Before applying to the University of Toronto, I was warned about the university’s competitive nature by my counsellors. As the top university in Canada and one of the top 20 postsecondary institutions in the world according to rankings by Times Higher Education, I did not find this surprising. It was only until I started my first year that my understanding of U of T’s competitive campus culture and its stressful implications began to take form.
I distinctly remember a small orientation session I attended that was facilitated by members of my college. After a warm welcoming session, they told us to look to our right and then to our left, pointing out that some of us will make it to the end of our degrees, while others would not.
This advanced the notion that only part of the student body would succeed at U of T, that some would not be able to endure the academic rigour that the university demands. This was also followed by a warning that loneliness would be the worst enemy that students would encounter during their time at the university, and the only way to combat this would be to seek help from mental health professionals at the Health & Wellness Centre and to remain engaged with other students to avoid being alone.
Right off the bat, the fear of ‘not making it’ at this university felt like a heavy burden I continuously carried on my shoulders, one that has lingered throughout my entire undergraduate education. This fear, coupled with loneliness, has unfortunately not only become part of my story as a U of T student but has also become shared experiences amongst students from different departments and faculties. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these issues, and students are now finding it harder than ever to connect with one another.
U of T’s competitive culture is very real and pervasive — however, it is also multi-dimensional. It echoes through the university’s constant commitment to excellence and its growing mental health crisis. The insidious nature of campus culture is unlike other measurable parts of the student experience; it’s hard to decipher but intensely felt. It is the announcement from professors that grades will be curved down to preserve the program’s reputation of being difficult and, ultimately, the university’s reputation of being competitive.
In an interview with The Varsity regarding grade inflation, anonymous teaching assistants (TAs) were asked what they thought about grading policies at U of T. They claimed that they felt a pressure when grading to maintain an average for the class — propelling students who were excelling in the course or performing poorly in the course closer to the average. One claimed, “The sense that I got is that the university enforces an average for all the courses, so you can’t have too many As.”
The same anonymous TA recalled a time when she was alerted that she had been grading too highly and was therefore encouraged to grade more harshly. On the other hand, she was also told in some cases to increase marks for students who had not completed assignments.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that every student comes to the university with varying struggles and perspectives, and to directly claim that all students share the same experience would be erroneous. Many students thrive under this competitive culture, as it also means being surrounded by people who are passionate about the same things you are, who share similar goals and dreams.
However, others find it frustrating and draining, and as we deal with our current mental health crisis, we need to create an environment in which students can reframe success for themselves. In order to do this, we need to address chasms in our institution that allow this campus culture to prevail.
Janine AlHadidi is a fourth-year political science and diaspora and transnational studies student at St. Michael’s College.