The University of Toronto has a problem (several, actually, but I’m trying to keep these short). And the problem is that if you’re not actually at U of T, and someone says “U of T”, what do you think of? The answer, of course, is the St. George campus: that big and occasionally beautiful hunk of land East of Queen’s Park, College, and Bloor.
But what about the other two campuses?
It’s easy to forget about the Scarborough and Mississauga campuses. Heck, I couldn’t even tell you what they do at Mississauga. Arts, mostly, I think. Scarborough – a campus named after a municipality that no longer exists, which is a bit of a ‘mare’ from a branding perspective – is fairly co-op intensive, or so I’m told. It’s the kind of thing you’d probably hear about endlessly if it were it’s own university (Toronto’s Waterloo!), but since its part of U of T, whatever local distinction it might have just gets swallowed up by the beast that is U of T’s central marketing machine.
The thing is, U of T is big. Really big. Taking in all staff and students, it’s roughly the size of all three northern territories combined. It has over half a million alumni – or roughly the same number of people as Newfoundland. Its $2-billion annual operating expenses is forty per cent higher that Prince Edward Island’s. At this scale, it’s not just students who can feel like a number; whole campuses can get lost, too.
You’d think that smaller campuses might be more homey, and offer an alternative to students who are intimidated by the downtown mega-campus. But, no. Among campuses of comparable sizes, Mississauga and Scarborough students are pretty much the least satisfied of any students in the country. When we asked students to describe their institution a few years ago, Mississauga and Scarborough fell into the category of being like research universities, with all the alienation that goes along with that kind of undergraduate experience. Basically, they get most of the disadvantages of attending a big research university, without most of the advantages.
And that’s just students. Let’s not even get into the governance issues involved in running a three-campus system in a single unicameral structure.
There is a simple fix for this: split up U of T. The GTA has close to six million people, and effectively three universities. There is no other city of comparable size anywhere in the world that has so few universities – a testament to the Ontario government’s desire to find efficiency through gargantuanism. If the government is genuinely interested in differentiation, it should turn this three-headed beast into three smaller institutions with more sharply defined missions. Let Scarborough accelerate its experiment in work-related learning and become a real rival to Waterloo. Let Mississauga develop its own identity (and maybe its own network of satellite schools) to serve the growing Mississauga-Halton-Peel region, and the large number of companies now locating there. Let St. George do whatever it wants to do, without thinking too much about the other campuses (ok, this one may not involve that much change).
Yes, there will be costs to a break-up. In particular, students and staff may rebel at the thought of losing a connection to a big research brand like U of T. But this is not a serious argument from a public policy perspective. If providing increased status for students and professors were a major goal, why wouldn’t we just merge Ryerson and York with U of T so we can spread the benefits around even more?
Three vibrant and independent institutions with specific relevant missions are likely better than one huge, amorphous one. It’s time to start talking seriously about how to do this.