Universities need more accountability, not more money

Commentary, Education, Brianna Heinrichs, Rodney Clifton

Attending university is a significant financial investment for Canadian students—and their parents.    

Over the last 20 years, tuition fees have increased, on average, by a whopping 215 per cent while the Consumer Price Index has increased by 43 percent.

Nevertheless, Daniel Woolf, Principal of Queen’s University, said in a Globe and Mail op-ed (August 9): “accountability requirements have steadily increased as the public and students demand to know how their tax and tuition dollars are being spent.”

In reality, the call for greater accountability has not been heard.

Parents and students are still concerned about tuition fees, and taxpayers are concerned about the quality and cost of educating far too many students.  Students are increasingly critical of the quality of their professors’ teaching, but course evaluations are seldom used in assigning teachers to classes or making tenure and promotion decisions.

Accountability means that useable, digestible data is published so that students, parents, and indeed taxpayers can make informed judgments.  Unfortunately, universities rarely provide such useful information.

Of course, universities publish the number of students who are enrolled.  But, they rarely publish the percentage of first-year undergraduates who progress to second-year or the percentage who graduate within 4, 6, or 8 years. Similarly, universities rarely publish information on the percentage of Ph.D. students who graduate within 10 years.

In searching a number of web sites, the best evidence we found is that between 20 and 30 per cent of first-year students do not progress to second year, fewer than 60 per cent graduate within 6 years, and only between 50 and 70 per cent of Ph.D. students graduate within 10 years.

What would happen to private businesses that performed so poorly?

We also found that a great number of the public documents from universities are glitzy advertisements about the “good things” that happen on campus.  Universities boast about modern buildings and the “greening” of campuses; they praise students who win national and international awards and faculty members who receive national research grants and publish nationally-acclaimed books.

We could not find detailed information on the cost of educating students and their graduation rates in the various faculties and schools. Surprisingly, the University of Manitoba, which is at the bottom of Maclean’s ranking, has the best data.

It is time for provincial and federal governments, who provide about 60 per cent of the operating funds, to insist that universities publish better information.  The Council of Ministers of Education, in fact, could easily establish a common reporting format so that comparisons could be made across faculties and schools, universities, and provinces.

Yearly reports comparing all universities that receive public funds should contain at least the following information:

  • the percentage of first-year students who progress to second year;
  • the percentage of undergraduates and graduate students who graduate in 4, 6, and 8 years;
  • the courses each faculty member teaches;
  • the number of students in each course;
  • the student evaluations of each course;
  • the salaries of each employee;
  • the names of the faculty members and support staff in each faculty;
  • the cost of educating students in each faculty;
  • the cost of administering each faculty; and
  • the cost of the senior administration in each university.

Universities have become masters at presenting glitz, while increasing tuition fees to pay for it.  Interestingly, when students present glitz instead of substance in course-work, they often receive failing grades.  So should universities.

It is time for provincial governments—representing taxpayers, parents, and students—to force universities to clearly say how much they spend and what they achieve in educating students, particularly undergraduates. 

More accountability for universities is the way to keep tuition fees from increasing beyond reason.  It may even cut down on the amount of meaningless glitz produced.