Shrugging it off


U of R students and administration ambivalent toward results of Globe survey

John Cameron

Annie, an international student studying engineering at the University of Regina, doesn’t think that a B+ in “quality of education” is worth the price of admission for international students here, and even if she did she doesn’t think that the U of R has earned that grade.

“We cannot compare ourselves to York,” she said, contrasting the availability of resources for students at the Toronto university to the resources available for students here. “If we’re going to compare ourselves about our services … I’ve been to York, and they do everything they need to do to get the results.”

If the 2011 Canadian University Report, published by the Globe & Mail in the last week of October, is any indication, students deciding which university to apply to in the fall might not get that impression.

Not only will they read the back six pages or view the rankings online and see that, in fact, the U of R can be compared to York, they will see that students who participated in the survey ranked the U of R higher than York in several areas, including quality of education, student residences, and overall student satisfaction.

The report, which surveyed over 35,000 students, pits 59 schools against each other in an effort to determine how students perceive their post-secondary institutions. Some categories have a broad point spread, leading to some interesting results – for example, student-faculty interaction was ranked C+ by the respondents at the Universities of Calgary, Ottawa, and the St. George campus in Toronto, all universities with over 22,000 enrolled students, while students at Grant MacEwan, Acadia University and several other schools with enrolment lower than 12,000 ranked their campuses A+ in the same category.

But in many categories, the spread generally runs from As to Bs, giving the reader the impression that, as the Report puts it, “Canadian undergrads are a pretty happy bunch.”

“Looking at the overall results it’s pretty clear that – notwithstanding some issues at larger institutions – students are relatively satisfied with the quality of their education,” wrote Alex Usher, the president of the Globe’s survey partner, Higher Education Strategy Associates.

Which begs the question: how useful is the Canadian University Report is to the institutions it evaluates?

George Maslany, vice-president of academics at the U of R, explained that the Report is only one of several such reports that get released on an annual basis, and that the University often uses its results in several cases as a guide for marketing rather than a guide for policy. “In all of these cases, we consider the reports, but in some cases don’t necessarily take the report card, so to speak, very seriously in terms of whether it reflects failings on our part. Or possibly even the other way around, in other areas where we may look good, whether that’s necessarily something we should beat our chests about.”

The university assesses its academic performance in-house, through professor evaluations and post-graduation surveys. As a result, the parts of the Report that are more useful to the university are parts that relate to their performance in other categories. Maslany used the U of R’s environmental commitment ranking, in which he said the university “fared very badly” – a C+ that put the school at the bottom of the rankings for universities with 4,000 to 12,000 enrolled students – as an example of how the administration reads the report.

“It’s a case of how well we have showcased what we’ve done in that domain,” he said.

The university, according to Maslany, has several initiatives in place that have demonstrated a commitment to the environment: keeping costs for and usage of resources down; building a “green roof” for the Research and Innovation Centre; passive heat reclamation in the residences; and 2002’s massive tree relocation, a project that paved the way for construction while redistributing 240 trees across the campus.

“I think, fundamentally, here’s what an issue is: it’s what I consider the difference to be between what people believe and what they know. And they may believe … we’re not doing well. But that may be quite different from what other evidence might brought to bear on how well we are doing in that domain. In this particular case, as I said, I think we need to do a better job of asserting our own contribution to environmental friendliness … the go-forward plan is asserting our bragging rights a bit better than we have up to now.”

Maslany also pointed out that the university had tried in 2008 to institute a mandatory bus pass for students, called a “U-Pass.” However, the initiative went to a student-wide referendum and was defeated. Maslany believes that, had students voted to accept the U-Pass, it would have been a visible sign of the university’s overall commitment to the environment.

“I’m sort of trying, myself, to reconcile a collection of an important constituency on this campus at the same time saying, ‘You’re not very environmentally friendly, you’re at the bottom of the heap,’ but at the same time not willing, apparently, in any collective sense, to take what I would otherwise regard as a positive step towards trying to achieve that end, vis-à-vis bus passes,” he said.

Another initiative Maslany mentioned with a similar, though more environmentally friendly, outcome was the U of R Students’ Union’s 2008 donation of $250,000 to the university in order to retrofit a boiler in the campus heating plant. After a province-wide faculty strike in late 2007, the university offered students a $250,000 refund package to compensate for inaccessible services. URSU held a referendum that gave students the option to vote either for a $25 gift certificate at the university bookstore or for a donation to be made on URSU’s behalf to replace the burner on the campus heating plant’s number three boiler. After the results of the election proved too close to call, URSU’s board of governors voted to donate the money.

But for Annie and her friends, several of who were with her for drinks in the Lazy Owl, questions of environmental commitment and ease of course registration are secondary to real issues. The main issues for them are academic ones, like whether students are getting values for the money they pay, or getting experience in class that can help them transition into the workforce.

For that, they said, they don’t consult material like the Canadian University Report. James, an international student in the faculty of business who was seated at Annie’s table, suggested an alternative source of information on universities.

“For 95 per cent of students: Rate My Prof.”

1 comment

  1. Craig 7 November, 2010 at 12:30

    As someone who did my undergrad at the U of R and now attend the University of Victoria (a school that consistently scores at the top of the heap on reputational rankings), I can say that "student perceptions" are the key element here. I am from Regina, and I attended the University of Regina. I lived with my parents, and was a commuter student. There are too many people like me at the U of R. We're from Regina, or Saskatchewan somewhere, and we're at the U of R because it's convenient and cheaper than living away from home. When asked about the U of R, we say "It's OK, I guess." It's a combination of tempered ambition and typical Saskatchewan inferiority complex.

    But here's the kicker:  I am in a grad program at UVIC and my girlfriend is in an undergrad. We have both attended school at both UVIC (big reputation) and the U of R (small reputation). The quality of instruction is the same. A good student at the U of R is a good student at UVIC. The facilities are, on the whole, dirtier and more broken here than at the U of R. Both universities have suburban campuses with some unfortunate architecture. But students here think they are attending a "world-class" institution, and students in Regina content themselves with comparing themselves longingly with York. And that shows up on "student perceptions" surveys. I would argue that the difference is so small as to be insignificant. There is a law program here, I guess.

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