Survival skills tested in the Canadian wilderness

A different approach to undergraduate study at the private Quest University is thriving, finds Erin Millar

November 1, 2012

They spread out along the riverbank in groups of four or five, gathering information about a proposed run-of-river hydroelectric project. One group uses surveying equipment to sketch a profile of the riverbed. Another photographs and documents species of plants while discussing how the project might affect them. A third group uses an instrument to measure the flow-rate of the river.

However, this is not a group of energy engineers or environmental consultants - it is a class of students in their first month of undergraduate study.

These students at Quest University, an unusual institution in the small Canadian town of Squamish, British Columbia, are learning about more than how to gather data in the field; they are also studying how field research is used in the real world and how it affects engineering and policy decisions.

The classes at Quest University are far from typical. A class on volcanoes includes a 10-day field trip to Hawaii. An international relations class is taught by the Canadian ambassador to Mozambique. Most classes have fewer than 20 students, and the student body of about 430 is tiny compared with other universities. The focus is entirely on undergraduate education.

Quest University, which held its inaugural class in 2007, is Canada's only private, non-profit, secular university. It is one of the nation's most radical experiments in higher education since the post-secondary expansion and transformation of the 1960s.

Whereas undergraduates in Canada typically study up to five courses at once in a semester, those at Quest follow a "block plan". This means they take just one course at a time, intensively, for three and a half weeks before moving on to the next. "It's the opposite of multitasking," explains Quest's president David J. Helfand.

Putting undergraduates first

Recent calls to reform higher education in Canada have focused on improving undergraduate education. But cuts in government funding for Canada's public universities are growing ever more stringent, and it is often undergraduate programmes that feel the sting of financial shortages most acutely through increasing class sizes and dependence on part-time professors instead of tenured faculty.

And even though tuition fees are a key source of revenue for universities, undergraduate programmes often exist in the shadow of high-profile research agendas that are seen as contributing to institutions' international prestige.

Rather than putting resources into improving undergraduate education, many universities seem to have reacted to financial pressure by recruiting additional international students - who pay higher fees than domestic ones - and focusing on ambitious research programmes that attract industry and federal government funding.

There are exceptions, of course; the University of Calgary recently announced a new Institute for Teaching and Learning, while the University of British Columbia boasts the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative.

But Quest University stands out for its innovation. The school was founded in 2002 by David Strangway, a geophysicist and former president of the large, research-intensive University of British Columbia. When he retired in 1997 he was frustrated by what he saw as the declining quality of undergraduate education. Government funding for education per student had decreased as research gained a greater share.

This encouraged a kind of "mission creep", as Strangway saw it; small, teaching-focused universities tried to become large research institutions. But the increased research did not improve the learning environment for most students. "Research capacity does not directly affect undergraduate students," Strangway comments.

Strangway's response was to create a university focused on teaching. He started with a blank slate and asked two questions, according to Helfand. The first was how one would design an undergraduate education that was embedded in a globalised world facing daunting problems that required cross-disciplinary solutions. The second was how one would educate a population of digital natives raised in a culture that celebrates multitasking.

The result was Quest, where members of faculty are not expected to pursue research, and performance reviews - there is no tenure - are based solely on their success in the classroom; they are called "tutors" instead of "professors" to reinforce this point.

Strangway aimed to have an unheard-of student-to-faculty ratio of 10 to 1 (and has achieved a 12:1 ratio, according to the university). In addition, each student has a dedicated adviser from the faculty to steer his or her education.

The student response is impressive. In the 2011 National Survey of Student Engagement, in which most Canadian universities participated, Quest scored 68.6 on the benchmark for student-faculty interaction, more than 20 points ahead of the next highest scoring school and nearly 30 points above the national average.

Difficulties of being different

Regardless of Quest's pedagogical successes, the concept of a university without research is controversial in Canada. Because higher education falls under the responsibility of provincial governments, Canada lacks a national accreditation body. As a result, membership of the lobby group the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada serves as de facto accreditation. And although the AUCC has not ruled out membership for Quest, research is central to its definition of a university.

This has caused problems for some graduates. Although Quest has gained accreditation in the US, some Canadian institutions require graduate school applicants to hold a bachelor's degree from an AUCC member school.

So far, Quest administrators have lobbied on behalf of students applying for graduate school on a case-by-case basis. Although only two classes of students have graduated so far, some have been accepted into competitive programmes, including the University of Calgary's law school, and one has gone on to do a PhD in physical anthropology at Stanford University in the US.

It is worth noting that, although it is not a member of the AUCC, Quest is accredited by the Degree Quality Assessment Board under the British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education.

Another obvious distinction between Quest and other Canadian undergraduate institutions is that it is private - and therefore expensive.

Most private post-secondary institutions are for-profit and offer vocational programmes - sometimes of dubious quality. Strangway's plans to establish a private university were opposed by the left-leaning New Democratic Party, then in power in British Columbia, which viewed private education as akin to two-tiered healthcare. Some members of the university community were also opposed to the idea.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers launched an investigation into whether faculty members at Quest enjoyed academic freedom despite the university being private and not offering tenure. After an investigator visited campus, the investigation was dropped.

Money no object

Quest's biggest test was whether its teaching model was exceptional enough to lure students away from the much cheaper public system. The average tuition cost at public universities is just over C$5,000 (£3,100) a year whereas Quest charges C$29,000.

Only 74 students enrolled in the first class in 2007, less than half the 160 target. But the days of uncertainty are fading. There were 560 applicants for 156 first-year places in 2012, an 84 per cent increase in applications over the past three years. Although Quest's principal funder, diamond mine owner Stewart Blusson, was forced to extend funding from four years to 10 in order to keep the university afloat, the school is now on track to be self-sustaining by 2015.

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