A father’s view: McGill and King’s

A father's view: McGill and King's

The following article appeared in La Presse on 20 June 2012.

Universities: not just a financial matter

Allen Gottheil, the author, is the father of twins who attend university.

In principle I am in favor of free education. However, I do not wear the red square. Because the crisis in Quebec over who should pay how much and how to finance higher education misses the real problems facing many university students.

I find it deplorable that Quebec students have generated so much debate on the sub and devoted so much energy on the cost of higher education, when the real problem that is plaguing many of our faculties has to do with the conditions in which education is provided.

I am the father of twin girls who have just completed their first year at university, one at McGill in Montreal, the other at King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Their educational experiences have been day and night.

At McGill, seven of  my daughter’s 10 courses were given in a huge auditorium with 618 seats. Sometimes, the course was broadcast on video in another room, for lack of seats. My daughter has never been able to contact a teacher. None has learned her name. She wrote seven exams of only multiple choice questions, marked by computer. Her 10 courses offered no tutorial component and sge had to submit only four written assignments during the school year.

My daughter’s experience was much like a correspondence course. It was very far from what should be an enriching university education at a university that is ranked twelfth in the world, according to the Times Higher-QS World University Rankings. And McGill is not at all short of money!

During her nine courses at King’s College in Halifax, my other daughter attended four tutorials a week, led by professors, and was able to engage in discussions with 15 of her classmates on the subjects taught in a lecture of almost two hours given to some 300 students before the tutorials.

She had to submit a piece of substantial written work every two weeks during the year. All her work was marked by the teachers, with lots of advice and personalized feedback. She wrote two midterm exams, which included no multiple choice questions, again marked by the professors. She also had to pass two oral examinations. Most professors knew her name. In short, totally unlike her sister’s experience at McGill.

This year, undergraduate tuition at McGill was about $ 3500, while at King’s College, it was a little more than twice. But the money does not explain the contradictory experiences of my two daughters. Regardless of the size of the budgets at King’s College and McGill, the two universities making choices in pedagogy with the money they receive in tuition from students and in subsidies from their respective provincial governments. King’s is not richer than McGill in dollars. But the experience of my daughter at King’s was much richer than that of her sister at McGill. For one of the two institutions, teaching is simply THE priority, while for the other, priorities lie elsewhere: among other thing, in research.

I look forward to the day when our social debate on university education in Quebec addresses the questions of student access to a learning experience that is rich in structured exchanges between students, rich in exchanges between students and teachers, rich in practical, inspiring, and challenging experiences . And the day when our discussions are not totally devoted to just dollars and cents.

When will we get a red square to protest against an impersonal education?

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