Institutions of Higher Learning

Smaller, more convivial institutions can provide a better learning and teaching experience than large, prestigious insitutions.A future show on Radio Open Source will discuss university administration.

(This is a copy of an entry from my other blog.)Already taught at different institutions, even as a Ph.D. candidate. So far, taught at six universities and one college, since 2000. Three in Canada, four in the U.S. Some “Research I Universities,” a State College, a satellite campus of a rather prestigious State University, etc.

So far, institutions where students have been the most engaged have been places where prestige and credentials have been less important. Ranking universities is a common practices in some parts of the world, including Canada and the U.S., where those rankings are particularly important. But these rankings seem to mean relatively little as to the quality of the actual work done at those institutions. In fact, an institution put on top of one of those rankings may attract more of the type of people (students and faculty) who care less about actual learning than about prestige.

In Quebec, we have a system of what we call “Cegeps” (acronym for “Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel”). Faculty members at universities in Quebec often agree that they’re one of the best things we have. Cegeps are relatively close to community colleges or prep schools. Cegeps are also somewhat similar to French «baccalauréat» or Swiss “gymnasium.”

After high school, Quebec students may spend either two years in Cegep undergoing general training in a broad field or three years in Cegep to get a professional degree in a technical field. Technical training in different fields (including music, new medias, nursing) can be quite good, sometimes even better than at a university. General degrees are excellent preparation for university life. Tuition fees at Cegep are very low and, overall, Cegeps are a good way to try out different things. Those who teach at Cegeps run the gamut from highly trained Ph.D.s to specialists in the field. For instance, Cegep Saint-Laurent’s School of Music had several well-known musicians as private and group instructors. A large number of professional musicians in Quebec have gone through Saint-Laurent. While there’s no requirement for research, some Cegep teachers do publish books. Cegeps are present everywhere in Quebec and sometimes serve as a hub of intellectual activity in some regions.

Cegeps are a prerequisite before going to a university. So, instead of going to a university straight from high school, students spend some time getting prepared. This includes a few courses in philosophy along with other mandatory courses and a wide range of classes in different fields. Several university programs in Quebec have specific requirements for the DEC (Cegep degree). For instance, before entering a psychology program, you may need a number of Cegep courses in statistics and biology. Even those departments which have no specific requirement besides a DEC benefit from the general training of incoming students. Simply put, Cegep students make for well-prepared university students. Yet they may also forego university training and get a very decent job in a number of places.This might explain why it’s such a pleasurable experience to teach in Quebec. “Students are there for the right reasons.” Maybe not all of them, but enough of them to achieve critical mass. Students want to learn. Not for their parents but for themselves. Many Cegep students and most university students live on their own. Most of them provide for their own needs, including tuition fees (which are still relatively low, encouraging growth). As silly as it sounds, the fact that the drinking age is 18 relates to the fact that students are considered responsible rather early. Most students reach age 18 while in Cegep and there are events at Cegep where alcohol is present. Binge drinking isn’t a problem in Cegeps or even in most universities in Quebec.

Universities in Quebec are ranked with other Canadian universities. Typically, French-speakers worry little about those rankings and tend to go either to the university which is most conveniently located, to the one which offers the program they want, or to the one with which they associate based on intangibles. Different departments are rated informally by members of different institutions and word-of-mouth plays a fairly important role. As is the case in most of Canada, tuition fees for provincial residents are pretty much the same across different programs and universities. In other words, a sociology degree at Concordia University in Montreal costs about the same thing as an art history degree at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. There are exceptions, such as medical schools, but even then, differences in tuition fees aren’t much of a factor in choosing a specific institution. So, overall, for French-speakers at least, choosing a university isn’t necessarily based on perceived prestige. There is a kind of informal ranking of universities, but that ranking matters relatively little.

The very fact that technical training is available outside universities also means that “getting a good job” isn’t that much a factor in entering a university in the first place. Of course, some people grow frustrated while doing a university degree as they may feel universities aren’t worth it. And there are people who go to universities in order to get specific jobs, especially in fields like healthcare (speech therapists, physicians…) or psychology. But, overall, many university students in Quebec are willing to learn.

Of course, there’s still an idea that universities in general are prestigious. Someone with a Ph.D. may have more social standing in general than someone with a DEC. But this distinction isn’t made so frequently in daily life or even in the media. Also, partly because of Cegeps, professional training in high schools isn’t that prominent. It exists and can be extremely useful, but there’s probably a stigma attached to those who have a professional high school degree (DEP) instead of a DEC. Then, Quebec has a rather high percentage of people with post-secondary degrees. And Quebec has a somewhat lower a percentage of people with doctoral degrees. Some might see all three as problems but they’re simply parts of the equation.

The Radio Open Source show which prompted this blog entry seems to relate to a nostalgia of a time when universities were sites of knowledge. My example would be the University of Timbuktu and its very diverse student body. We might also think about what is working now. For instance, which model of a department do you have in mind?

2 thoughts on “Institutions of Higher Learning”

  1. I focused on one specific part in your article entitled “Institutions of Higher Learning,” namely that “binge drinking isn’t a problem in Cegeps or even in most universities in Quebec.” This is interesting given the pervasive binge drinking that takes place at many, if not most, American colleges and universities. To uncover the differences in the Canadian and American college “experience” might shed some light on how to reduce binge drinking at American institutions of higher learning.

    First, there seems to be more of an emphasis on learning than on partying in the schools in Quebec compared to the American colleges and universities. Second, there appears to be less of an emphasis on prestige in the schools in Quebec compared to the American universities. Third, most university students in Quebec live on their own and provide for their own needs as opposed to many American undergraduate students who rely on their parents for financial support. And fourth, it appears that students who attend colleges in Quebec are more responsible at an earlier age than their American counterparts.

    Perhaps American college and university administrators can learn something from their neighbors from the North regarding the reduction of binge drinking among their college students.


  2. Denny,

    Thanks for your comment. I expect someone to challenge my statement that binge drinking isn’t much of a problem here (apparently, it’s becoming a problem at McGill University) but, having taught at different universities and colleges in the U.S., I do see important differences.
    I agree with several of your points, especially on prestige and financial support. An emphasis on learning among Quebec students is probably involved, but it needs to be explained. My personal (biased) perception is that it comes in part from your third point: students pay for their own studies so they want to get something out of it apart from a degree. Also, there’s a rather high proportion of what people in the U.S. call “non-traditional students,” older students who go back to school. At one point, the perception was that Cegeps were filled with divorced women who were changing their life around by getting training in a new field. And, to this day, Cegeps and universities often display this type of diversity in the student body. In my experience, older students do tend to emphasize learning and a class with both younger and older students is likely to be quite focused.

    The sense of responsibility issue is a tricky one but is connected with the importance of learning. One is, in fact, the drinking age, coupled with the fact that alcohol isn’t a forbidden fruit. Ruth Engs has fascinating things to say about this:
    In Montreal, we do get some students from the U.S. who spend the weekend in the city to get drunk (legally but irresponsibly). Though drunkenness and alcoholism do exist in Quebec, our emphasis on responsible drinking is enforced on several occasions. In fact, most of us have had our first alcoholic drink in the safe environment of our families. We’ve learned to see alcohol as something that shouldn’t be abused. Though the system does fail a few people, the message of responsible drinking has resonated with most people.

    One of my arguments related to the sense of responsibilities is that the Cegep system is a good transition for young adults. A large proportion of high school students go through Cegep and, since Cegep costs less in time and money than university, it’s a place to try out a number of things. Including experimenting with some dangerous items but also to build a strong sense of self. People can get very good training in Cegeps but they also serve much of the same purpose as U.S. colleges and universities serve, in terms of socialization.

    In all of this, it’s quite possible that my bias as a Québécois shows through. But after talking with colleagues in other parts of North America, I do think that the example of Quebec’s higher education system could be examined by others and maybe even serve as a model for some situations.

    Thanks again!

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