 2008 science graduate, now works as a lab technologist at Nipissing. “Even in the past four years, I’ve noticed a huge change,” she says. Recently, the school purchased an electron microscope, a huge benefit for Ryan, who took up microscope photography as a hobby. It also helps young students, because Nipissing is small enough that they have access to the equipment.

It’s not just per-student funding that has helped these schools flourish. Philanthropists now see them as a good bet too. Nipissing received a $15-million donation in 2010. Laurentian, which has added $140 million in new buildings since 2005, attracted a $10-million gift for its engineering school in late 2011.

“There aren’t a lot of $10-million-plus donations out there,” says Steele, the marketer. “Ten million dollars added to a smaller institution makes a bigger difference than at a larger institution.”

Dominic Giroux, the president of Laurentian, agrees. Big urban schools pay hefty prices for land. Some, like the University of Ottawa, struggle to find land at all. Giroux has plenty at his disposal. “That’s just one of the advantages of having a 750-acre campus,” he says.

New facilities, in turn, attract new researchers, like Kevin Hutchings, the $500,000 Canada Research Chair in literature, culture and environmental studies at UNBC (pop. 3,700).

When he was offered the job in 2000, he was taken by the physical beauty of the then-six-year-old campus. His peers at McMaster and Western warned him against working at an unproven institution. But now, 18 years after its founding, UNBC is proven: it’s No. 1 in total research dollars among primarily undergraduate schools in the 2011 Maclean’s rankings.

Since Hutchings arrived, he’s watched an interdisciplinary research community bloom.

In 2011, UNBC profs earned $1.9 million more in prestigious new Canada Research Chair funding. Simon Fraser, a school six times larger, added $2.4 million. It’s evidence of how schools like UNBC, Nipissing and Laurentian are the poor cousins no more.

As Ken Steele puts it, “the upstarts now have the advantage.”

Small schools. Big advantages.

  1. Is it only the northern universities that are expanding? I believe that UOIT (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) in Oshawa is doing well too and has plans for expansion. They are coming up to their 10th anniversary so perhaps Maclean’s can investigate and write about their Research Chair’s, research dollars, size of classrooms and library, donations and funding, success of their graduates, etc. Our family visited their fall open house and thought their facilities were quite impressive.

    As the parent of a grade 9 and a grade 11 student we have started compiling university information. After visiting five different campuses my eldest thinks she might want to attend a smaller university. We have a few more to visit over March break and may now go to North Bay and Sudbury, after reading your article. Do employers look the same way at grads coming out of the smaller universities as they do with grads from the older and larger ones?

    • As a Nipissing student and former residence don, I can think of no better school for a student wanting to have the experience of a smaller school than Nipissing. The school experience is great with small class sizes, residence life is amazing and second to none in Ontario, and with our new library and athletics facility, Nipissing is a school that is growing and improving every year. Plans are in place for a new student centre too. Strongly consider attending the Up Close program on March break.

    • Derek: In answer your question about employers looking the same way at graduates from smaller universities I would like to give you a couple of examples of former students of mine at Nipissing University.
      A former student of mine, who majored in Human Geography, secured a very impressive job in Toronto as a location analyst for a large food chain store. Her employers were so impressed with her knowledge and abilities that they asked her if she knew of any other Nipissing University Geography graduates who might be looking for work because her breadth of knowledge was better than any other recent university graduates they’d hired.
      Another student of mine, also a Geography major, who went on to do her BEd. was told by her employer after they hired her that she had actually had a serious advantage over the other candidates because she was a graduate of the Nipissing Education program. This employer told her that in the past they had been extremely pleased with any of the Nipissing graduates they had hired. In fact they told her the Nipissing University graduates they had hired had actually proven to be more knowledgeable and competent than some of the graduates from larger universities.
      Many of our Geography students go on to do Masters in various areas and are very successful. The ability to have students write essays, do poster presenations, etc. at the undergraduate level is very helpful for students who go on to Grad school. Unfortunately these sorts of things are very hard if not impossible to do in the extremely large class settings found in many larger universities.
      I would not worry about investigating smaller universites. I believe students have just as good a learning environment, if not a better one, in a smaller university setting.
      All the best to you and your children as they make the important decision of where to go to university.

  2. One should note that there are also excellent small schools outside of Ontario. Acadia, CBU, St. Francis Xavier, Mount Alison in the Maritimes, and UNBC in British Columbia, also offer the advantages of small class size, faculty-student interaction and a strong sense of community.

  3. To answer Derek’s question, I can’t speak to how employers view students coming from small university’s (favourably, I would think), but I can speak to how graduate school advisors view them. I help run the Neuroscience lab at Nipissing and I have never had a student turned down for grad school. In fact, they are often sought after. There aren’t many students that come out of an undergraduate degree with the abililty to use electron and confocal microscopes and who have the research skills usually seen in graduate students. Ours do. Its very appealing to graduate school advisors that they can skip the whole training process. The experience also looks great on med school applications.

    In summary – It sure doesn’t hurt!

  4. UNBC graduates have excellent records of being hired to very prestigious jobs. The campus is beautiful, the professors are accessible and friendly, there are lots of majors to choose from, and the campus is in the wildlife-filled woods. I just saw a moose last week. Some classes (mostly upper level) have 25 or fewer students but don’t think that means we have a too small student body – lots of classes are larger too. Our basketball teams have won provincials, our undergrads win awards in provincial environmental contests, our business classes win awards for innovation, our profs get great project grants, and last year Rick Mercer came to our campus because we beat out much larger campuses across Canada to raise the most money for charitable donations to the African mosquito net campaign. Always wanted to move to BC? Avoid the urban congestion in Vancouver and Kelowna and come to Prince George. You will want to stay!

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