a, Opinion

The academic decline and (other) decline of McGill University

For the three years that I’ve been at McGill, the academic decline of our school has been a constant topic of discussion around campus. A semester hasn’t passed in which budget cuts, professor and teaching assistant (TA) contracts, student experience, declining global reputation, or general financial woes are not at the forefront of campus discussion.

These concerns are not unfounded. It’s likely obvious to every student at McGill that the school has financial problems. In turn, there have been concerns about maintaining the university’s reputation and fostering a positive student experience. However, our perspective on these issues is often inconsistent.

All students are concerned about the fact that 200-level courses that previously had TAs and conferences are now taught with neither. It is clear that the combination of having fewer courses available, and larger class sizes, even with more TAs, will all negatively impact the student experience. We all recognize that these changes are harmful, and undergraduate students—particularly those in their first two years, whose courses are most affected—are right to worry about the changing face of the classroom experience.

What we need to realize, however, is that receiving a good educational experience and attending a ‘prestigious’ university are not the same thing. While closely linked, the ‘academic’ decline of McGill (i.e. its placement in world rankings) and the classroom decline of McGill (limited course selection, expanded classes) are not the same issue. The global QS University and Times Higher Education rankings that we all pore over are largely derived from aggregating academic citations, peer reviews, and employer perceptions. These factors can have very little to do with what one actually learns or experiences as an undergrad. Take, for example, University of Toronto; a high ranking, in this case, goes hand in hand with a dispiriting, Kafkaesque undergraduate experience of cavernous lecture halls and minimal interaction with faculty. McGill and UofT may be the highest ranked, but we also have higher rates of student dissatisfaction. Likewise, universities that boast the highest student satisfaction, such as Guelph, are not necessarily the most prestigious.

“What we need to realize, however, is that receiving a good educational experience and attending a ‘prestigious’ university are not the same thing.”

The point is that with limited resources available, we need to decide what kind of institution we want to be. At some point there comes a compromise between hiring prestigious researchers and building a global reputation and fostering a positive undergraduate student experience. Those of you in your first year at McGill are surely proud (and rightfully so) of the fact that you attend one of the best universities in the world. The administration has made clear to you and your

extended family that you will receive a world-class education. Keep that in mind as you step into Leacock 132 to attend the course in which you have only passing interest but are required to take because first year options are so limited. Keep that in mind as you notice the course is lacking in TAs, and is clearly over-enrolled.

I love McGill, and I believe that having world-class research and prestigious faculty has benefited my education substantially. Nonetheless, there have been times when I have been forced to confront the fact that a prestigious education is not always the same thing as a good one. Still, I feel like I’ve been lucky. I’ve had TAs and essays in the same Arts courses that now have only a professor—or, increasingly, just a PhD student—and a multiple choice exam. So to those of you who are new undergrads at McGill, especially Arts students, I welcome you to one of the best schools in the world; but I do not envy you. You will receive a respected diploma, but not necessarily a good education.

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  1. I don’t often say this about student articles (much less those that grace the pages – real of virtual – of the Tribune), but… Great, great article. The last line is particularly well put.

  2. This is something that has been humming just under the radar amongst students at McGill over the past three, maybe even four years. Not only in the arts, but amongst many faculties. I really agree with the gist of this article.

  3. Very nicely put and your right, It will be tough for McGill in the Future years with some hard decisions made cutting one way or another

  4. Incredibly well written. Looking forward to reading some more pieces, the Tribune is definitely improving its content!

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  6. Pingback: A campus conversation: Is McGill in decline? | McGill Tribune

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