Columns

Is Harris listening?

Ann Dowsett Johnston May 15 2000
Columns

Is Harris listening?

Ann Dowsett Johnston May 15 2000

Is Harris listening?

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Far be it from me to give Mike Harris a gold star for his efforts in education. For years now, Nasty Mike has been no friend to teachers, no friend to students and certainly no friend to parents. All have weathered tough times under the Ontario Conservatives: school strikes, closures, cutbacks and more. Seasoned, if somewhat scarred, baby boom parents have trusted that there was light at the end of the tunnel—soon, their children would be safely ensconced in university, a system they could trust. Right?

Well, not quite. Despite repeated warnings from the university sector, Ontario has failed to make proper provisions for the echo boom, an anticipated 40-per-cent growth in university demand over the next decade. After years of cuts, faculty numbers are down, classes are crowded, labs are tired. With quality already compromised, universities are justifiably unwilling to accept a larger crowd without a decent boost in funding.

Now, parents are confronting the tough reality that the privilege of their generation— generous access—may not be shared by their children. Late last month, more than 200 parents crowded into a North Toronto school for a so-called information night. When it became clear that the only real news was of the people-are-working-on-the-problem sort, the crowd erupted. “This is so typical of the Harris government!” sneered one father.

“They cut, and we have to solve the problem.”

In late April, the Harris government made a stab at solving part of the problem by increasing the range of choices for students. First, it announced that colleges would be granted the right to award applied degrees: an excellent decision. Second, the province would allow private universities to set up shop, as long as they passed the test of a new Quality Assessment Board. Citing the “considerable” numbers of students headed to U.S. universities, Harris welcomed the notion of keeping those students home. But let’s get one thing straight, most are attracted by elite schools: universities such as Princeton with an endowment of more than $ 1 million per student, universities that took generations to foster, with enviable private and public investment.

Those who expect to attend Harvard North are dreaming in Technicolour. Yes, Harris has let the genie out of the bottle, and for some, wishes may come true. Since 1996, representatives from the University of Phoenix, North America’s largest for-profit university, have made more than 40 pilgrimages to Toronto to court the Harris government. Now, it looks as if

they may get the green light. Still, Utah-based vice-president Craig Swenson is discouraged: “I’m frustrated that we have to go through another approval process.”

Overall, the private university option represents only a small release valve for the mounting pressure on access: an opportunity to serve mature students, or those interested in a handful of elite job-oriented programs. Expect high price tags. And yes, expect some private spinoffs from public universities, offering such sought-after programs as education, as a means to boost their depleted coffers. Now that’s ironic.

But for smart university leaders, the private university announcement was small potatoes. They saved their thunder for the big-ticket event: last week’s provincial budget. And lo and behold, there was significant, if not sufficient, movement.

How should parents parse the Ontario budget? First, the government slapped more money on the table for capital spending, boosting their SuperBuild initiative to $1 billion. Read: meaningful investment in new facilities. Second, while making no direct allowances for faculty renewal, there were strong initiatives aimed at keeping bright young thinkers happy, and home. The Premier’s Research Excellence Awards were doubled, offering $ 100 million in research support for strong young faculty. The Ontario Graduate Scholarships were boosted by 50 per cent. The Ontario Innovation Trust, aimed at leveraging federal dollars, tripled to $750 million. This was creative investment.

Most impressive was the establishment of a new $30million fund to support overhead costs of research. Why, you ask, does this matter to undergrads? Every dollar of direct research funding brings indirect costs for labs, libraries, technical services and more—costs that are borne on the backs of students and the host university. The invisible hand in much of this intelligent work belongs to Heather Munroe-Blum, vice-president, research, at the University of Toronto, who penned this year’s seminal report “Growing Ontario’s Innovation System.” By adopting many of her recommendations, the province has seeded the path for future excellence. Her paper airplane clearly hit home.

Does Harris deserve a gold star? Not yet, not until he antes up critical operating dollars. But for the first time in ages, there is hope on the horizon. All I can say is: keep at it, Mr. Harris. For a whole generation, the clock is ticking.