Sun 13 Oct 2002
When the Strategic Counsel joined forces with UThink to use the Studentawards database to undertake the most comprehensive review ever conducted of Canadian University student’s attitudes to their educational experience, we assumed that we would find some significant differences (why, after all, set out to rank Universities, if this was not the starting premise?). Our assumption was that we would uncover great Universities, middling ones and some that failed to meet their constituent’s needs. In other words, we expected that the top-tiered Universities would be appreciated as such because they were beacons of excellence while the lower ranked Universities would do everything less well.
In some measure, this proved true. Students across the country rate their Universities in very different ways and are able to articulate their University experience in very precise ways.
But what was even more telling was that each of the 29 student body’s we interviewed had highly divergent and distinctive assessments of the school experience and as a result, every University in Canada appears to have their own divergent and distinctive personality.
As anticipated, the top-tiered schools scored well because they seem to have gotten the fundamentals right.
Queen’s students, for example, report their school has the highest quality of teaching, the most knowledgeable and accessible faculty and the top ranked on-line and off-line library services. In contrast however, they rated Queen’s near (or in some instance, at the very) bottom when it comes to recreational and athletic programmes and physical education facilities. These same students also lament the lack of cultural diversity on their campus.
Western students similarly ranked their University in the top-tier overall, but reported an entirely different experience form their colleagues at Queen’s. The London, Ontario-based students rate their campus and buildings the most attractive, applaud the breadth, variety and access to course availability and see their school in the vanguard of applying and making available the most up-to-date technology. All impressive stuff, but still, far from perfect – for they also rate their opportunities for co-operative experiences among the lowest in the country.
Smaller schools too, without the same kind of impressive physical plant or ability to attract faculty superstars, scored well in their overall ratings because they appear to have made a choice to do a few things well, and in doing so, have created a unique and satisfying experience for their students.
Sherbrooke students rate the effectiveness of teaching methods employed there, as the best in the land. There is ample space available in courses to pursue career aspirations and the school excels at on-campus recruitment, providing part-time jobs, as well as employing the most up-to-date computer equipment. The fact that students in the small Quebec town also feel they have the most affordable, high quality off-campus housing, simply adds to their high level of satisfaction.
Guelph students, on the other hand, accord their campus a very different set of strengths and consequently appreciate their University for an entirely different set of reasons. Students of the former agricultural college now boast the best overall educational atmosphere and give their school top marks for food and health services, personal counselling, the greatest freedom for personal expression and the safest campus in the country.
Some Universities will be disappointed with their overall ranking and will undoubtedly protest their standing in the first-ever Student Report Card.
Protests notwithstanding, here too student’s voices should be heard because they make it clear that a quality education (from their perspective) involves more than just exemplary teaching or course taking.
University of Toronto, considered by many to be one of the best schools in Canada finds itself in the lower-middle of student’s overall rankings. Yet their students acknowledge its much-vaunted standing when it comes to variety, availability and number of courses offered. They also concede that their school’s reputation gives them an advantage with prospective employers. But against this, students of the big city campus report that U of T offers very little sense of community or opportunities for fun on campus, and similarly voice considerable concerns about class size and for their personal safety.
Indeed, if there is one overarching message that comes back from student feedback, it is that they are keenly aware of all the strengths and weaknesses of their chosen school. And in this regard, virtual no University in Canada is without its virtues or its blemishes. In fact, almost without exception, all Canadian University students rate some aspect of their encounters with their school in the top five and in the bottom five of their rankings.
Brock has the best Teaching Assistants, faculty feedback and residences. Laurier commands the greatest schools spirit and sense of community (no doubt aided and abetted by one of the best pubs in Canada). Waterloo students see their school as absolutely the best when it comes to overall career preparation and the employment of technology. McMaster students boast the best bookstore. University of New Brunswick at Fredericton has the best registration process. On both a merit and needs basis, Carleton offers the best financial assistance. And so it goes.
The degree of discrimination and the ability of students to articulate these strengths and shortcomings also should send a strong message to University Administrators. These findings provide powerful evidence of the direct and overwhelming impact that decisions have on student’s lives. When an administration sets out to be the best – be it by attracting the best faculty or creating the best bookstore – their students know it. And when they chose to ignore or leave problems unattended – be it class size or student services – it detracts, in a similarly direct way, from a full and complete educational experience.
And at bottom, these findings remind us that students are “the customers” of educational services. When the services provided are superior or substandard, these customers know it – and in the end, “the customer is always right”.