Programs under scrutiny
by Daniel McCabe
How many faculties of religious studies are too many for a province like Quebec? How many engineering programs should Quebec universities be offering? Can the province get by with fewer music schools?
These are just a few of the questions that a new commission put together by the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) will wrestle with over the next three years.
The Commission des universités sur les programmes (CUP) was assembled last month and the new commission met for the first time last week. Composed mostly of academics, students and administrators from the province's universities, CUP will be scrutinizing the various programs offered in Quebec.
"The job is Herculean in theory," says McGill's associate dean of science Nicholas de Takacsy, a member of CUP. "We're supposed to look at all university programs in Quebec, determine how relevant they are and indicate to what extent the universities should coordinate the way they offer similar programs. Just beating that mandate into manageable shape will be a major task."
Says Anna Kruzynski, the vice-president (university affairs) of the Post-Graduate Students' Society and the other McGill member of CUP, "It will be a pretty interesting three years."
CUP has already identified the first four areas it will examine in detail--religious studies, communications, engineering and music. The 17 members of CUP will break up into subcommittees focusing on each of the four areas.
A representative of the Ministry of Education is keeping an eye on CUP's progress and will be providing CUP members with some of the data they'll need to go about their work. CREPUQ has given CUP members a full-time staff of researchers to help them fulfill their duties.
"We have three years to do it, but we all know that Quebec universities won't be standing still waiting for us until then," says de Takascy. "If we aren't prepared to make any suggestions for three years, we might as well get out of the ball game right now."
CUP's first report is due out in May. "It can't be an empty report," says de Takacsy. "We report to the principals and rectors, but our suggestions won't just be whispered into someone's ear. The reports will be made public and I imagine the universities' responses will be public as well."
De Takascy, a physics professor, says CUP members know their proposals will have to adhere to fiscal realities, but he says he and his colleagues are mostly concerned with what makes sense academically.
"We're all sensitive to the fact that universities are not by definition profit centres. The way I look at it, universities have to be economically responsible in order to provide the services they offer, but we don't provide those services to make money.
"My personal hope is that we won't just be looking at areas to amputate. I want to look at possible new horizons that might be opening up. Maybe there are exciting opportunities waiting for us out there--things that individual institutions acting alone wouldn't be able to do."
Kruzynski says CUP members are going in with open minds. "There is a public perception that there are too many university programs, but is it really true? You can look at two communications programs, for example, and say we only need one. But if you take a closer look, you might find that the programs are completely different. Having both programs exist might actually make very good sense."
"The Minister has made it clear that she agrees CREPUQ should be doing this work. There is a willingness to allow universities to act together and address the problems that might be there," says de Takacsy.