The new university that wants to change everything
This is definitely not your typical first-year course. Instead of being packed into a lecture hall along with several hundred strangers, these 20 students are lounging around an oval table in a brand-new classroom and laughing almost hysterically. It’s still September, but their familiarity is already apparent. The room quiets as a generously bearded, scholarly-looking man introduces today’s topic: the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of lecturing on the finer points of the seminal document himself, David Helfand, a visiting professor from Columbia University, directs the students to present their assigned discussion points, intervening from time to time to keep the conversation moving forward with the occasional question or gentle correction.
The conversation doesn’t need much prodding. Soon the students are jumping in with questions of their own, most of which are surprisingly thoughtful and relevant for a group only three weeks into their academic careers. “What’s the point of all those countries ratifying it if it’s not legally binding?” one young woman asks. Another student: “If we’re all supposedly equal, why give special privileges to disabled or First Nations people?” Another, unembarrassed by her youthful ignorance, admits, “Man, I never even knew what ‘whereas’ meant before yesterday!”
Helfand is a leading astrophysicist and chair of the department of astronomy at Columbia, and yet here he is, teaching a first-year class on human rights at Quest University, a little-known school up a mountain in Squamish, B.C. This class—and everything else at the barely year-old university—is far from ordinary. The student body is tiny. The focus is entirely on undergraduates. Tuition is $24,500 a year. Professors teach exclusively, and do not do research. To emphasize the point, they aren’t even called professors but rather “tutors.” And students don’t take individual courses as at other universities, but instead study in intense, 3½-week-long interdisciplinary modules known as “blocks.” Today’s class is part of the year’s first block, focused on the relationship between humans and nature, covering topics as varied as Jared Diamond’s Collapse, the philosopher Rousseau and the science of rivers. Although Helfand admits that he was initially skeptical of the unorthodox approach, he says it’s been a remarkable success. “So far, every subject works just brilliantly. The level of engagement is something I’ve never witnessed in 30 years of teaching university.”
Quest is Canada’s first non-profit, secular, private university—and its approach is arguably the most radical experiment in Canadian higher education since the great university expansion and transformation of the 1960s. And yet despite the promise in evidence in the classroom, this is an experiment that is not going well. Students aren’t flocking to the place. Enrolment is far below expectations. The university’s leadership has been a revolving door, its mission at times confused. The school’s financial health may be shaky. What does such a rocky start for Canada’s most ambitious and publicized higher education revolution say about the state of undergraduate education in Canada?
Quest is the brainchild of David Strangway, one of Canada’s most experienced academic administrators and a former president of the University of British Columbia. When Strangway retired from UBC in 1997, after 12 years at the helm, he had no intention of settling down to a quiet life in his hometown, the retirement haven of Kelowna. Then aged 62, he had bigger plans. He would build a university according to his idea of what undergraduate education should be: it would avoid graduate studies and research, and it would be private. The model would be the liberal arts colleges of the U.S. northeast, such as Vermont’s Middlebury College. In Strangway’s view, most Canadian universities no longer focus on undergraduates, but have instead become graduate research establishments that also teach undergraduate students.