Education

A student stampede

Ontario’s universities are bracing for an onslaught

JOHN SCHOFIELD April 19 1999
Education

A student stampede

Ontario’s universities are bracing for an onslaught

JOHN SCHOFIELD April 19 1999

A student stampede

Education

The Wilton girls are a civilized pair. Born only 15 months apart, Kelly, 15, and Katy, 13, have co-existed in relative peace, despite the hand-me-downs, the toys to share and the occasional bouts of bossiness. But for the two sisters from Rockwood, Ont., sibling rivalry may be about to rear its ugly head. Ontario, the only province to extend high school beyond Grade 12, is abolishing the fifth year of high school as of 2003. Next fall, Katy and her fellow Grade 9ers will face a tough new high-school curriculum that compresses Ontario’s traditional five-year diploma into four years. Kelly, who is already in Grade 9, will continue through to Grade 13, in the less demanding, five-year program. In 2003, Katy and Kelly will finish school at the same time, and the two will go head-to-head for a place in college or university. The combined graduating class, or so-called double cohort, threatens to flood the province’s postsecondary system, unleashing a mad scramble for spaces. And while Katy concedes that the predicament is unlikely to spark a family feud, she believes it could make her chosen career of nursing more difficult to pur-

sue. “I don’t think I’ll feel competitive with my sister because she’s already smarter than me,” says Katy. “But I’ll be graduating with more kids, and I’ll have to compete harder to get into university.”

As they brace for the largest onslaught of students since the 1960s, Ontario’s 17 universities are warning that thousands could be turned away if the province fails to boost postsecondary funding—currently the lowest per-capita level in Canada. By 2003, an additional 33,500 Ontario students are expected to be knocking on university doors. Add to that the overall rise in the number of 18to 24-year-olds, growing participation rates and legions of workers returning to school, and total enrolment in Ontario could rise by as many as 90,000 students, or almost 40 per cent in the next 10 years. To avoid a crisis, the Council of Ontario Universities is looking for a serious infusion of additional funding, beginning next year: by 2005, it estimates it will need another $1.8 billion annually, on top of the $1.6 billion it receives now. The extra money includes the cost of hiring at least 11,000 more professors to keep pace with

enrolment, replacing the increasing number of retirees, and reducing the studentfaculty ratio to the average in the rest of the country—from 20:1 to 16:1. “Most of us have children who will be affected by this,” says Robert Prichard, chair of the council and president of the University of Toronto. “This is a major, major issue facing Ontario.”

Ontario is not alone. The impact of the socalled echo boom, the wave of children born to baby boom generation parents, is expected to strain the nation’s university system, especially in such provinces as Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec. But the burden on Ontario’s system, made worse by the move to a fouryear high-school program, could have a ripple effect across Canada. Ontarians, shut out of postsecondary schools in their own province, could add to the load on universities in other regions, and students in the rest of Canada could find it harder to study in the country’s largest province. Ontario hosts the highest number of out-of-province students—about 17,000 fulland part-time students, and the number is rising. Parents in other parts of Canada are concerned that the double cohort could eliminate Ontario as an option for their children. “As someone coming from the West Coast, I would like my kids to have the opportunity to choose to leave the province,” says Kathleen Glynn-Morris, a 46-year-old Vancouver parent with a son in Grade 9, another enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and a daughter heading there this fall. “I just think it’s a very broadening experience.”

The Ontario government has considered cutting the fifth year of high school since the mid-1970s. In 1984, it established the Ontario Academic Credits, which allows students the option of fast-tracking, com-

Ontario’s universities are bracing for an onslaught

pleting high school in four years by achieving the mandatory six OACs. In 1995, the government announced plans for a fouryear program, but delayed. This time, the provincial Tories, who cut $400 million from university operating grants in their first two years, insist they are serious— and that there will be a place for all qualified students.

Still, worried parents are peppering principals with questions about how their children can beat the rush. Some schools, such as Toronto’s tony Upper Canada College, a private boys school, have already restructured their high-school programs to enable the current Grade 9 class to graduate in 2002, a year ahead of their peers. But at John F. Ross Collegiate Vocational Institute in Guelph, Ont., principal Eric Holmes is telling parents not to panic. Even under the new curriculum, students will not be forced to finish in four years, he points out. While four years of high school is de rigueur throughout most of North America, Holmes argues that not all students are ready for university by 17 or 18. “You really could be depriving your child of something important, which is time to grow,” says Holmes. “Fourteen, 15, 16, 17—those are difficult years, and to rush through high school is not necessarily the best thing.”

Still, there is no stopping the stampede, and university administrators are frantically searching for ways to adjust. Prichard says that may involve more innovative and expanded use of technology—boosting accessibility through distance education programs. At Queen’s, a special 10-member task force began meeting in February, but has yet to come up with any solid answers. A working group is also tackling the problem at the University of Guelph, which has cut its faculty by 20 per cent over the past four years. Ken Grant, Guelph’s director of institutional planning, says the university may not know how many students it can handle until early next year. ‘We’ve gone through incredible downsizing, and now we’re being asked to up-size,” says Grant. ‘We want to remain a quality institution, and turning the tap on without regard to quality is unacceptable.”

Other university leaders, however, are welcoming the influx with open arms. At Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., where enrolment has dropped by 23 per cent in the past three years, the double cohort is seen as a saviour. “I’m in quite a different predicament from most of my colleagues,” says Laurentian president Jean Watters. We’ll be ready for it.” Parents and students can only hope the rest of the province will be equally prepared.

JOHN SCHOFIELD