University heads among honorees

by Eric Smith

Robert Prichard and Claude Corbo are no strangers to university convocations. As president of the University of Toronto and former rector of the Université du Québec à Montréal respectively, both have experience handing out university degrees. This year the tables are turned and it is they who are having their achievements recognized with honorary degrees from McGill.

As chief administrators for two of the country's most important universities, both also have intimate knowledge of the challenges currently facing educational institutions in Quebec and Canada.

On the occasion of their awards from McGill, the Reporter asked each of them to comment on the state of Quebec and Canadian universities at the end of the millennium. And although both say there are reasons for optimism, the portrait they paint of higher education is one of shrinking resources and difficult choices.

"There is a daunting challenge for universities like McGill and the University of Toronto because we have fewer resources than our competitors with which to provide a learning experience competitive with the best in the world," says Prichard. "As a result, we have to try harder and be more imaginative than our competitors."

Prichard points out that the level of funding per student at Canadian universities is half that available to the top public institutions in the United States and only about one-sixth of what is available to the best American private universities.

Not all the effects have been negative, notes Prichard. "Because we have been under this strain for so long, Canadian universities have become highly creative in reducing administrative costs and stretching academic resources. McGill and the University of Toronto have done an outstanding job in the circumstances.

"But without additional resources," he says, "it is impossible to close the gap. Canada, Quebec and Ontario are getting it wrong. Current decisions are not consistent with my children being able to get an education in Canada competitive with the rest of the world. I believe it would be a national tragedy of major proportions if we were not to get on a wiser path."

Corbo, who left his administrative position at UQAM last year to pursue his academic work at McGill, says the distance he has acquired in the last five months from the demands of running a university might explain why his tone is a little more optimistic than Prichard's.

"If we keep in the business," he adds, "we have to find some measure of optimism. Universities have survived the last millennium. And there are possibilities for adaptation. New technologies can solve some problems, especially in libraries which are a part of universities for which the current situation is critical."

But Corbo agrees with Prichard that "governments can't keep reducing funding and freezing tuition fees. You can't expect public universities to compete well if their resources are diminishing as those of private universities are climbing."

For Corbo, though, there are other questions universities need to answer as they look at how best to manage the resources they have.

"We need to reach a more satisfactory balance between teaching and research," he says. "Since World War II, universities have become ever more involved in research that can be useful in economic development. We are living in a knowledge-based economy. And students who will be paying more will demand better teaching services. Universities have to find a way of being as relevant as possible in their activities in a world that is changing very rapidly."

Corbo suggests that universities look at questions of teaching and research in terms of how to allocate their human resources. "University professors don't like to be considered human resources," Corbo concedes. But he adds, "Younger professors can be most involved in research. Their research is still fresh and state-of-the-art. Older professors who have a better overview of a whole discipline must be more involved in teaching undergraduates."

Corbo suggests that universities need to take a more critical look at themselves. "I can think of no other institution that can be as critical of the affairs of others and as complacent about its own affairs," he says. "Above and beyond the usual call of duty, universities must explain what they are doing beyond their walls."

For Prichard as well, public perception of the role of universities is important for them to continue to thrive. "We need broader national understanding of the importance of the quality of higher education," he says. "The reason for optimism is that we have built, since the Second World War, an exceptionally strong public university system in Canada. We can build on that strength of very lean and imaginative institutions."