Early next June, some 65 students at Ottawa’s St. Patrick’s College will don black academic robes and mortarboards and march in solemn procession across Carleton University’s campus. As beaming parents watch, they will listen to a brief and simple benediction before receiving degrees in subjects that range from criminology to the liberal arts. The same ceremony will be enacted at each of Canada’s 66 universities. But at St. Patrick’s, after 47 years, it will be the last time. St. Pat’s is folding, the first—but not the lastvictim of a sharp drop in enrolments that has university administrators and professors across the country fearful for their jobs.
The business of post-secondary education, Canada’s most buoyant industry 10 years ago, is slowly sinking. There are not enough kids to fill the classrooms and there is a growing realization that a good education no longer guarantees a good job. For the beleaguered universities, there seems to be no remedy in sight.
It has to do with numbers. Just after the Second World War, a huge but temporary surge in Canada’s birthrate— the post-war baby boom—began to sweep in turn through the elementary, ä secondary and post-secondary schools, o forcing the education system to expand ï immensely. But the crest of that wave
has now passed, and it has left schools stranded with too much space, too many teachers and too few students.
Elementary and secondary schools have been struggling with the problem for five years. Now universities face it. Every province in Canada recorded a drop in full-time university enrolments this year except for Quebec, where universities have expanded more slowly.
Ontario is typical. In 1961, when its universities were asked to estimate enrolments for the following decade, the prediction was for 58,000 students in 1971. In fact, there were 134,000, and that number grew to 162,000 in 1976. By comparison, this year 155,000 full-time students signed up for classes.
The crisis for universities lies not just in having fewer students but in having less money. Universities are almost totally dependent on government grants—and the grants depend on enrolment. Each first-year arts student is worth an average of $2,656, and the competition for bodies is becoming so fierce that the Council of Ontario Universities, for instance, found it prudent this year to issue guidelines banning “inappropriate forms of student recruitment.” That means no telephone campaigns to solicit students, no wining and dining campus visits, no high-powered advertising. But the rules may be hard to enforce. The financial burden of
declining enrolments is not evenly shared: smaller schools suffer more than large ones, and while students are deserting the liberal arts in droves, the professional faculties—medicine, business, engineering—have more applicants than they can accommodate.
There is a second aspect to the universities’ dilemma; education has traditionally been regarded as the way to get a good job, but many students now see that as no longer always valid. Says Dr. David Brown, director of planning analysis and statistics for Carleton University: “Students seem to be disillusioned with university education. They’re avoiding the faculties of arts and sciences and are more interested in the vocational areas, because they think that’s where there will be jobs.”
As Canada’s 362,112 full-time university students prepare for year-end exams, getting a proper job has become the major campus preoccupation—and with good reason. “It’s simple mathematics,” says Brian Slocum, a recently graduated lawyer now articling with a Toronto firm. “There are 12,000 lawyers in Ontario and 1,000 new graduates every year. If every new lawyer is going to get a job, it means every practising lawyer will have to be replaced within 12 years. That isn’t going to happen. Some of the people I went to school with
aren’t going to get jobs.” And that conclusion applies to almost every academic discipline: there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. Statistics Canada estimates that by 1986 there
will be 508,000 new graduates looking for work with only 155,000 high-skill jobs available.
If the job squeeze is turning students off the liberal arts, it is turning them on
to technical and vocational courses. More than one-third of all post-secondary students are now “techies.” Community colleges are booming. Many have waiting lists, and a few brag that they reject three applicants for every one accepted. Again, Ontario is typical. Nearly every university in the province showed a decline in enrolment this year but every community college reported an increase. Says Claude Thibault, executive director of the Canadian Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada: “It seems there is a market for technical skills; there does not appear to be a similar market for intellectual skills.”
The plight of the universities is likely to get worse. The drop in enrolment has been slight so far—about 4.5 per cent over-all—but AUCC predicts it will go down steadily through the 1980s. “Within 10 or 15 years,” says Thibault, “we éxpect enrolments will decline between 20 and 30 per cent.”
Caught between falling enrolments and increasing costs, Canada’s universities are looking hard for ways to raise money—without notable success. The University of Toronto, for example, is planning a corporation to peddle the inventions dreamed up by its professors. More traditional methods of raising money, like alumni fund drives, will provide only a fraction of the amounts needed. Cost-cutting measures are difficult to implement. About 40 per cent of a university’s operating funds go for salaries, but unions and tenure—a system of no-cut contracts for professors— make it difficult to fire unneeded staff.
One source of income now being exploited by the universities is the boom in “continuing education”—part-time studies for adults. Carleton University already has almost as many part-time students as full-time, as does Toronto’s York University. Another possibility: a switch to more technical courses. But those measures are at best palliatives. Eventually, university programs will have to be cut substantially—even if that means firing some professors. Says Carleton’s David Brown: “We’ve been trying to reduce costs without losing the quality programs. But within the next two or three years, some programs will have to be changed drastically. Or perhaps even discarded.”
There is one small sign of hope. Demographers predict that around 1990 the birth rate will increase again. That will refill schools—but not universities, at least not before the end of the century. Until then, dismantling sections of the university system will continue. Inevitably, more colleges like St. Patrick’s will close. William Dampier
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