University Crunch for Double Cohort

IT'S 2:45 on a soggy September afternoon in downtown Toronto, and the cab driver is scratching his head. For five minutes straight, we've been stuck - smack dab - between two big yellow school buses: one dead ahead of us, one right behind, going nowhere fast. Now it's 2:50.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 18, 2002

University Crunch for Double Cohort

IT'S 2:45 on a soggy September afternoon in downtown Toronto, and the cab driver is scratching his head. For five minutes straight, we've been stuck - smack dab - between two big yellow school buses: one dead ahead of us, one right behind, going nowhere fast. Now it's 2:50. The meter's still clicking, and we've barely budged. "What can I say?" he shrugs, taking a swig of cold coffee. "It's Friday?"

OK, it's Friday. But this is bizarre. Up ahead, as far as the eye can see, is more of the same: bus after bus after bus, all snaking their way to the same single entrance, all packed to the brim with teenagers. "Don't know what the fuss is about," he grumbles, checking his comb-over in the rear-view mirror. "Must be a rock concert." He fiddles with a toothpick. "Brought two kids from Union Station an hour ago. Same damn thing. Sat here for 15 minutes. Never seen anything like it."

And you know, he was right - about the bus part, anyhow. Here they were, like a prophecy come true: bus after bus full of teenagers. All roughly the same age, all spilling into the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, transforming it in a matter of hours into the World's Biggest High School. Gazillions of teenagers, making their determined way past the smokers at the entrance, past the lovers necking in the foyer, crowding down the escalators on a Friday afternoon.

What the driver wasn't right about, of course, was the rock concert part. Not even close.

No, what drew a record crowd to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in late September was something more serious. Here, right before our eyes, was the infamous double cohort, checking out their chances at the Ontario Universities' Fair. After years of government projections about this group, here was the much-discussed double class of Ontario high-school seniors, the ones crunched together as a result of the province's decision to eliminate the fifth year of high school next year. Here they were, lining up for loot bags, collecting their view-books, queuing earnestly for program and scholarship advice. Baby-faced boys in blazers and bigger ones baggy-panted and breakdancing; girls, pierced or prim, or bare-tummied in Abercrombie & Fitch: all were after the same thing. Namely, some expert guidance on playing musical chairs - the academic version, that is. Where would there be a seat available, a good seat that had their name on it, for September, 2003?

Help was what they were after, and help was at hand - lots of it. A Disneyland of choices: row upon row of brightly coloured info-booths, staffed by cheery uniformed reps, each wearing their university's colours, each prepped for the occasion. At one end of the fair, Queen's University had magically transported Kingston, Ont., to Toronto: here, blown up in living colour along one huge wall, was University Avenue, the academic main drag, replete with limestone buildings, lush boulevards and majestic trees. Poof, you were there. In front were real park benches for parents and students to rest on, a place to discuss the serious business of marks and scholarships and what it would take to get in. Meanwhile, in the centre of the fair, Nipissing was doing its level best to up its numbers. "Picture yourself at Nipissing!" blared its billboard, and kids were lining up to do just that: getting their photo taken against a backdrop of the North.

Still, for all the gloss and guidance and goodwill, there were many questions for which even the most seasoned registrar didn't have answers. Take George Granger, head of the maroon-vested McMaster team. "Hello," said a round teapot of a woman, sidling up with two gangly teenagers at her side. "My name is Ella, and we want to know what the process is to apply to engineering at McMaster? You know, so we have all our ducks in a row. What will the cut-off be, exactly?" Granger began diplomatically: "Well, it's pretty hard to predict what the cut-off will be next year." Ella looked miffed. "Well, don't you know? Isn't there someone who can tell me?"

ELLA'S QUESTION, of course, is the million-dollar one this year. What will the cut-off marks be for this record-sized crowd, heading to university in 2003? Where are the seats? The scholarships? The residence beds?

And while Ella and her sons are asking these questions, so too are hundreds of thousands of parents and students all across the country. Yes, the double cohort is an exceptionally urgent and compelling problem: Ontario is home to roughly 40 per cent of Canadian students. Just last month, the provincial government adjusted its earlier projections about the number of students heading to UNIVERSITY next fall. On top of the 61,284 they had already accounted for, they now expect there will be a further 6,300 to 12,600, depending on how many qualified students vote with their feet. This news - unsurprising after the 16-per-cent rise in applications for this September - has added a new layer of anxiety to an already difficult situation. While the government is making soothing noises about ensuring access to all "qualified and motivated" students, the obvious questions is: access to what?

Now, the easy answer might be: why don't they just take the geographical cure? Certainly there will be students who head out of province, and there are many schools wooing them. Particularly eager are the Atlantic universities. Last week, recruiters at the University of New Brunswick mailed 25,000 Web decoders to Ontario students, launching a contest for 10 prizes, the grand one being a year's free tuition.

So, they'll all find university spots in other provinces, right? They'll head west to UBC and east to Dal, and the problem will be solved? Wrong, and for a number of reasons. First of all, it's a financial challenge for many students to leave their home region. In the past 20 years, the student mobility rate in Canada has been extremely low, hovering between seven and eight per cent. Secondly, Ontario is only one of three provinces facing a huge demographic challenge when it comes to university-bound students. Both British Columbia and Alberta are also witnessing enormous growth, and will do so for a number of years.

In prosperous Alberta, where the demand for education is high, the government cancelled its Access Fund this spring, a program established in 1995 to foster targeted post-secondary growth. This year, the University of Calgary is cutting its budget by two per cent, and has decided to limit its undergraduate enrolment growth to 57 students next fall. Meanwhile, the University of Alberta is facing a similar tough decision. While deciding this spring to cut its budget by 4.4 per cent over the next four years, it increased its first-year intake by 11 per cent this fall. With a huge waiting list for residence space, the university is fast-tracking two 400-bed buildings. "We can't sustain this rate of growth," says Doug Owram, vice-president, academic. "We get no money for these students, beyond tuition. There is a reality here: in the past 11 years, we have added 5,000 students, and we have 100 fewer faculty. Either the government gives us funds or it will be harder to get into U of A next year."

Meanwhile, British Columbia - the province with the lowest number of university spaces per capita - is in an especially difficult position. To match Ontario's rate, it would have to almost double its university seats, adding 55,000 to its current 65,000. Entrance marks have been soaring in that province, and will continue to do so as the pool of bright students grows through 2015. UBC has declared that it will make only marginal increases, if any, to its incoming class next fall: in the past three years, it took a total of 2,995 unfunded undergraduates - meaning students for whom the university receives no government grant money.

If the geographical cure isn't plausible for most, neither is the gap-year solution. This is not a one-year problem. What has caught most of the number-crunchers off guard is the good - and challenging - news that university participation rates are on the rise, even in regions with declining population. Take Newfoundland: over the past four years, its population has dropped by nine per cent, but university enrolment is up by four. Similarly, Quebec: population, down four per cent; university participation, up 13.

The truth is, Canadians have absorbed the message that not going to university is costlier than attending: growth in undergraduate enrolment is now five times higher than the growth in population. Over the next 10 years, the country is expecting a further 200,000 students in a university system that currently accommodates 645,000. "People have to stop thinking about this as being demographically driven," says Herb O'Heron, senior analyst at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. "It's very, very simple: people want an education. Should we worry about building a system that's too big? Not when we have at least 10 years of growth ahead of us, folks!"

As our neighbours have said: "It's the economy, stupid." In a knowledge economy, where brains are the commodity on which we compete, access to a university education is seen as key to prosperity. Consider this: 15 per cent of Canadians - namely, those over 18 with university degrees - contribute a third of the taxes in this country. Between 1990 and 2001, 1.1 million jobs were created in Canada for those with a university education; in the same time frame, an equal number have disappeared for those who hadn't finished high school. Address the university capacity crisis - and the quality issues - and Canada wins all round.

BUT FOR THE BABIES of the well-educated baby boom, going to university means more than mere vocationalism. Students understand that this is a journey of a much different kind. Just ask Kyrke Gaudreau. At 19, the Montreal native freely admits that he hasn't a clue what he wants to do. OK, he has a clue, but his preference changes week to week. On the short list? Being a biophysics researcher studying cell membranes, or a civil engineering researcher building self-healing structures made out of living material. Or how about an archaeologist-anthropologist like Indiana Jones?

A multiple scholarship winner with a graduating average of 95 per cent, Gaudreau went shopping for the most interdisciplinary program he could find, considering Dalhousie, McGill, Queen's and UBC. The match was integrated sciences at UBC. "I was looking for a program that would let me put everything together as I wanted," says Gaudreau, who has launched into biophysics, cell biology, linguistics, philosophy and much more. Happily ensconced in the Totem Park residence, where the company is wonderful but "the food is awful and expensive," Gaudreau has already signed up for volunteer work on the Downtown Eastside. Even with $10,500 in scholarship money this year, and $3,500 saved over the summer, he's careful with his pennies: "I've matured a lot - I now know what food costs, and shampoo, stuff my mum used to look after." For the moment, he's savouring what he believes will be the first of eight or nine years at university, years that may include Caltech or MIT or Harvard. "I've been doing a lot of soul-searching," says Gaudreau. "When I know exactly what I want, I'll ask for help."

Unlike Gaudreau, Christy Brissette knows exactly what she wants. After earning a 95-per-cent average in her final year - and 99 in calculus - at Toronto's Etobicoke School of the Arts, the 19-year-old was offered a scholarship when she applied to health studies at the University of Toronto. But Brissette's dream is to act. "Everyone always said: 'You have great marks, you should be a doctor.' But I didn't want to settle for something that didn't make me happy. When I'm onstage, I know that this is what I was meant to do. It would make me sick if I didn't act."

After Brissette's father died a year ago, finances were a challenge. But when she learned that she had won the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation's National Excellence Award, worth $4,800 and renewable for three years, Brissette decided to follow her heart: "I wanted to be in a city, but close to nature. I wanted a school with high standards, an excellent breadth of programs and exciting opportunities. Most of all, I wanted an adventure." Now enrolled in first-year arts at UBC, where she also has a $2,500 entrance scholarship, she plans to audition for the bachelor of fine arts in acting program next year. For the moment, she has been cast in a production of Aristophanes' The Birds and has bought her $380 season's pass to Whistler - "definitely worth the splurge," she says, having just returned from an overnight stay at UBC's Whistler Lodge for the Ski and Board Club's Halloween party. "No one got more than a couple of hours of sleep!"

WHAT GAUDREAU and Brissette are experiencing is exactly what Amelia Purvis and almost all of her friends aspire to. And for that very reason, Purvis, 16, found the Ontario Universities' Fair "terrifying." With grades in the high 80s and low 90s, the Kingston student hopes to study biochemistry at "a prestigious science school" - McMaster, Guelph, U of T or McGill, her first step in becoming a cancer researcher, a dream since her dad died of the disease three years ago. "The McMaster booth really scared me because they said that the entrance for health science was 88 per cent, and it's just about as high for U of T as well. I was so overwhelmed that I started to cry." To make sure she keeps her high marks, Purvis has abandoned her volunteer work. In fact, she's given up just about everything except studying for her associate exam in highland dancing, and studying for school. "There was a big dance last week," she says wistfully, "and I stayed home. I felt like such a loser, but a lot of my friends are doing the same. If we get together, we study physics."

In Vancouver, Tegan Moss, 17, says she and her peers at Point Grey Secondary School in Vancouver are "under a ton of pressure. I'm managing the basketball team, and I'm on the grad committee. But it's a lot harder this year because marks are a big deal. It's pretty sad when kids with an 84-per-cent average are talking about not being able to go to university at all."

So let's cut to the chase: how real are their fears? What will the cut-off marks be next spring? As Amelia Purvis knows only too well, that depends: on where you want to go to university, what program you're applying to and - the billion-dollar question - how many others you're competing against. In British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario - the three provinces facing the major student growth - marks will definitely ratchet upwards as a larger pool applies.

Here's a snapshot of the competition that students faced at three universities this past spring: there were 11,531 students vying for 1,516 first-year spots at the University of Victoria; 16,757 applicants for 4,366 spots at the University of Alberta; 26,000 vying for 3,100 first-year places at Queen's. At McMaster, George Granger's enrolment targets were all filled by July 1. Any student who had been hoping to gain late admission by upping their marks at summer school was out of luck.

"There's no doubt that some of the gateways are narrowing," says Granger, whose team handed out more than 50,000 pieces of admissions information at the Ontario Universities' Fair and then ran out. "In my 23 years, I've never seen anything like it. My advice? Of all years, this is the one when getting good grades is of maximum importance. If you've been on two teams, move to one. This is just the way life is right now."

If this is a year that challenges parents and students, it's safe to say that even the most seasoned registrars are guessing as well. Take Jo-Anne Brady at Queen's. Her university, like every other in Ontario, has signed an agreement with the province to take a certain portion of the double cohort. It is her job - using art, science, gut instinct or all of the above - to make offers to the right students and make sure that they show up in just the right numbers next September. Her target: increasing the incoming class by 200 - no more, no less.

Given the heightened sense of competition, it's likely that every good student to whom Queen's makes an offer will have other good offers as well. What could throw Brady's numbers off are no-shows: students who accept Queen's and a university in a different province, such as McGill, and wait until summer to make a final choice. And there are other variables. How many out-of-province students will decide not to apply in Ontario because of the double cohort? "This year," she says, "there's more at stake, and it's cluttered with uncertainties. The pressure's really on."

At McGill, where more than 20,000 students applied for fewer than 5,000 first-year places this fall, registrar Robin Geller is keenly aware of the effect of the double cohort. While her university has made no specific plan to accommodate a specific proportion of that group, she acknowledges that the "Ontario part of our out-of-province pie" has grown disproportionately bigger over the past three years, and will continue to do so. Her conundrum is similar to Brady's. "Am I their first-choice school or their safety school? By the time you actually know, it's very late in the game."

One of Geller's challenges, and Brady's as well, will be a shortage of scholarships with which to woo the best and the brightest. Meanwhile, the number of major national scholarships has not significantly increased. Michael O'Neill has his heart set on winning the Canadian Merit Scholarship, the Canada Millennium Scholarship or the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Outstanding Community Leadership. Given his resumé, the 18-year-old student at Kingston Collegiate Vocational Institute has every right to hope: last year, he led his school's social justice group, raising $4,300 for Kingston's Low Income Needs Coalition. As well, he was nominated as a member of the Southeastern Ontario District Health Council, a regional group that advises the province on health-care planning. "It's going to be twice as hard to get a scholarship this year," says O'Neill, who is getting between 90 and 95 in all his courses. "In other years, my marks would be exceptional, but now there's pressure to get them even higher. I've pretty much dropped half of my community involvement."

Many like O'Neill, who are certain of getting the placement they want, have reservations about the opportunities ahead. Will they be part of a learning environment that will help them reach their full potential? Kathy Scheideman has spent a considerable amount of time helping her son Brad shop for the right school. At 18, he knows that he wants to head into medicine or dentistry. Her top concern: that her son, who will graduate with an average in the 90s and is a linebacker for the Vancouver College Fighting Irish team, finds the right environment in which to shine so that his grad opportunities are not compromised. Brad's football coach - who calls Harvard "Queen's of the South" - has recommended the Kingston school. The family has decided to visit U of T, McGill and Queen's in February. So far, Kathy Scheideman is leaning towards Queen's: "It's small, with a great science program, highly reputable medical and dental school, and it guarantees residence to first-year students. It seems promising from all that we've heard, other than the double cohort complication."

And by that she means: the strain on basic resources. Like many parents, Kathy Scheideman is right to be concerned - although the challenges facing Queen's are by no means unique. After the deep funding cuts of the 1990s, there isn't a university in this country that hasn't felt the crunch. Reductions in the number of labs, library resources, course offerings: these are commonplace. Perhaps the most serious cut is in faculty numbers: in 1990, there were 532,000 students enrolled in Canadian universities and 36,000 faculty to teach them. Last fall, there were a further 113,000 students in the system, but close to 2,000 faculty had disappeared. Student-faculty ratio? In 1971, it was 23-to-one. Today? Thirty-six-to-one, and rising. Over the next decade, universities will need to replace about 20,000 profs, thanks to retirement and attrition, and up to 20,000 new faculty to respond to the projected increase in enrolment - and the demand for quality.

Access is one thing. Access to quality is another, as Mark Winston's 19 students are learning after spending three months in his new Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue on Nature, Environment and Society at Simon Fraser University. More mentor than lecturer, Winston is helping a small group of students experience the benefit of an interactive forum in which they can foster the art of debate. Alec Smecher, now in his fifth year of a computing science degree, calls the course "a wonderful aberration. I've never been in a classroom with fewer than 45 people. Here, we take over the dialogue and use the atrophied muscles of our own voices. I've heard the same overwhelming sentiment from my classmates whenever they talk to Mark about returning to their programs: 'How can you possibly send us back?'"

And there's the problem. Winston's course is a wonderful aberration. So is the innovative Science One program at UBC, an interdisciplinary program that places 24 students in a class with four professors. This year, the co-founder of that program, Lee Gass, was named CCAE/CASE Professor of the Year. The much-celebrated UBC zoologist is a huge believer in what he calls active learning. "University isn't about 'give me the formula and I'll solve the physics problem,'" says Gass. "It's my responsibility to make sure people learn, and questioning is the motor of learning. Guests come into Science One and get their socks blown off by 17-year-olds who have pimples on their faces and ask questions that no one has the answer to. Get those students into a second-year lecture hall of 400, and you can't get the bastards to shut up."

Science One is a very expensive little program with great payoffs. Exactly the kind of learning environment that most students have never experienced, and are unlikely to in the near future, especially with current funding. In an interview with Maclean's last week, Dianne Cunningham, Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, said she was "tremendously optimistic" that there will, indeed, be enough places for students in the province next year, including those who weren't factored into the earlier projections. Said Cunningham: "If these 7,000 students come, the universities will still get full average funding. I quite honestly don't know what they're worried about."

What the universities are worried about, and parents should be too, is the ability to give those students the education they deserve. In constant dollars, the average funding per student in Ontario has been decreasing for many years, and with rising demand for new faculty, proper renewal cannot take place. Even with full average funding, classrooms will still be more crowded next fall. "Quality is our overriding concern," says Bill Leggett, principal of Queen's, "and there is nothing ethical about accepting students into a degree of diminished quality. We have a signed agreement on our contributions to taking the double cohort. All our planning for 3 ½ years has been based on the original projection, making sure we have the faculty in place. The implications of taking extra students are profound."

The truth is, you can crank out students at any price, but what do you get? Young people want an education, and Canada wants - no, needs - them to be well educated. This fall, with an increase of more than 40,000 students, Canadian universities experienced their biggest year-to-year enrolment increase ever. Next year's demand will be bigger still. If we're lucky, these babies of the baby boom generation will continue to flock to university fairs, will bang on the post-secondary door - and be welcomed into a rich learning environment. The promise of a good education is something these students have grown up with. Now is the time to deliver.

A Message in the Rankings

When you examine the shifts between the 1995 rankings and the current ones, there is both good news and bad. The good news: spending on scholarships has soared. The bad? Faculty numbers are down and - no surprise - so is the number of first-year classes taught by tenured faculty.

Scholarships and bursaries 141%

First-year students with 75% or higher 11%

Full-time faculty -3%

First-year classes taught by tenured faculty -5%

All figures represent the percentage change between the 1995 and 2002 surveys, reflecting data from the 1994-1995 and 2001-2002 academic years.

What Marks Did First-year Students Need This Fall?

Here is a sampling of cut-off marks for admission this fall, in both general arts and science as well as more competitive programs - many of which require supplementary applications or assessment profiles. The cut-off mark is the lowest grade average of any student admitted, barring extenuating circumstances.

British Columbia

The University of British Columbia (UBC)

Arts: 78%

Science: 85%

Commerce: 87%

Simon Fraser University

Arts: 75%

Science: 75%

Engineering: 84%

Computing Science: 88%

University of Victoria

Arts: 81%

Science: 81%

Engineering: 78%


University of Alberta

Arts: 70%

Science: 70%

Engineering: 80%

University of Calgary

Arts: 70%

Science: 70%

Business: 83%

Kinesiology: 83%


University of Saskatchewan

Arts: 67%

Science: 67%

Kinesiology: 79%


The University of Manitoba

University One: 63%

(Subsequent entry into a BA or B.Sc. program is based on grades obtained in University One; entrance requirements vary.)

Engineering: 85%


University of Guelph

Arts: 75%

Science: 80%

Microbiology: 90%

Laurentian University

Arts: 68%

Science: 68%

Human Kinetics: 75%

Sports Administration: 75%

McMaster University

Arts: 75%

Science: 81%

Health Sciences: 90%

Nipissing University

Arts: 70%

Science: 70%

Computing Science: 75%

Queen's University

Arts: 80%

Science: 83%

Engineering: 82%

Commerce: 87%

Ryerson University

Arts: 72%

Science: 72%

Journalism: 78%

University of Toronto (St. George campus)

Arts: 80%

Math and Physical Sciences: 80%

Life Sciences: 84%

Chemical Engineering: 83%

Engineering Science: 90%


Bishop's University

Arts: 73%

Science: 73%

Business: 75%

Concordia University

Arts: 65%

Science: 70%

Commerce: 75%

New Brunswick

University of New Brunswick

Arts: 70%

Science: 70%

Computer Science: 75%

Prince Edward Island

University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI)

Arts: 65%

Science: 65%

Nursing: 75%

Nova Scotia

Acadia University

Arts: 70%

Science: 70%

Kinesiology: 75%

Dalhousie University

Arts: 70%

Science: 70%

Engineering: 73%


Memorial University of Newfoundland

Arts: 70%

Science: 70%

Kinesiology: 90%

Maclean's November 18, 2002

Help students and educators this school year!

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