Maclean's Universities 2003: Double Cohort

PICTURE THIS: it's a hot, muggy morning in Kingston, Ont., the day after Labour Day - a day more summer than fall. Just the sort of morning when you could be forgiven for playing hooky down by Lake Ontario, watching the white sailboats meander on the horizon, reading a book under the trees.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 17, 2003

PICTURE THIS: it's a hot, muggy morning in Kingston, Ont., the day after Labour Day - a day more summer than fall. Just the sort of morning when you could be forgiven for playing hooky down by Lake Ontario, watching the white sailboats meander on the horizon, reading a book under the trees.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 17, 2003

Maclean's Universities 2003: Double Cohort

PICTURE THIS: it's a hot, muggy morning in Kingston, Ont., the day after Labour Day - a day more summer than fall. Just the sort of morning when you could be forgiven for playing hooky down by Lake Ontario, watching the white sailboats meander on the horizon, reading a book under the trees. Certainly, if you were one of the thousands of first-year Queen's students who had just spent the long weekend cooped up in the family car, inching bumper-to-bumper along the 401, lugging your baggage - emotional and physical - into residence, you might be tempted. Especially waking one block from the lake, with no parents to tell you otherwise.

Of course, if you were one of those students, your timetable had already been set: the official beginning of frosh week - the traditional Queen's Welcome Ceremony - was scheduled for 10 a.m. Several mothers made sure their sons had blazers and ties for the event, but the mothers and fathers were long gone. For the first time ever, the event was to be held after most parents had left, partly because of numbers: this was the largest incoming class in Queen's history. And it was also the youngest: almost three-quarters were under 19; 600 were 17; there were four 16-year-olds. Heck, there was even a 15-year-old. More than once, organizers had asked themselves: what were the odds that students would show up without parental nudging?

The odds were good. Just after 9:30, hundreds of fresh-faced first-year students began thronging up University Avenue. In shorts and T-shirts and Birkenstocks, they filled bleacher upon bleacher in the distinctly un-air-conditioned Jock Harty Arena. By 10, when the whine of the bagpipes signalled the beginning of the academic procession, the place was filled to the rafters. Whipping on his mortarboard, principal Bill Leggett strode up the red carpet to the podium and said: "Congratulations. Close to 40,000 students applied to come to Queen's this year. Thirty-five hundred of you were successful. Today, just being here is a huge accomplishment." And for the next half hour, there was magic in that tired old arena, a sense of promise and possibility as thousands of young men and women, fanning themselves with their cream-coloured programs, listened intently to what Leggett had to tell them. He spoke about the opportunities and the pitfalls of UNIVERSITY life. He told them that they were part of a proud tradition. He encouraged them to make the most of their time at this special place. By the time they had risen to sing O Canada, the 163rd incoming class had been well primed for what lay ahead.

It was a brave beginning, and Jo-Anne Brady looked relieved, if a little weary, as she watched the students flood down the steps. As Queen's registrar, she had overseen the processing of those 39,135 applications - and she was unsurprised by the turnout. With an average entering grade of 88.9 per cent, the class of 2007 had competed long and hard for their seats. And they certainly weren't alone. This year, all across the country, high-school students played the largest and most dramatic game of musical chairs in Canadian history. Ontario's infamous double cohort, of course, was a major factor. The province, home to roughly 40 per cent of Canadian students, finally eliminated the fifth year of high school - producing a blockbuster double class of high-school seniors. Applications to Ontario universities, from this group alone, shot up 47 per cent. How tough was it to get in? It depended on the program and the university. Many - Brock, Guelph, Ottawa, Carleton, Ryerson, Windsor, Toronto, York, Wilfrid Laurier - made enormous boosts to their first-year intake. Queen's, on the other hand, insisted that it could not increase by more than 200 and still preserve the quality of the undergraduate experience.

When it came to elite programs, the competition was beyond brutal. Five thousand battled over 270 seats in Queen's commerce; 3,000 for 160 spots in McMaster's bachelor of health sciences. At Waterloo, 1,827 students were jockeying for 100 places in accounting and financial management. And so on.

Which is why many students hedged their bets, applying out of province as well. Montreal's McGill University, a top choice for many, saw a 67-per-cent increase in applications from Ontario: 6,911 in total. But was McGill their first choice or their "safety school"? There was no way of knowing. To avoid being oversubscribed with acceptances, the admissions office decided to set the bar high for Ontario students in the early round of offers. By May, when the phone was ringing off the hook, McGill posted an open letter on the Web, aimed at frantic Ontario families: the university, it said, had "agonized over many of the refusals" issued in recent weeks. "Refusal," it said, "can be a deeply disappointing experience. The disappointment is even more profound when an applicant possesses a strong academic record." It then listed the "admissions minima": arts: 87.5 per cent; science: 89 per cent; electrical, computer and software engineering: 92 per cent. In the end, Ontario students needed higher marks than those from any other region in Canada. Says registrar Sylvia Franke: "We tried to squeeze in as many students as we could, responsibly."

Which, as a motto for the entire country, is pretty much bang on. This year's crunch was by no means limited to Ontario. And no, it's not a one-year wonder. The double cohort is just part of a much larger national story, one that has been unfolding for some time, and will continue to do so into the next decade. This fall, with an increase of more than 50,000 undergraduate students, Canadian universities experienced their biggest year-to-year enrolment increase ever - for the third year in a row.

Keep in mind: even at the height of the baby-boom bulge, the biggest year-to-year growth was 25,000. Canada responded by building new universities and filling them, with students and faculty. Now, as the babies of that well-educated baby-boom generation - the echo boom - beat a path to the post-secondary doorstep in record numbers, the faculty who taught their parents are heading in the opposite direction, retiring in record numbers as well. In 1990, there were 532,000 full-time students enrolled in Canadian universities and 36,400 full-time faculty to teach them. This fall? Virtually no change in the number of full-time faculty.

Two years ago, experts forecast that the Canadian university system was going to have to accommodate a growth of 200,000 students by 2011. Now, those numbers look extremely conservative. As of this fall, Canadian universities have already absorbed half that growth, with an enrolment of roughly 745,000 full-time undergrad and graduate students. The result, in many places: a space squeeze of unprecedented proportions and a ratcheting up of entry grades as competition goes through the roof. As one university president said to another at a recent gathering in Toronto: "Let's face it, there are some of us who wouldn't get into university right now."

Take the West Coast: this fall, no student whose average was less than 80 per cent would have found a seat in arts or science at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser or the University of Victoria. Along with Ontario and Alberta, B.C. is facing mega-demand from university-bound students - and it's the province with the lowest number of university seats per capita. If it were to match Ontario's rate, B.C. would have to almost double its current capacity, adding 50,000 spots to its 65,000.

Alberta has similar challenges. Calgary, for instance, is growing faster than any other major city in Canada, and demand for education is high. Between 1995 and 2000, the University of Calgary absorbed a quarter of the post-secondary growth in the province. But recently, due to budget constraints, the university announced its decision to cap undergraduate enrolment in the coming year. With each faculty setting a quota, students will need even higher grades than they did this year, especially in first-year business, where the current entering average was 86 per cent, or the bachelor of health sciences program, where it was 92 per cent. Says president Harvey Weingarten: "It's simple: there are more qualified students than we have the capacity to provide a quality education for. The government says, 'you're raising standards.' I say no, we're preserving quality. When there is no room, it's a quality issue."

Preserving quality, preparing for the future, innovating at the same time - it's a pretty tall order. These are the challenges keeping many gifted university leaders awake at night: attracting and keeping the right students, in the right numbers; attracting and keeping the right faculty, in the right numbers. And let's not forget: ensuring that the entire landscape is engaged.

A tall order, especially this year - a year that an elite group of faculty has called the equivalent of a double hurricane, "academe's version of The Perfect Storm." Recently, the 2002 winners of the prestigious 3M Teaching Fellowship raised concerns about the quality of the university learning experience, grading it at a C minus. Their concern: all too often, students are forced to sit passively in lectures, rather than being actively engaged.

So, does it all come down to numbers? Well, in some ways, yes: getting the numbers right has a big effect on the student experience. Many universities faced the same conundrum as McGill did in predicting their yield rate: namely, the number of students who, having received offers of admission, would accept. Brady aimed for a growth of 200 at Queen's and ended up 11 students above target. Others weren't so close. Tiny Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., was aiming for a total of 3,700 students - and ended up with 3,900. "We assumed that a lot of the Ontario students would be double-booking," says new president Gail Dinter-Gottlieb. "Taking more students means having to hire more faculty, and because we're in a rural setting, it's hard to find the quality we want. We're adapting, but we're feeling the strain."

She wasn't alone. There was strain on many campuses, in class and beyond. Things were especially tense at the very crowded Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto, with the arrival of 3,160 first-year students. Particularly troubling was the postponed opening of the library within the $23-million Academic Resource Centre. For the first two months of school, students had to order books from the downtown Robarts Library - with delivery taking up to five days. "Last year, classes were crammed," says Dan Bandurka, Scarborough student union president. "But you could walk down the hallway and not bump into anyone. This year, it's like the Yonge and Bloor subway stop in the middle of rush hour, all the time. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., lineups galore." So what's working? "Faculty are pulling more than their own weight, holding extra office hours. Because of the people, it's working."

"What if you gave a party and everyone decided to come?" asks Herb O'Heron, senior analyst at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. "That's what it's like right now - a party where the whole guest list said yes." This year, many university residences turned single rooms into doubles, doubles into triples - and still had trouble finding space for incoming students. In June, when Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., discovered it had promised residence to 2,994 first-year students and only had space for 2,379, administrators offered a package worth $2,500 - a choice of a computer or a Blackberry, plus book and food credits - to anyone who would give up their spot. Fifty-one students accepted the offer, and the rest were accommodated in a variety of spaces, including nearby apartment blocks.

Similarly, McMaster in Hamilton, having guaranteed residence to every incoming student with 80 per cent - up from last year's 75 - realized that its 3,258 residence beds would not cut it. Even after creating 122 extra spots by tripling some double rooms, they were short. The university offered a $1,000 credit for tuition or books and a full deposit refund to anyone who would remove their name from the residence list. Only eight said yes.

Which comes as no surprise. Contrary to what management guru Peter Drucker predicted several years ago, the death of the traditional campus experience has been greatly exaggerated. And for that reason, Heather Munroe-Blum, the new principal of McGill, made it one of her top priorities to purchase a property in downtown Montreal, one that could be transformed into a residence. For several years, McGill had been reduced to using a lottery system to determine who got into residence. The university lost many bright students in the process. But the purchase of the Renaissance Hotel on Parc Avenue, a five-minute walk from campus, allowed McGill to make a first-year residence guarantee for the first time in a decade. Says Munroe-Blum: "There are wonderful benefits that can accrue from being an undergrad in a research-rich environment - and our having space for incoming students was very important for families."

The new 617-bed dorm has become the destination of choice. Walk past the lobby, with its sparkling chandeliers, plush club chairs, marble bistro tables and cherrywood reservation desk - now home to the residence security guard - and you enter a student dream world: each room with its own private bath, double or queen-size bed. A ballroom transformed into a quiet study area, with wingback chairs. Foose-ball tables, pool tables, a pizza oven from California. "I've always wanted dark wood furniture," says floor fellow Liz Simmie, giving a tour of her two-room corner suite. "And now I have it." What does she think of Munroe-Blum? "She's cool," says the dreadlocked third-year student. "She came to our Snow Air Pub in January. I'm not sure if she had a beer, but she was there, talking to students."

Talking and listening, keeping the place engaged: that's the major challenge. But when the going's tough, the tough get innovative. "If I had $100 million, could I do better?" asks Alastair Summerlee, the new president of Ontario's Guelph University. "Absolutely. But the sky-is-falling mentality doesn't help us improve." Over the past several years, as provost and vice-president, academic, Summerlee helped launch a series of initiatives at Guelph, including the establishment of Student Learning Groups in courses where the number of Ds and Fs were higher than expected. Senior students coach those who need help. As well, the university launched a small series of first-year seminars, giving groups of 15 students the opportunity to tackle interdisciplinary questions with senior scholars. Says Summerlee: "I'm not interested in the blotting-paper approach to teaching, whereby I tell you and you soak it up."

Neither is Chris Buddle. Walk into the 31-year-old insect ecologist's lab at McGill's Macdonald campus, and the first thing you notice is the tarantula - a gift from a former undergrad now doing her master's at UBC - asleep in a glass box above the microscopes and hundreds of little glass vials. The next thing you notice is the very animated Elise Bolduc, a second-year agriculture student, trying to feed a fruit fly to a frisky spider. One of two undergrads working in Buddle's lab, Bolduc is spending as many as 30 hours a week in the lab, working on her thesis on the role of spiders in keeping vineyards healthy. Recently, the 22-year-old had one of those rare eureka moments: after several hours examining a spider under the microscope, she discovered a species that had never been identified in Quebec before. "Which is big!" says Buddle. "Imagine the attention if that were a mammal!"

If Buddle and Bolduc are interested in the role of spiders in consuming bugs, Greg Matlashewski is looking at bugs a bit differently - namely how bugs meet drugs. Working out of the historic Lyman Duff Medical Building, the chair of microbiology and immunology at McGill has been working hard to find a vaccine for a form of leprosy called leishmaniasis. A parasitic disease spread by the sandfly, leishmaniasis - which kills roughly one million people annually - is especially prevalent in South America, India and Africa. Last year, the World Health Organization funded Matlashewski's research on a new vaccine for the disease.

Not only has he spent years working on this cure, but many hours training the next generation of research scientists. "These students," he says, "are the ones who will have to take care of the rest of us." Each fall, Matlashewski and his colleagues welcome an elite group of 25 fourth-year students into their infectious-disease labs. Anne Chessler, who graduated from McGill last year, did her honours project in Matlashewski's lab. Says Chessler: "It was a great opportunity to learn techniques, to learn how you can succeed as a scientist. Greg's lab is full of very gifted researchers - a post-doc fellow from Scotland, two research associates from India and China, lots of people who are where I want to be in five or 10 years. And of course, Greg has made some pretty amazing progress in developing a potential vaccine for the disease."

This year, Chessler was accepted into the highly respected Harvard School of Public Health, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in immunology and infectious diseases. "There are certain things that aren't well funded at McGill," says the Washington-born student. "The library system is pretty horrible. But the opportunity to do lab research in undergrad is pretty much an essential if you want to get into one of the more competitive programs."

Ask many people what was important about their university years and they'll likely mention one person - a mentor, a guide, someone who recognized a gift that could evolve into much, much more. This is the sort of experience that Chessler has had with Matlashewski, that Bolduc is having in Buddle's lab. Ask Buddle where he developed an interest in spiders, and he'll tell you about a wet afternoon working on an ecology project at Guelph. "My professor, Dr. Larson, asked me to hang off a few cliff faces to look at old cedar trees, and I said, 'Holy cow, look at all those spiders!' " The rest is history.

"What is this amorphous thing we call quality?" asks Sheldon Levy, a vice-president at the University of Toronto. "Well, I can tell you when you know you 'don't got it' - when you have too many students per faculty." Levy remembers being in his fourth year at York, in a class of five in linear algebra, and the professor saying: "Sheldon, you have the gift in mathematics." Says Levy: "I think most people are like me. They need encouragement and counsel and mentorship. No one ever overlooks the superstar. But what about all the others?"

If that's the definition of quality, many students would say, in Levy's parlance, they "don't got it." Michael O'Neill, a first-year student enrolled in international development at Guelph and winner of a prestigious Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation National Award, would agree. "In one class, there are 300 students filling an already cramped room to capacity," says the 19-year-old. "The prof takes very few questions and never opens up the floor to discussion. There is no room for critical analysis." So, what is working? "Speaking directly with my professors. It happens rarely, but it's usually inspiring. Unfortunately, the professors who make themselves available are always swamped with lineups."

There are many university presidents who would agree with O'Neill's assessment of the situation - but not on the record. They'll say: we're doing the best we can. Our enrolment numbers are up, and faculty hiring hasn't kept pace. Off the record? Says one: "We've done everything we could to whitewash this thing, that we are maintaining quality - and that's a bunch of crap."

Let's face it: those lineups that O'Neill is part of are going to continue for a long, long time, as he and his peers head to grad school, medical school, law school - and their younger brothers and sisters follow behind them. "What are we going to tell them, that there's no room?" asks Paul Davenport, president of University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. "We can't tell these students the doors are closed." Next fall, Queen's will take the same number of first-year students that it did this year. In 2005, it will decrease its intake by 250, increasing on the graduate side. Meanwhile, at the University of Toronto, the two suburban campuses will maintain their size, while the downtown St. George campus reduces its first-year intake. Others are making similar decisions.

Which raises the question: are there good long-term plans to deal with the demand for enrolment growth? "No," says Calgary's Weingarten. "We're scrambling. And the reality is that we have more and more students each year who are qualified, for whom there is no room - and not just facilities, but faculty." He pauses. "Let me express a little sympathy for government. I don't think they anticipated this kind of growth. It's a wonderful headache to have - but it's a headache nonetheless."

A headache that could have - and should have - been anticipated. For some time, Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and chair of the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity, has been warning that Canada is already lagging behind its major competitors in terms of university participation. At a World Economic Forum in Switzerland this year, Martin presented the following findings: when it comes to earning B.A.s, Canadians are almost on par with Americans, on a per-capita basis. But past that level? Canadians earn fewer than half as many graduate degrees. In fact, Martin says that Canada's under-investment in higher education accounts for fully one-quarter of the prosperity gap with the United States. "Somehow, we decided to dramatically under-invest versus the U.S.," says Martin. "Canadians tend to have a superior attitude about our education. We have to snap out of it and recognize we're behind. Post-secondary education is the highest-paying investment there is."

The AUCC's O'Heron couldn't agree more. He points out that by limiting the opportunities for qualified students, Canada is circumscribing its own future prosperity. As it stands, the 15 per cent of Canadians over 18 who have university degrees contribute 35 per cent of the taxes in this country. "It's wrong, economically, socially and morally, to exclude large groups of students from the opportunity that education affords," says O'Heron. "How ridiculous is it that students with high averages are not even getting a sniff from universities? They're going back to high school to get higher grades so they can better their chances, taking teachers' time from students who need them. Now, how inefficient is that?"

If there is going to be reinvestment, where are the funds coming from? Increasingly, students are worried that funding will come directly out of their pockets, in tuition hikes. In British Columbia, universities have raised their fees for the typical undergrad by 62 per cent since the province lifted its six-year freeze in 2002. Last month, Alberta students - fearing their province might follow suit and lift the cap on tuition - held a province-wide day of protest. There is no doubt that universities, in the absence of any significant growth in operating funds, have become more dependent on tuition revenue. As Tom Traves, president of Dalhousie University in Halifax, says: "We're not counting on a huge infusion of government funds. That would require a major change in attitude."

Last month, AUCC made a pitch for that attitudinal change. In a presentation to the federal government, AUCC proposed the creation of a new transfer payment called the Higher Education Renewal Fund. Similar to the Health Care Renewal Fund, it would be used to reinvest in faculty, staff and technology - offering the same sort of significant support on the teaching side that has been given to research. The hope is that the influence of the two Martins - Roger, with his prosperity agenda, plus the soon-to-be prime minister, with his education agenda - might improve the odds of the fund becoming reality.

Just dreaming in Technicolour? Perhaps. But one way or another, push is bound to come to shove - and the pressure for change just may come from those well-educated students of a previous generation, namely the baby-boom parents. This year at Guelph, 99 per cent of all first-year students were registered in their courses before the first day of classes - and the most frequent users of the help line were parents. "Compared with five years ago," says Brady at Queen's, "there's a big difference in terms of parental involvement. There's a kind of proprietary attitude to the whole university experience."

And little wonder: the whole university experience - with all its richness, opportunity and promise - is what those baby-boom parents remember. Small classes, connection with profs, a sense of engagement. And whether you call it seizing the past or claiming the future, it's what they all want for their own sons and daughters.


The surge in applications this year boosted entry grades in several regions of the country. Here is a sampling of some of the higher cut-off marks for general arts and science programs, plus a variety of competitive offerings - many of which require supplementary applications or assessment profiles. The cut-off is the lowest grade average of any student admitted, barring extenuating circumstances.


Arts, 82%

Science, 87%

Commerce, 89.5%


Arts, 80%

Science, 80%

Computing Science, 88%


Arts, 81%

Science, 81%


Arts, 82%

Science, 83%

Marketing Management (Co-op) 90%

TORONTO (St. George campus)

Humanities/Social Sciences, 81%

Science, 86%

Applied Science and Engineering, 80%


Arts, 83%

Science, 86%

Engineering, 82%

Commerce, 88%


Arts, 87.5%*, 85%**

Science, 89%*, 82%**

Commerce, 89%*, 85%**

Electrical, computer and software engineering, 92%*, 90%*


Arts, 75%

Science, 78%

Computer Science, 80%

*Cut-off for Ontario students

** Cut-off for students in the rest of Canada, excluding Quebec where students are admitted using R scores

Maclean's November 17, 2003