Anna Mendoza: UBC will never be Princeton or Harvard, but it can be a better UBC

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      (Editor's note: UBC vice provost and associate vice president Angela Redish has written a letter in response to this commentary.)

      As Arvind Gupta succeeds Stephen Toope as UBC’s next president, the university gets another administrator focused on increasing UBC’s global standing. Canadian “universities should see ourselves not as not as good as Princeton or Harvard, but that we can be better than Princeton or Harvard and the students will choose us over those institutions,” Gupta told the Vancouver Sun. In the same March 12 article, UBC board of governors chair John Montalbano thanked Toope for “his ability to attract and retain outstanding talent” which have “further solidified UBC’s global standing”.

      Here’s why UBC will never be as good as Princeton or Harvard. It has to do with the very thing Toope, Montalbano, and Gupta say will increase international standing: recruitment of international students. Ivy League admissions policies differ greatly from those of UBC, in terms of financial aid and country of origin. Princeton’s admissions website states that it makes “no distinctions between international and domestic students when considering financial need” and has a policy of “meeting financial need in full for admitted students”. It’s true: the average financial aid award for the class of 2017 was US$41,450.

      In terms of which countries those students are coming from, the Harvard International Office website gives us a breakdown of the freshman class of 2013-14. There are 722 students from China and 780 from Canada and the U.K. It doesn’t take a social scientist to answer the question: Do the proportion of British and American international students at UBC outnumber the international students from China?

      International students are not choosing UBC because they think it is as good as Princeton or Harvard. They are choosing UBC because it has a higher acceptance rate for international students with lower English skills, provided they can pay. (UBC’s minimum TOEFL score is 550; Princeton and Harvard require or invite applicants to send in their TOEFL scores, but do not specify what the minimum score is.)

      Now UBC is setting up Vantage College, which will take in international students with lower TOEFL scores—if they complete freshman year at Vantage College learning academic English. The program fee is $30,000. Add student fees, health insurance, books, housing, and personal expenses, and you get $51,700 for the first year alone. International tuition for the remaining three years is $20,000 to $30,000 depending on the program, in addition to all the other expenses.

      As for financial support, the UBC webpage “Awards for International Students” only mentions two: up to 40 awards of $3,000 each for continuing international undergraduate students and a $1,000 award for international Latino students.

      How do these recruitment and financial aid policies impact the experiences of international undergraduates at UBC? As part of an interdisciplinary team of sociology and TESL (teaching English as a second language) graduate students exploring international students’ perceptions of integration and discrimination, I found the following through preliminary qualitative interview research.

      1. If you ask Asian students how education in Asia compares to education in Canada, the low English proficiency students will corroborate the view of Asian education as passive rote learning, as this often-heard consensual stereotype is all they know how to say in English with regard to this matter. In contrast, the higher proficiency students will offer critical perspectives about both education systems.

      2. The lower proficiency students will unanimously agree that Canada is a wonderfully friendly nation and they have integrated very well, but when asked about the percentage of their friends who are not from their home country, and about the extracurricular clubs they have joined, their answers indicate otherwise. The higher proficiency students will talk about their many intercultural friendships, but mention how hard it is to get English speakers to open up if one does not speak English well.

      3. Only higher proficiency students seem aware of racial discrimination against groups other than their own, e.g. First Nations students.

      4. Few international students, regardless of English proficiency, profess definite plans to stay in Canada after graduation.

      To imply that high school seniors choose UBC over Harvard or Princeton, based simply on what they think about the universities, denies many real-world factors that influence student mobility. Moreover, international undergraduates at UBC seem pretty well aware, by third year, of their real chances in the Canadian job market (which aren’t all that good for Canadians either).

      If migration outcomes don’t matter since international students already contribute for four years to campus life—by engaging in critical discussions and leading social justice initiatives that connect people from different backgrounds at UBC—we might ask how they can be expected to do so unless they have strong English language skills.

      I urge President Gupta to occasionally take a break from internationalization initiatives to closely examine the experiences of UBC’s international students. If he wants UBC to be the equal of Princeton and Harvard by providing an education that will “prepare our students to take on the challenges in this fast-evolving world, getting them ready to approach whatever gets thrown at them” and “to be ready with an open mind, a discerning eye and flexibility of thought”, the answer lies in the creation of more support in terms of financial aid, and a policy of letting in only those students whom the university can support with its current services.

      If this is too idealistic a goal, then we might aim for improved academic and social counseling, and a curriculum that is critical of current Canadian race relations as well as past history (e.g. residential schooling, the Japanese internment), and more Alma Mater Society funding for student groups that operate in languages other than English. Gupta must make UBC not only more internationalized, but more multicultural and multilingual. This is the only way to tap the talents of international students—who were high-achievers in their countries in terms of academics, service, and leadership but need support before they can play those same roles at UBC—and make the university as great as he says they will.




      Mar 17, 2014 at 4:32pm

      In reference to the last paragraph, I feel the need to point out that the AMS is funded and run (democratically) entirely by the students. The president has no influence over how the AMS allocates its funding or even how much funding it receives.

      Rick in Richmond

      Mar 17, 2014 at 5:21pm

      The best American schools are among the finest in the world. Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cal Tech, MIT -- these are leaders in every enterprise. They attract the finest faculty, and the best-prepared students, from around the planet.

      And they've been at it a very long time. Harvard College was founded in 1636, Yale in 1701, and Princeton in 1746. Stanford, one of the greatest research universities, is among the newest, opening its doors in 1885. UBC opened in 1915. The passage of time, and the creation of excellence in it, makes a tremendous difference.

      So does endowment. Harvard's total endowment is $32.3 billion. Yale, $20.7 billion. Stanford, $18.8 billion. Princeton, $18.2 billion. UBC? Just over $1 billion.

      Endowment grants the capacity to work at the frontiers of knowledge, to attract the best people, and to reward them with the best facilities and programmes. The top-tier American universities have tremendous endowments, and use them strategically. These trusts funds exist because of alumni loyalty, their sense of obligation -- and the US tax code.

      American philanthropy is the strongest in the world, by every measure. In Canada, we have only in the last 60 years begun to build such a tradition -- and expectation -- ourselves. We have usually taken the view that "the government will pay for it", and that as alums we owe no more than our taxes.

      Americans have built world-leading schools because they hold the view that public AND private funding of them is essential. Our best schools will reach world levels when, in part, our tax code makes it possible -- and private donors make it expected. We're not there yet.

      400 ppm

      Mar 17, 2014 at 7:16pm

      Wow Rick, sounds like a great country down there. What are you doing up here?

      Rick in Richmond

      Mar 17, 2014 at 9:36pm

      Proud Canadian here, 400ppm, always willing to learn from people and places who do it better. For the reasons stated, the Americans do top-rate universities better than we do.

      On the other hand, we can teach them a hell of a lot about universal healthcare, preserving farmland, tolerance and diversity, marriage equality, poutine, toques, and Alice Munro. We're doing OK.

      Bruce in East Van

      Mar 17, 2014 at 11:32pm

      @400 ppm....don't gey your knickers in a knot.
      Rick in Richmond is talking about ONE particular thing. That's it...
      And get this...he's right!
      Now if you're talking about the American public school system (elementary and high school) well that's a whole other thing.
      BTW, they also do N.A.S.C.A.R and Taco Bell Volcano Nachos down there really well too. Har!


      Mar 18, 2014 at 7:04am

      UBC's wish to become a Harvard or Yale is misguided. As a long time American educator now living in Canada I can tell you that the best thing about Canadian education is not its percieved prestige but its price. Canada's great gift to higher education is that it can offer a fairly good education at a price that until yesterday was still reasonable. Harvard, Yale and Princeton offer top prestige educations (but not top quality educations) by severely limiting admission rates of admitted applicants to rates near 5%.

      What seems obvious is that UBC is trying to catch up to the big players by raising tuition prices. By doing this it will certainly deprive poor but deserving students a decent education and further hollow out the great tradition of affordable Canadian education. Whether raising prices will accomplish anything else remains to be seen.


      Mar 18, 2014 at 7:17am

      One more thing--there are several simple things to do to improve EDUCATION at UBC--lower tuition prices and raise standards, encourage professors to demand more of students, reduce administrative salaries and bloat, raise salaries for professors, especially at the bottom of the scale, and change the role of the president of the university from fundraising to lecturing corporations and politicians on their moral responsibility to pay taxes to support education.


      Mar 18, 2014 at 7:21am

      From the
      U.S. students flocking to study in Canada for cheaper fees as the number enrolled doubled in last ten years

      With soaring tuition costs and a generation burdened with massive student loans, more American students are looking to Canada for higher education at lower prices. Over the last ten years, the number of American students at Canadian colleges rose 50 per cent. Today, approximately 10,000 Americans are enrolled at Canadian schools, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. At McGill University in Montreal, about six per cent of the student body is American. And the numbers
      Here are a sampling of tuition prices at some comparable Canadian and U.S. universities
      U.S. universities:
      - University of Chicago - $45,945
      - George Washington - $45,780
      - Stanford - $41,250
      Canadian universities:
      - McMaster - $20,966
      - McGill - $14,561
      - University of Winnipeg - $11,115
      are growing.
      In comparison to colleges like McGill, American students carry an average of more than $26,000 in debt and roughly nine per cent of those grads will default on those loans within two years of graduation.
      Tuition is the largest cost of attending school in the U.S.
      Eric Andreasen, 23, will graduate this spring with a political science major from McGill. The Maine native had to chose between McGill and George Washington University in D.C.. McGill offered him a full undergraduate education at the same price of only a single year at George Washington.
      Compared to their American counterparts, Canadian universities have massive government support. 'When the financial packages came in, it was a no-brainer for me,' Andreasen told NBC News. Along with lower tuition costs, American students can use college savings plans, U.S. student loans, and apply for Canadian university scholarships.

      Another McGill student, Leah Ott, 20, said she was impressed with the school's reputation. Ott came from Houston to study physiology at the school. 'There are three girls in our family and we're all attending university now,' she said. 'Money is definitely a factor.'

      The application process is also streamlined.
      Canadian universities typically care less about essays, recommendations, and interviews. 'It is the grades and the SAT scores, that combination is what we consider when we look at an applicant's file.' And because the schoo


      Mar 18, 2014 at 8:36am

      Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cal Tech, MIT and the like are considered great universities. This baffles me. I don't see that the quality of the graduates from those universities are any better than the graduates from Canadian universities. All I see is a lot of hype and overinflated reputation.

      400 ppm

      Mar 18, 2014 at 8:48am

      "Let us take a patriot, where we can meet him; and, that we may not flatter ourselves by false appearances, distinguish those marks which are certain, from those which may deceive; for a man may have the external appearance of a patriot, without the constituent qualities; as false coins have often lustre, though they want weight."

      Samuel Johnson