Overshadowed by internationally recognized research-intensive institutions, Canada’s liberal arts universities are often overlooked in discussions on Canadian post-secondary options.
Why are Canada’s liberal arts universities overlooked?
One reason is that university rankings often emphasize the importance of research and publications – factors that favour larger universities – rather than teaching.
Location also plays a role. The country’s better known institutions of higher education are located in Canada’s largest cities: Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Canadian students tend to stay close to home; international students are drawn to the country’s large, safe, multicultural cities.
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Revealing Canada’s Secret
As a result, I collaborated with Dan Seneker, director of enrolment management at Bishop’s University, on a presentation at the national conference of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA). This past year, to raise the profile of liberal arts universities, four universities banded to create the “Maple League.” League members Acadia, Bishop’s, Mount Allison and St. Francis Xavier share a commitment to the undergraduate experience. Given Dan’s connection to Bishop’s, we decided to use the Maple League schools as a case study for the benefit of studying at a small liberal arts university.
Maple League: Common Characteristics
Maple League schools are committed to providing a liberal arts education, and recognized for having engaged student bodies and offering supportive learning environments. In fact, all are on Maclean’s top 10 list for student satisfaction and all receive good evaluations for student experience in the Globe and Mail Canadian University Report.
All members are residential universities, meaning that a high proportion of students live on campus. Indeed more than 90% of students at each Maple League school live on or near campus. Each university has fewer than 4,500 students.
Despite their small size, and rural location, Maple League universities draw students from across Canada and indeed from around the world. Students from more than 60 countries choose to complete their studies at these universities. And 40% or more of their students are from another province.
This last statistic runs contrary to Canadian trends. Whether it is due to cultural or economic reasons, young Canadians do not go away from home for university. Two-thirds of Canadian university students live within 20 kilometers of their university. Only 10 percent of them go to university out-of-province.
Why are so many students attracted to liberal arts universities?
While larger universities are providing more opportunities, undergraduate students seldom have a chance to get involved in research at larger universities. Professors at research-intensive institutions often choose Masters or Doctoral students to help with their work. That is not the case at primarily undergraduate liberal arts universities.
Big fish, small pond
Several of my students who chose smaller universities cited the opportunity to have substantial direct contact with professors as their primary reason. They wanted to get to know their professors to increase the likelihood for research opportunities and/or to secure more meaningful reference letters for graduate programs.
Learn by doing
As part of our consultations, others found they preferred a more active approach to learning – both doing things and thinking about the things they are doing – suited them better. Some examples of how this is done at Maple Leagues schools are:
• Study Shakespeare at Bishop’s University before traveling to Stratford (Ontario) to see the plays performed and go behind the scenes to meet the directors, actors and artisans;
• Study the ecology of the Bay of Fundy and northern Nova Scotia through a biology field course given jointly by Acadia and St. Francis Xavier; and
• Travel to a Buddhist monastery in Cape Breton to experience reflective practices.
Membership in a community
Still others referenced a desire to join a community. Put in colloquial terms, to be more than a number. The Maple League schools are recognized engaging students inside and outside the classroom.
As I visited their campuses, I noticed students are not only involved in numerous clubs and teams, they also volunteer in their community. For example, S.M.I.L.E. Acadia involves more than 450 student-volunteers working with 250 Wolfville community members with physical disabilities to improve social as well as motor skills. Each year Mt. Allison’s Garnet and Gold theatrical society engages community youth through its large-scale musical show.
Something else that struck me about these campuses was the degree of trust between community members. It is not uncommon at Maple League universities to see – though definitely not advised – unattended laptops. When I asked a student at St. Francis Xavier how this could be, she said: “This is a small community. We are accountable to each other.”