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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The spice of life at Western

Variety of courses is fine, as long as universities have enough spaces for students to enrol in them. As Alanna Mitchell reports, one school has found the right formula

By Alanna Mitchell
The Globe and Mail

The trickiest job of any university making a play for the undergraduate is not only to offer a full range of courses, but also to ensure students can get into them.

Just one university achieved the magic balance last year, according to the respondents to this survey: University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

Students ranked it first in terms of the number of courses to choose from and sixth on the question of whether there was enough space in courses necessary to finish a degree.

“The course variety here at Western is astonishing, nearing the size of a large-sized campus’s selection despite its smaller population,” said Christina Chabot, one of the students who filled out the survey.

And Krystal Dawe, another UWO student, was equally enthusiastic: “The University of Western Ontario has an excellent course selection and availability. There is an enormous selection, which is helpful in first year to help determine future endeavours.”

That's exactly the way the people who run the university want it. In fact, to help attract undergraduates, Western has set up a system of guarantees for them. It’s a novel type of thinking for the people who run Canada’s universities. Many are far more nonchalant, figuring that it’s up to the student to scramble.

Other universities have a terrific range of courses on offer, but few spaces in each class, the students who responded to this survey said. For example, the University of Toronto's main campus in downtown Toronto scored high on the offerings side (2nd) but not so well on the space side (21st out of 38).

Sherbrooke University had a great reputation for space (first), but struck students as not having enough selection (26th). Yet others had neither selection nor space. The University of Toronto's campuses in Mississauga and Scarborough suffered from that phenomenon. So did Wilfrid Laurier University and University of Quebec at Montreal.

At Western, it's a different story. Course selection is wide and space is almost unlimited. For example, if the student wants to take a course that’s full, the university will offer an additional section of the class, said Roma Harris, Western's vice-provost and registrar.

“If we say the course is on, it’s on. If the section is full and you want that course, we'll put on another section,” said Prof. Harris, who also teaches in the faculty of information and media studies. If the student needs a certain course to graduate, the university will offer the course, even if enrolment is low, she said.

As enrolment increases with each passing year at universities across the country, officials are increasingly looking to evening and weekend classes in order to offer more course selection to students.

This is particularly true in Ontario, as universities in the province have seen more students arrive this fall. Twice the number of students graduated from Ontario high schools because the provincial government scrapped Grade 13.

And over the next decade, universities are expected to feel the pressure of the echo boom - a spike in the number of baby boomers’ offspring who will be looking for places.

Students who enjoy having their Fridays off may have to wave goodbye to their compressed academic schedules. Officials say universities are already constrained by their physical infrastructure and have to schedule classes later in the day to give students more selection.

At Western, there are other guarantees for students, each of which is remarkable in the context of Canadian universities.

Western will pledge to make sure the undergraduate student has a place in residence. If the student has a grade-point average of 85 per cent or higher, a scholarship of at least $1,500 is a given. If the student has marks in the 90s, the scholarship can go as high as $2,500.

“Students are making a commitment to come to Western, so we're making a commitment to them,” said Prof. Harris. The residence guarantee is a favourite of parents, she added. And with 16,000 undergraduates at a time, it’s meant lots of construction of residences in recent years.

The financial analysis is another draw for students and their families. If the student provides the university with financial information, Western's money experts will use their connections to see what sort of financial aid the student might be able to plug into.

“We try to help people plan the future,” said Prof. Harris. “We want the students who come here to feel supported.” And Western wants the best. In years past, the university was known as a party school, not as a top-tier academic hangout. Since 1995, that's been changing, partly because of the quality of students Western can attract under its new program of guarantees.

“The main reason I went to Western is the wide variety of course selection,” Tanya Polonenko said when she answered the survey. “There are so many options available to me that would not be at another university.”

Another student who responded to the survey added: "I think the course variety at Western is great. First year students, like myself, are presented with a wide range of courses that not only help to ease us into the university atmosphere, but help us determine what type of courses we are really interested in."

Prof. Harris suspects there is another secret to Western's success with undergraduates. If a student has a grade-point average of 90 per cent or higher at the time of admission, Western will design a program specifically for that student. It’s a mix-and-match approach for the very brainy students who may have eclectic tastes in courses.

This year, the program has more than 400 students. “They’re incredibly gifted,” said Prof. Harris. “That program is a real draw for us.” ROBTv Workopolis