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March 1, 2019

How University Culture, Governance, and Funding Differ around the World


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Having been president of universities in Canada, the U.S, and the United Kingdom, I am often asked about the differences in the education systems, in the institutions themselves, and in the culture. There certainly are differences. But looking back on my experiences, it is the similarities that stand out. When I began my educational career, I taught for two years at a Canadian high school. After five years of graduate school and a newly-minted Ph.D., I taught for two years in a Dutch gymnasium in eastern Holland. The gymnasium is a high school for bright students. Among other things, I discovered that the same type of students sat in the front row, in the back row, and next to the windows as they had in Canada. I noticed the same phenomenon while teaching in a university exchange program in Japan. I thus learned early on that there is a universality in education divorced from nationality, language, and culture. While I led three smaller institutions of roughly two thousand students, I believe that the same issues are common in all shapes and sizes. This short essay points to some of the similarities and differences of the three countries' systems, all of which strive to support the aspirations of their young people.

In many ways, leading the three disparate universities had many similarities. All have boards of trustees, faculty governance, and student governments that require navigation. All have a faculty that is wary of perceived authority and whose interests often run counter to student interests. Fundraising is a major task for presidents in all three. Steering the ship as nimbly and quickly as boards of trustees would like never varied from country to country. In the twenty years from 1991 to 2011 that I served, it was difficult for faculty in all three to accept that financial challenges were real. Faculty allegiance to their disciplines is universal, as is a concern for their students' well-being. Whether publicly-funded or private, aligning academic offerings with student needs and desires was a constant source of often-heated discussion. The excitement of working and living among 18 to 22-year-olds never varied, a privilege that few others experience.

Sadly, an issue common to all three countries is the fallout from economic problems and the number of presidents and vice-presidents who are cast aside in the wake. The average tenure of a president had declined inexorably. And how the systems deal with this issue varies. In Canada, interim presidents and vice-presidents are appointed mostly internally, with a few notable exceptions where a retired president steps in from the outside. In the UK, interim vice-chancellors are not as common and are usually internally appointed. In the U.S., small- to medium-sized universities and colleges are increasingly appointing external interim presidents and vice-presidents from the ranks of retired senior administrators. This practice has several advantages over the more common internal appointments in Canada and the U.S. Seasoned senior administrators can quickly assess a situation with an external set of eyes and bring change in a way that internal interims have trouble doing.

There were, of course, major differences. Funding is one such area. In Canada, all but a handful of universities are publicly funded through provincial governments. Even the small number of private colleges receive some government funding. The U.S., of course, has a large number of private alongside public institutions. In many states, there is public support for private institutions through grants per student and certain tax reliefs, as well as significant research funding. In the U.K., government support for the publicly funded universities was, until very recently, the norm. Like Canada, there are few private institutions. All of the revenue came from government. That has now changed with a fee-based system eliminating much of the public funding. In one respect, each country has seen the level of government funding drastically decreased, with public funding as a percentage of revenue in the 20 to 25 percent range. All governments have made the decision to place the burden on students and families.

Quality control is very different in the three countries. In the U.S., accreditation is based upon satisfactory performance in the major criteria established by the regional accrediting bodies. The system is very convoluted. To my mind, the adherence to the measurement of inputs pays scant regard to educational quality. Harvard and Cal Berkeley are, in theory, accredited by the same standards as the poorest of institutions with very high failure and dropout rates. In reality, it is the institution itself that looks after quality, not the regional accreditors that have become immovable bureaucracies. In the U.K., a system of external examination attests to a university's quality. Faculty members of university X judge the finals papers of university Y. This forms the basis of accreditation by the Quality Assurance Agency. In Canada, there is no system of accreditation. Once established, universities look after themselves. There is competition among the universities for students and rankings, and as is the case in the U.S., it is the quality of the faculty and research that is important. McGill and Toronto, two universities of world stature, prosper despite the absence of a regional accreditor like SACS or Middle States.

Athletics is another area of difference. In Canada, athletic teams were as numerous as in the U.S. But they were seen from the university's perspective as an expense. No TV revenues, very small attendance, and scarcely any ticket revenues meant that the costs were born, directly or indirectly, by the students. It was far different at a small private college in the U.S. where athletic teams were an important revenue generator in the form of student tuition. Athletes in Division III schools essentially pay to play. The recruitment of athletes is critical to the success of most Division II and III private colleges, without which financial problems would be far more severe. Not so in the U.K., where athletic teams are all but non-existent except at the club level outside the university. President Clark Kerr of the University of California famously offered that the three major administrative problems on a campus are "sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty." In the UK, athletics is left out of the mix.