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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Punching above their weight

If the big powerhouse schools don’t appeal, there’s a group of small but select universities that have a lot to offer. But keep an eye on the cost of tuition

The Globe and Mail

For prospective university applicants, there’s an important story beyond the main rankings of 38 schools in the University Report Card survey.

They are not glamorous urban institutions with a world-famous name, and their students did not reply in enough numbers to ensure them a place in the main survey. But a small, elite group of schools, sometimes with tiny student bodies of under 3,000, are capable of providing an educational experience to match that of their big-name rivals.

Nearly every university in this “best of the rest” list enjoyed an above-average rating from undergraduates when it came to quality of education. Where some of them tend to suffer are in the areas of student services and facilities, extracurricular activities, career preparation and off-campus environment - the negative side of being a smaller institution in a sometimes less-sophisticated location.

Responses to the survey support the reputation for excellence enjoyed by renowned schools such as Acadia University, in Wolfville, N.S., Mount Allison (Sackville, N.B.), St. Thomas (Fredericton, N.B.) and St. Francis Xavier (Antigonish, N.S.).

One Acadia student wrote that professors “learn your names quickly, have lots of office hours, and are always available by e-mail”; most praise its Acadia Advantage program, which provides a laptop and on-line teaching aids, making it perhaps the most “wired” campus in Canada. Acadia’s other principal reputation is less positive: at just over $7,000, it has the second highest tuition fees in the country - and a stingy reputation for financial aid, according to its students.

Students are virtually unanimous in praising St. Thomas’s educational system, with one saying the teachers are “concerned with knowing individual students and their respective abilities, instead of simply instructing them.” But as the enrolment grows, undergrads are concerned that the school does not have enough teaching staff to offer a wide-enough variety of courses.

Students at Mount Allison (another school in the higher tuition-fee bracket) said they were attracted by the school’s excellent teachers, small class sizes and good reputation among employers. Negative points? No campus health services, poor athletics facilities, and a lack of school spirit that has caused some to name it ‘Mount Apathy’.

School spirit is no problem at St. Francis Xavier, where almost all the respondents boast about the atmosphere, citing the campus’s “family feel.”

At Mount Saint. Vincent, in Halifax, students praise their “friendly, sociable, and extremely well-informed” professors, who are “teachers rather than just experts.” But they are concerned that the residences and facilities are getting overcrowded - something the administration is hoping to cure with a $40-million expansion plan.

Nippissing University in North Bay, Ont., which is growing in size, due partly to the double cohort high-school class in Ontario, has a great reputation as a place to go if you want a career in teaching. And its all-mod-cons, apartment style residences are a big hit with students.

If an easygoing life amid picturesque scenery is your idea of undergraduate heaven, Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, Ont., on the shore of Lake Superior, may appeal. Students like the ambience, the small classes and the one-on-one interaction with professors, but warn that course variety is so thin, much advance planning is needed to get into the courses you want.

Bishop’s University is described by one respondent as “an undiscovered secret,” not least for its beautiful campus and setting in Lennoxville, Que. It has its own golf course, a free gym and pool and a good reputation for its athletics facilities.

The University of Winnipeg enjoys some of the cheapest tuition outside Quebec, but that may explain why some students complain about its facilities being underfunded. Nevertheless, its teachers get generally good marks, and its educational atmosphere is described as “casual,” “diverse,” “refreshing” and “interactive.”

Students at the University of Northern British Columbia love the beautiful setting at Prince George, although some find it isolated. One theme that emerges from the URC survey is that resources and course selection favour the school’s specialty subjects such as northern studies and forestry. Those thinking of taking more mainstream courses should take that into account. ROBTv Workopolis