The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education. - Albert EinsteinI've only ever gone to one university, but I find it hard to believe all the other universities are this bad. If you've gone to another university, please comment: how much better is yours?
In high school, grade 12 was a peak for me in terms of my grades (94%) and what I learned (although, admittedly, I've forgotten the majority of it.) Then came the University of Calgary, and it was quite a shock.
Here's why the U of C sucks:
- The number of students per class is huge. Whereas in high school, classes had up to 30 students, some university classes have over 100 students. In first year, class sizes seem to range from about 45 to over 100; in fourth year, classes have 20 to about 70 students, averaging, say, 45. (Disclaimer: I never actually counted, but gee there's a lot.)
- In most classes, nothing but lecturing is used as a teaching method, and student-teacher communication is kept to a minimum. This makes it very difficult to learn things in class. It's worth noting that I almost never had to take notes in high school. In fact, it was very rare that I studied outside class time. Instead, I was able to learn by listening to the teacher, asking questions and by doing assignments, quizes and so forth. But in university, this is impossible for several reasons. In some classes, I spend so much time copying stuff from the chalkboard that I miss everything the instructor says (I can't write and listen at the same time.) Then, outside class time, I have to try to figure out what my notes actually mean.
- The school year is too short. In high school we got 10 months of class time at up to 6 hours per day. If you take 5 courses per semester at the U of C, you get only 8 months of classes at 5 hours per day, including labs, at which the professor is rarely present. Instead, we get "T.A.s", which are even worse at teaching than the professors, and often have worse English skills. Some T.A.s are indistinguishable from students, and thus hard-to-find in the lab room. They don't wear name tags or anything.
- Most university professors are poor teachers. (and even the good ones can't do their job properly, due to lack of class time.)
- The majority of the professors (in Engineering, anyway) have a strong foreign accent, which can be difficult to understand. 1st-year students are the hardest hit; out of my 11 first-year classes, only one or two professors sounded like native English speakers.
- In the Computer and Software Engineering programs (and, I suspect, also the Computer Science program), the curriculum teaches too little real-world knowledge; for example, the entire university offers only one web programming course, SENG 513, and less than 25 students are taking it right now (because it is only part of one program, Software Engineering). As far as I can tell, there are also no courses that teach the following important programming languages: Python, PHP, Perl, C#, or Lisp. In Engineering, they have an attitude that all programming languages are equivalent, so it doesn't matter which one is taught. This is false. Some courses even expect students to learn a language on their own! What in the world are we paying them for? That reminds me:
- If you want to get credit for a course without taking it (except for the exam), you have to pay full price. $500 for one exam? Gee, I wonder what the profit margins are!
- Assignments are too few and too difficult. In high school we were given many small assignments, which tested every aspect of our knowledge, and gave us enough practise to become confident in our knowledge and skills. In University, we are given a small number of very difficult assignments. These assignments usually don't cover the entire curriculum, and most of our knowledge and skills are not tested more than once. Instead, most of the work we put into assignments goes into pointless endeavors. For example, in an analog engineering class, we spend most of our time doing complex algebra, and punching long numbers into our calculators, when we should be learning the principles behind the math, and the formulas we are using. In courses that involve programming, we spend copious amounts of time on code-writing that is minimally related to the course material. Also, many professors create incredibly unclear assignments. Often assignments are self-contradicting and/or very vague and/or contain many spelling and grammar errors. One particularly aweful professor in this regard is Dr. Smith, who not only writes gibberish, but refuses to tell you what it means, or doesn't understand your questions--I never quite figured out which. He should be banned from making lab assignments.
- Mid-term and final exams usually don't cover all the course material; sometimes they cover just a small part of it. Often they are poorly planned, badly written and/or full of errors. Frequently students are asked to make corrections on an exam right before it starts, or in the middle, when some student is the first one to point out an error.
- Students are not normally informed of their final exam grade, and must pay $4 for a mere photocopy of their own exam. That adds up to $40 for 10 courses. Perhaps the university wants to discourage students from contesting the way their exams were graded?
- The university makes no effort to ensure that we retain the knowledge we've gained. I find that I've forgotten almost everything from the past three years. I think refresher courses ought to be mandatory, provided that a certain standard of quality is met. Which is not likely, of course.
- In many rooms, especially in the Engineering building, the chairs are small and uncomfortable, with tiny "desks" that are smaller than a single sheet of paper. The desk surfaces in SA 104 and 106 are tiny to the point of absurdity, at about half the size of a sheet of paper. If anything we need more desk space in university, not less.
- The grading systems are not standardized, and the university does not inform students how their grades were computed. As far as I know, there is no way to find out. Also, the U of C uses a stupid letter-based grading system. So the number grade computed by the professor is quantized to a letter, and then converted back to a number, the GPA. There are only 11 distinct passing grades: A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-. A lot of resolution is lost in this system, for no reason.
- Students have to deal directly with the bureaucracy. The departments themselves don't seem to communicate with each other, so you often have to go running around the university to different departments to get your questions answered. Also, many departments have limited business hours. For example, the Engineering Undergraduate office is only four days a week, 9AM to 4PM.
- Course descriptions are very poor; typically, only a couple of sentences are provided to describe each course. This makes it difficult to select electives (options). Shouldn't we be allowed access to complete syllabus information?
- The organization of the University's web sites are piss-poor. I say "sites", because every faculty (and some departments) has an entirely separate web site, with different visual appearance and different organization. The web sites I visit are the main web site (observe the "mystery meat" navigation), the engineering site and the Computer Science site. All of them are ripe for criticism, but the Engineering site is maintained particularly badly. Here's a challenge for you: find the course requirements to obtain a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Engineering. If you succeed, you did better than me. The only way I could find it was through Google, by inputting the a few names of courses in that program which I had already taken. Even Google can't be used to find some pages, because there are pages that are not linked to from anywhere else and thus missed by webcrawlers. I believe the 2005 course websites for CPSC 349 and ENCM 503 are examples of this. To be fair, the university does offers a one-stop-shop for the most crucial non-faculty-specific information: the infonet. On the other hand, much of that system goes down every night, and during busy periods you may be put on a waiting list. Update: I just discovered a service called "myUofC" which offers "single signon" for many different services. So that's good.
- A lot of information that ought to be on the web sites, isn't. For instance, there is no listing of the locations and phone numbers of staffs' offices.
- "Blackboard", a lame password-protected information store for students. The University is encouraging professors to use this system, which requires students input their username and passwords in order to access information such as course outlines, schedules and assignments. I presume this system is intended to protect the university's Intelectual Property--heaven forbid that a non-student should obtain educational materials online!--but it is inconvenient for students, who must always enter a password, and who cannot bookmark pages on the system.
- Communication between the university and students is poor and haphazard. Although the registrar's office keeps email addresses on file, for instance, some departments (e.g. Engineering Internship) will ask for e-mail addresses separately. Also, some important financial correspondence, it seems, only comes by email. For instance, during my Engineering internship, the university charges about $1,200 for the priveledge of being in the internship program. But it charges the student in installments, once per semester. I forgot that the university has two semesters during the summer, not just one. Thus, I didn't realize I'd been charged at the beginning of the second summer semester, and I didn't pay the bill. Because my payment was late, I was charged a $60 late fee. The university sent a reminder, but only by e-mail, to an account that I rarely looked at. Thus I got dinged $60 for a semester I barely knew existed. On an unrelated note, many emails are targetted poorly; 4th year students will receive some email pertaining to 1st-year courses and vice versa.
- Hey, what's with that $60 late fee anyway? I bet they'd charge you $60 even if your outstanding balance was only $60. Or $1.
I want to also make a few comments about The Money.
Tuition is high. I expect this trait is common to most universities, but at the U of C, recent increases have been particularly bad: tuition is four times as high as it was in 1990. My living expenses are about equal to my tuition; foreign students must pay twice as much as me. But I've always said that I'd be willing to pay this much if the quality of education were proportionately high. It is not. I marvel how much money is going to the university, considering how little value students get for it.
I've had trouble finding numbers. Two numbers I want to focus on is the amount of government spending on "education" per full-time student (normalized to consider only students taking a normal full course load, which is 5 courses at the U of C), and tuition per full-time student (again, with 5 course per semester). I can get the second number from my own tuition bill, but unfortunately, the first number is hard to find. Here seems to say that students pay only 26% of the cost of their education, but that seems wrong. I recall seeing a figure of about 33% in a graph in high school, although that was six years ago.
Assuming philanthopic donations are neglegible, the sum of these numbers indicates how much money the university should be spending on education for students. I emphasize "should", because I'm very skeptical that the university is really spending that much on education; I think the university is diverting a lot of funds from "education" to things like "research", which it considers more important. And it wouldn't surprise me if the executives could afford a new car every year.
Let's assume, for sake of argument, that tuition makes up 30% of total education-targetted funding. Based on my own tuition, a full yearly course load of 10 courses (over 8 months and 2 semesters) costs $5,220. That means the government is paying $12,810, for a total budget of $17,400 per year. This doesn't include textbooks, which can cost up to $1000 per year (though much of that can be reclaimed by re-selling the books.)
At this rate, the funding for just two students per class should be enough to pay the salaries of professors ($34,800 for 8 months' work, which extrapolates to $52,200 for a full years' work.) A couple more students would pay for the T.A.s. How, then, can one explain the enormous class sizes?
This is much greater than the funding to high schools. Again, I wasn't able to find a number, but here I find that grade 1-9 students get $4,453 per student from the government, and parents pay a couple hundred bucks on top of that. Certainly, I would expect that government funding per high-school student is well under $10,000. How can this huge cost difference be explained, considering that university education is worse?
I'm in my fourth year now, and you might wonder, if I hate the U of C so much, why I don't switch to another? I certainly would have liked to, but there are a couple of reasons I didn't.
- For the first couple of years, I didn't know how to figure out what universities are good. It would sure suck to transfer somewhere else, only to find out it was just as bad! After two years I found out that Maclean's magazine does university rankings across Canada; Calgary is located in the "Medical Doctoral" section and ranks 14th out of 15. Rightfully so.
- As far as I know, every university has a slightly different curriculum, and a different way in which topics are arranged into courses. I therefore expected that a significant portion of my credits could not be transferred to a new university.
- I figured that universities would give less scholarships to out-of-towners.
- Laziness. Moving across the country would be a lot of work, and considering how difficult it was to figure things out in the U of C's hopelessly disorganized bureaucracy, I didn't want to figure it all out again at another university.