Making the student experience count for more
First, an admission: I did not attend the University of Toronto. I was accepted into New College and probably would have enrolled there, had I been able to avoid the hour-long commute to campus. Even as a high school student, I anticipated that I wouldn’t want to miss what happened on campus in the evenings and on weekends – the times I’d be stuck on a bus in traffic or at home in the suburbs.
A vast number of interesting activities occur at U of T outside of the laboratory or lecture hall, and it’s a particular challenge of this university to entice the three out of four students who commute to class to take advantage of them. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), an annual assessment of student opinions at 400 universities in North America, found last year that 60 per cent of U of T’s commuter students spend no time at all on co-curricular activities. This is the case even though U of T boasts more than 300 student clubs and the largest varsity and intramural sports program in Canada.
The breadth of clubs and activities available to students here is truly staggering. Some, as The Varsity editor Graham F. Scott discovered while researching a feature story about U of T’s “oddball charms,” are a little out of the ordinary. The competitive jump-rope team and the Ontario Public Interest Research Group Equity Gardeners, who maintain an organic garden outside the Students’ Administrative Council building, are just two examples. So it’s curious that, with such a wide variety of campus clubs to choose from, so many students decide not to stick around after class.
Supreme Court of Canada judge Rosalie Silberman Abella attended U of T in the 1960s. She says social events and co-curricular activities played almost as important a role in her education – and in making her aware of the full range of life’s opportunities – as her classes. She played the piano for the University College Follies, an annual variety show, and had personal contact with several of her professors. Far fewer students attended U of T at that time, of course. The campus “felt very manageable,” Abella says. “It was an exuberant environment. Everything was possible.”
What the senior administration is proposing now for U of T is nothing short of a revolution in how the university interacts with students. In his installation address in early November, President David Naylor emphasized the importance of providing greater contact between professors and students. Professor Naylor noted that, more than a century ago, university officials believed that no honours class in arts should exceed 12 students. Today, the biggest single class at U of T has an enrolment of 1,527 students. There are six other classes with more than 1,000 students.
For students, one huge class out of five isn’t necessarily a problem, especially if your professor is an excellent teacher. But the university wants to ensure that every student also has the opportunity for more personalized instruction. In the language of business, one might say U of T is now fully focused on creating a better “customer experience” – one that instils in every student the idea that “everything is possible.”