Naylor has a vision. The rest of us don’t

David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto, toldThe Globe and Mail this week that he wants to decrease the number of undergraduates at the main campus of the U of T.

Naylor is pushing to change his university from being just a large university to be a graduate-intensive large university. Along the way, he hopes to change the provincial funding model that his institution relies on. Presently, the province funds universities primarily based on the number of students attending the university. Naylor wants the province to continue giving the University of Toronto its current funding amount — but have less undergraduate students.

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Coming from another university president, I would have responded to his ideas by referring to it as a form of academic snobbery. I’m not the only one who wonders if universities could figure a way to operate and survive without undergraduates, whether they would stop accepting students.

However, this time, I think Naylor hits it on the head. The University of Toronto needs to be more graduate focused.

First off: Canada needs more Ph.D holders. The University of Toronto has the ability to produce those graduates.

Naylor is not looking to reinvent the wheel, one only needs to look to the United States to see public university systems which are addressing the need for more doctoral holders. The flagship campuses in the state university systems have stronger graduate focuses than their non-flagship cousins. The University of Toronto, in the context of Ontario, is the flagship public university in the province. Graduate students make up a larger percent of the student body at these universities than at the University of Toronto.

This brings us to what I see as the biggest problem with Naylor’s idea; it is hinged on other institutions increasing their undergraduate enrolment to replace the undergraduate spaces he is cutting.

This, in part, brings us to the number one problem in Canadian higher education; a complete lack of nation vision and direction.

Nobody is able to set direction, not the federal government, not even the provincial governments. Direction in higher education is set by dozens of independently minded, self-focused institution boards. Even these bodies are often little more than glorified rubber stamps for institutional executive heads.

One only needs to look at the current situation in Nova Scotia to see one of the more blatant examples of institutions thumbing their nose at provincial oversight. I’ll paraphrase in this skit:

*Province to University: We have too many people graduating with a bachelor’s of education. There’s not enough jobs for them.
*University: Your point?
*Province: We’re not granting you the privilege of granting those degrees; there are too many of them being handed out.
University: Go sc&# yourself! I’ll offer the program and get a university from another province to grant the degree!

In the United States, the state-wide university systems operate with a strong central oversight. They have statewide governing bodies which set direction for the system and they operate as part of a state-wide high education plan. This creates an ability to focus individual campus on set goals and to give them a sense of individual direction while fulfilling larger goals.

In Canada, the provinces can plan all they want. The plans may even be good. If implemented, they may even be in the interests of the greater good. Sadly, all it takes is one university to ignore the public good in favour of its own interests and the plan isn’t worth it’s weight in sand.

Increasing the graduate intensity of a few universities in Canada (UAlberta, UBC and McGill, for example) is in the greater public interest but I doubt Naylor’s peers at Ontario’s other research-obsessed intensive universities are willing to play their part in the greater scheme of things.

In the end, this is not a University of Toronto issue. It is not even a provincial issue. Canada is facing an intellectual deficit and the only way to solve this national deficit is with a national plan.

Don’t hold your breath, Canada’s not in last place yet. But we are below average. So, it’s not yet crisis enough for governments to act.