University Education in Crisis

Years and years ago, long before they invented e-mail or notebook computers, way before parents began panicking about student-faculty ratios or the double cohort, I packed up my favourite books and my brand new miniskirts and headed off for a four-year stint at QUEEN'S UNIVERSITY.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 10, 2002

University Education in Crisis

Years and years ago, long before they invented e-mail or notebook computers, way before parents began panicking about student-faculty ratios or the double cohort, I packed up my favourite books and my brand new miniskirts and headed off for a four-year stint at QUEEN'S UNIVERSITY. Like most of my friends who joined me, I had never laid eyes on Queen's, let alone Kingston, Ont. Collectively, we may have spent hours debating the War Measures Act, Leonard Cohen's musical gifts and the relative merits of reading Women in Love. But UNIVERSITY choice? There was virtually no discussion.

Sure, we all had our quirky reasons for putting Queen's on our short list. One friend wanted to be near the lake. Another wanted to be near a certain boy. My reason seemed a bit schmaltzy, so I kept it to myself: my grandparents had fallen in love at Queen's just after the First World War, and my grandmother still looked forward to her annual homecoming reunion - even though her classmates were dying at an appalling rate. But when you got right down to it, our decision was not complicated: we all had good marks. Queen's had a good reputation. And it was just far enough from home to make us feel like we had gone somewhere.

Of course, not everyone made their choice so breezily. Certainly not my sister, a person who wanted to be a dog until the age of 3 and then, acknowledging the genetic impediments, vowed to become a "dog doctor." Needless to say, she knew where she was heading from an early age: vet medicine at the UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH. That's where you'll find her today, a specialist in epidemiology teaching swine health management. (OK, she was wrong about the dog part. Still, she assures me that pigs do wag their tails.)

But for the majority of us in the late '60s and early '70s, the path to the future was a little less obvious. For us, choosing a university was a bit like playing musical chairs: SIMON FRASER? TRENT? TORONTO? MCGILL? It didn't much matter. As long as you got a seat you were happy, and most everybody did. We wanted a liberal arts education, and what we got was liberal indeed. Plenty of faculty, plenty of choice. Seminars that were small and vibrant. Professors who were fresh and dedicated.

Whether goosed into action by Sputnik and the Cold War, or by the genuinely altruistic motivation to educate a record number of young people, the federal government and the provinces showed true leadership, making an enormous investment in higher education. Sure, times were different: governments were in a surplus position; there was low unemployment and high growth; and health care had yet to become a huge drain on the public purse. Still, let's give credit where credit's due: together, the federal government and the provinces showed vision, and we, the baby boomers, were the beneficiaries. If our parents stayed up late worrying about us, it had less to do with what happened in the classroom than beyond. Access to faculty? That wasn't even on the radar screen. Access to the pill? That was more like it. And whether Mr. Lee, the amiable fellow who guarded the front door at our all-girl residence, was really doing his job.

So how did we get from there to here? How did it happen that we "forgot" to provide the babies of the baby boom with the same sort of access, and access to quality? Why is it that while my generation was spoiled with a student-faculty ratio of 23-to-one, theirs deserves no better than 39-to-one, and growing? And why has there been a 38-per-cent funding gap between Canadian and American investment in public universities in the past decade?

Who dropped the leadership ball on this one? And who, in heaven's name, is going to have the wisdom and temerity to pick it up? That's a tough question. Let's face it: post-secondary education hasn't a hope in Hades of making it to the top of the funding agenda in the forseeable future. You'd do better placing your money on K-12. But the reality is, health has stolen all the thunder. Sure, the federal government deserves several gold stars for its recent initiatives - the Canada Research Chairs program, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the funding of indirect research costs, to name a few. But ultimately, the responsibility sits with the provinces, and not one has had the foresight to prepare for this, the biggest class in Canadian history.

Real preparation demands a significant boost to operating funds: money to maintain and hire faculty, equip labs, resource libraries, pay for heat and lighting. But in recent years, per-student funding has amounted to chump change. Let's do the math: in 1977, funding averaged $13,400 per student; in 1990, $10,500. Today? An embarrassing $8,350. Just enough, as one registrar says, to keep the wheels from falling off the bus. Sort of.

Call it a policy vacuum. And what makes matters worse is: we're flubbing it just as we've succeeded on a number of important educational fronts. Take the high school dropout rate, which has declined from 18 per cent in 1991 to the current 12 per cent. Or the fact that two-thirds of those graduating from high school say they want a university degree. Juxtapose that good news with the fact that only 18 per cent of those between 18 and 21 end up enrolling in university - and Canadian universities are currently full to the rafters. Meanwhile, Korea has close to 30 per cent of its 18-to-21-year-olds enrolled; the United States, France, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand all sit between 22 and 25 per cent.

And without some urgent intervention, things will only get worse. Over the next 10 years, Canada is expecting a growth of 200,000 students in its university system, a system that currently accommodates 625,000. Are we going to make room for them? It sure doesn't look like it.

In Ontario, home to 39 per cent of Canadian students, panic has reached a fever pitch. Next year, the province will eliminate its fifth year of high school, producing a double class of high-school grads - the infamous double cohort. What Ontario didn't anticipate was a growth of more than 16 per cent in applications this year - fuelled to a great extent by fast-tracking students playing beat the clock. But it was also stoked by a higher participation rate: in a knowledge economy, an enormous proportion of the babies of the well-educated baby boom want to go to university.

Clearly, this is a different game of musical chairs than my generation played, one where certain qualified students get seats, and other qualified ones do not. And the game is by no means restricted to Ontario. This year, more than 20,000 students have applied for fewer than 5,000 first-year places at McGill. Students are in an especially difficult position in British Columbia, the province with the lowest number of university spaces per capita. In fact, were it to match Ontario's rate, B.C. would have to almost double its spots, adding 55,000 to its current 65,000. Little wonder, then, that entrance marks have been ratcheting up at an alarming rate, and will continue to do so as the pool of bright students grows through 2015. This year, 11,531 students competed for 1,516 first-year spots at the UNIVERSITY OF VICTORIA. "You can't get in unless you have marks over 81 or 82," says David Turpin, president of the University of Victoria. "People with 75 per cent aren't even bothering to apply. What message are we sending them?" And, what kind of country will Canada become if those with 75 per cent and under opt out of the university experience?

As Canadians, we have high expectations of our universities. But in recent years, planning for education has become something of an oxymoron. The ability to look ahead is critical to institutional, national and even international success. Just ask Shirley Tilghman, one of those baby-boom alumni from Queen's, now president of Princeton, where the student-faculty ratio is less than six-to-one. She will tell you that her university has tremendous stability, and capacity to plan 10 years into the future. No kidding: as she says, Princeton, with an endowment of $8 billion, depends "in no meaningful way on state support."

But what becomes of Canadian universities, public institutions that must depend heavily on state support? Institutions that must obey political masters who rarely set their sights past the next election? Take my alma mater, and Tilghman's, a university that received 26,000 applications for 3,100 first-year spots this year. In the past five years, Queen's has boosted its undergraduate enrolment by 1,700. Its capacity to grow, and maintain quality, with current funding is zilch. "If we put one more student in here," says registrar Jo-Anne Brady, "the bubble is going to burst."

This year, Queen's asked the province for permission to raise tuition by 10 per cent in each of the next four years. In return, it planned to hire faculty and staff, reduce the student-faculty ratio, boost financial aid and improve the learning environment. The province said no. This spring, Ontario universities are expecting no increase for core operating funds. In other words, a disaster, especially after the deep cuts of the 1990s. Once again, there will be reductions in labs, in course offerings, in faculty, in library resources, and so on.

For that reason, it was especially poignant when Tilghman, accepting an honorary degree in Kingston last week, thanked Queen's for "the gift of discovery." Specifically, the renowned molecular biologist cited an opportunity in second-year chemistry, one where she was invited to take part in a research lab. "It was here ... that I first experienced the intoxication of discovering something entirely new about the natural world," she said, "an experience that launched me on what has been a joyful career as a scientist."

Obviously, that sort of experience may go the way of the dodo bird. "The government still believes that we can find increased efficiencies, but we are already exceptionally efficient," says Bob Birgeneau, president of the University of Toronto. "The student-faculty ratio will get worse each year. It's straight arithmetic." And losing strong faculty is especially painful. "Inflation is eating us alive," says Queen's principal Bill Leggett. "We're caught in an increasingly competitive market. We've got really good people, everybody wants them - and others can afford to pay."

Which raises the question: when does a university cease to be an effective place of learning? There is much talk about efficiency, but what about effectiveness? After B.C. deregulated tuition this year, and UBC announced major fee hikes, the university circulated a campus-wide questionnaire asking students where they would most like to see the new funds spent. What were the undergrad's top priorities in the learning environment? No surprise: increased course offerings, followed by smaller classes.

In fact, students are now so aware of the compromises in quality that many say they would be willing to see tuition increase if the learning environment improved. Sure, student leaders can cite the large number of countries that offer free tuition - countries such as France, Sweden, Ireland, Finland, Germany. And sure, raising tuition still looks like price gouging to them, a case of the government shirking its duties. But as Mark Schaan, a recent political science grad from the UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO, heading to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar this fall, says: "It's a nasty Faustian bargain. I'm a huge advocate of student accessibility, but the possible deregulation of programs looks incredibly tempting if it means that you can infuse the system with cash. This year, there were huge cuts in geography at Waterloo - 11 courses in total. As much as I hate to talk about education in consumer terms, students are now incredibly aware of whether a program is all that it's cracked up to be."

And so they should be. The current slow-motion drift to mediocrity is hurting us all. Isn't it obvious that all Canadians would benefit if there were fewer barriers to access, and quality? Isn't it time we insisted that political leaders look beyond their mandates, and embark on long-range planning that incorporates a more elaborate system of cost-sharing? And isn't it time we stopped arguing whether a university education is a private good or a public one? Surely, it's both.

If my generation of well-educated baby-boom parents has any guts, we'll take responsibility for jump-starting this national dialogue. It's not so hard to believe, if you've spent an evening shoehorned into one of the many angry public meetings taking place across this country, meetings of parents anxiously trying to figure out how it all went so badly wrong. Parents desperate to figure out how it could be made right again, for the sake of our children - and our collective future.

Maclean's June 10, 2002