Canada’s undervalued universities –
February 5, 2010.   Alex Usher

While speaking recently to a group of students at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education about contesting definitions of quality in higher education, it occurred to me that there is a fundamental mismatch between academics’ definition of quality and the reasons that governments invest in higher education.

And this mismatch has a lot to do with governments’ continual frustration in trying to understand what it is, exactly, that institutions do with all that public money they’re given.

Historically, universities have had two great purposes. The first was about educating professionals and cultivating the intellect of the bookish children (usually sons) of the local elite. All of the older European institutions started that way, as did the U.S. Ivy League schools. Fundamentally, they were small communities dedicated to imparting universal knowledge, as Cardinal Newman (the patron saint of Liberal Arts colleges) outlined in his famous book The Idea of a University.

The second great purpose of universities is traditionally ascribed to Wilhelm von Humboldt – an enlightenment philosopher, linguist and later Prussian education minister – who conceived of universities as places to advance knowledge, not simply disseminate it. Newman had no time for this argument; as he put it: “If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students”. But the idea of universities as producers of knowledge – with teaching as a side business – proved popular throughout the world. Nowhere was this truer than in the United States, whose top universities are clearly far more research intensive than those of any other country in the world and remain objects of longing and emulation in the rest of the world.

Now, measuring the success of institutions that follow the Humboldt model is pretty easy.  Indicators of research-intensiveness are a dime a dozen: competitive research grants won, patents obtained, publication figures, citation figures, number or proportion of graduate students – you name it, it’s simple and relatively uncontroversial to measure.

Measuring the success of Cardinal Newman institutions is not quite as easy, but conceptually it’s relatively simple: the key is having a high percentage of small, seminar-style classes taught by experienced teachers.  University rankings have generally privileged this kind of institution ever since U.S. News & World Report began the practice of ranking in the mid-’80s

But while Newman and Humboldt are sometimes held up as the spiritual custodians of the two halves of universities’ bifurcated souls, the fact is that most professors and students around the world (and even in North America) do not actually work or study in institutions that look anything like the ones that either Newman or Humboldt imagined.

True Liberal Arts colleges are thin on the ground outside the northeastern U.S. True research universities with limited responsibilities for undergraduate education are rare, too; many institutions that seek research university status obtain it by stocking up on undergraduates, skimming a little bit from each one and plowing that money into top-end professors and research facilities.
All of Canada’s “Big 5″ – with the partial exception of McGill – fit this description.

Though most faculty might wish they were teaching at these kinds of institutions, in fact, the vast majority of the world’s academic staff teach at the hundreds of institutions, large and medium (rarely small) that were to all intents and purposes created in the two post-war decades, which are neither small nor particularly research intensive and which exist primarily to provide a basic post-secondary education to the children of the middle-class. Think of York University, Carleton University or the University of Manitoba (which is older than the other two but basically shares the same mission and characteristics).

Though they rarely receive credit in the form of rankings or performance indicators, it is these institutions that are actually doing the bulk of the work in terms of educating the nation’s young adults.

They are looked down upon precisely because they are not exemplars of either the tradition of Newman or of Humboldt, the only two standards which seem to mean anything within academe or within the worlds of academic rankings.  And because of that, no one has ever really bothered to figure out how to measure what these institutions really do well.

Good at linking with the community or being a hub for regional economic development?  That really doesn’t mean anything within academe (it certainly doesn’t come up much in tenure discussions), so it doesn’t get measured.  Good at training the nurses that keep the community healthy?  Ditto.  Taking in kids from poorer backgrounds and ensuring they get degrees?  Using public money efficiently?  In your dreams. Again, these are of very little importance and so don’t get measured.

The problem is that governments throughout the world created these masses of new institutions to perform exactly these kinds of tasks.  Governments and the public value things like institutional efficiency, access and public service, and with good reason.  But the institutions their money bought were built on lines designed by people who idolized Humboldt and Newman.  Most newer universities are cheap, mass versions of older institutions and so – unsurprisingly – they get judged as poor imitations of the original.

Try this exercise: Try naming a university built in the last fifty years that is genuinely considered “World Class” according to the standards of  academia. UC San Diego and UC Irvine would almost certainly be included.   Possibly, too, Warwick University in the United Kingdom and the University of Waterloo in Canada.  After that, the pickings get pretty thin.

That doesn’t mean that all the others are bad institutions – it just means they’re getting measured by criteria that make it almost impossible for them to appear to excel.

What these valuable institutions need is a theory – or perhaps just a theoretician who can explain the role they play in expanding access and how their success contributes to society, and propose ways to measure these valuable attributes. Continuing to measure them by the totally unrealistic standards set by Newman and Humboldt is a recipe for continuing malaise, disappointment and confusion.

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