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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Why 26,000 students can’t be wrong

When analyzing the full breadth of the over 26,000 responses we received to the second year of the University Report Card, you cannot but be struck by how dramatically different the student experience is from one school to the next.

By Allan Gregg
Special to The Globe and Mail

By their own account, the life of Canadian university undergraduates is a pretty satisfying one. Regardless of the educational institution attended, students from across the country report that they are at least “somewhat” satisfied with their overall educational experience; they give passing grades to their professors; and are reasonably confident that their lessons will eventually prepare them for the workforce.

That however is the view of university life from 35,000 feet. When analyzing the full breadth of the over 26,000 responses we received to the second year of the University Report Card, you cannot but be struck by how dramatically different the student experience is from one school to the next.

For example, Simon Fraser students rank its on-line library and teaching materials as one of the best in the nation, yet are among the most dissatisfied with their school spirit and the quality of student residences. At the other end of the country, students at University of Moncton rate their pubs, physical education facilities, parking, and health services as the Top 5 best in Canada, but rank the quality of teaching and faculty knowledge of subject material lower than any other reporting campus.

We even find huge disparities in satisfaction in what one would think are mutually aligned fields of endeavour. McGill students, for example, give their school the absolutely best marks when it comes to its reputation among prospective employers, yet at the same time give failing grades to their co-op programs. Even more starkly, Trent students rate their professors, their teaching methods and the feedback they receive as among the best anywhere, yet are the most dissatisfied when it comes to the applications of any aspect of new technology.

What this tells us is that virtually every school has something about it that elicits a positive response from those attending; and again, almost without exception, students can articulate something about their school that they find wanting. If this pattern was not so overwhelming, it might be written off as nothing more that that age-old tendency of “having to find something to complain about”. A superficial conclusion such as this would be a disservice to how keenly discerning these young adults are, and would wildly underestimate the way decisions made by university administrators affect and are felt by their student bodies.

A more in-depth analysis of the findings reveals that if a University wants to create a rewarding and satisfying experience, there are some basic “table stakes” that cannot be ignored. To no one’s surprise, the students’ evaluation of teaching and their professors tops the list and has the greatest influence on overall satisfaction. A closer look also shows that students consider “teaching” more than the mere expertise, reputation or the knowledge possessed by their professors. Teaching methods, faculty feedback and the access to faculty outside of the classroom are of equal importance to student assessment of the calibre of the academic staff. In short, having the most qualified faculty may go some distance to engendering a positive student experience - but only if the faculty is also available, responsive and innovative.

Next most important is the evaluation of how well their education is preparing them for the workplace. Perhaps reflecting the pragmatism of this generation, what they seem to be telling us is “teach us well, but also make sure that materials and programs are practical, relevant and can be applied to the real world”.

The other side of the student satisfaction equation is largely hedonistic. School spirit, the freedom to express oneself and the opportunity to have fun on campus are also all highly correlated with satisfaction. The importance of these considerations, alongside more serious minded demands, suggest that Canadian students are demanding a full life experience and not just a monastic and practical academic growth from their universities.

Finally, this analysis indicates that the physical plant and environment of a campus also have a bearing on student’s assessment of their education. Classrooms and lecture halls, as well as the actual attractiveness of the campus, form a fourth tier of conditions that affect overall satisfaction.

Given these four priorities - teaching, workplace preparation, fun and physical space - it is no wonder that high levels of satisfaction are being voiced by students attending Sherbrooke, Western, Guelph, Queen’s and Brock. These are universities that, in the views of their students, are “getting it right”. Each one rates in the top tier of satisfaction levels on every one of these important dimensions of student life.

But even these schools are not without their blemishes and could stand to improve the quality of education they offer by listening to the voice of their charges. Students at Sherbrooke give low marks for the convenience of class schedules; University of Western Ontario students seem to be displeased with the co-op opportunities on their campus; spaces in courses and the registration process pose as irritants at Guelph; Queen’s students recognize the lack of cultural diversity in their student body and seem to be gagging on the food that is served on campus; and by ranking their school as 34th out of 38, Brock students are telling us that their library needs to be improved.

The Universities that are clearly having the most difficulty finding and delivering the formulae for success are the large, urban schools.

Last year, when we similarly reported significantly lower levels of student satisfaction in the major, metropolitan campuses, some of the feedback we received protested that this ranking was unfair - that by virtue of sheer size and physical location, the largest universities were simply incapable of creating an environment that engendered the sense of community that students were seeking.

While this year’s Report Card adds partial credence to this thesis, it also demonstrates that the problems of the large urban schools run far deeper than their size or location. Students from two of the most respected universities in Canada - Toronto and McGill - record the greatest unhappiness with classroom size. University of British Columbia and University of Toronto also report the lowest scores for both quality of teaching and effectiveness of teaching methods. All tolled, the findings suggest that the lower levels of satisfaction reported from these urban universities stem from more than their physical setting or scale. Students at these schools are telling us that they feel isolated not only from the community where they live, but also from one another, those they rely on to teach them and a complete educational experience.

This is not to say that the big schools are without their strengths. Indeed, when we ask this same nation-wide sample of undergraduates where they think the best place is to do graduate work, Toronto, McGill and UBC top the list.

What it does say however is that from these undergraduates’ perspective, “getting it right” means more than imparting learning; that teaching involves more than professors delivering lectures in amphitheatre-size classrooms. It involves the ability to get to know your classmates and teachers; the chance to go to a pub after class with your professor to discuss Kierkegaard or career aspirations; in short, the opportunity to grow and mature as a young adult and not simply feel like you are the recipient of imparted, pre-packaged knowledge.

In the same way that students learn from their undergraduate experience, the University Report Card suggests that universities have much to learn from their students.

  •  Allan Gregg is Chairman of The Strategic Counsel

  • ROBTv Workopolis