The Back Page

A lament for quality

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON May 6 2002
The Back Page

A lament for quality

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON May 6 2002

A lament for quality

The Back Page

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON

It was prom night in my neck of the woods recently, and as far as I can tell, the evening unfolded pretty much according to script. The girls were shiny and beautiful, the boys tuxed and handsome. As always, a certain handful seemed hell-bent on redefining the word fun, and just about everyone broke curfew. But the morning after, when a group of mothers headed off on a Sunday walk, the topic of curfews was pretty low on the totem pole. No, the hot-button issue was the same as it had been the week before, and the week before that as well. Namely, where was this fresh-faced group heading in September? Which university was the best bet?

(Read: the least crowded.) One mother was notably silent, the one whose son is headed to the States. But for the rest, the debate was hot. If Ontario universities were going to be filled to the rafters, what was wrong with a geographical cure? Surely it was less crowded at UBC? McGill? Surely you could outfox the system by heading elsewhere? Right?

Actually, wrong. Ifs a heck of a question, but the simple answer is no. Why? Because no province in Canada has made higher education a high priority. What we have is a series of petrie dish experiments in public policy. Some better than others, but overall, nothing to write home about. Despite all the evidence that history has repeated itself, with the baby boom generation producing a decent number of babies themselves, and even though this is a knowledge economy in which brains are the prime commodity by which we compete, the ugly truth is this: somehow we forgot to make the proper reinvestments in higher education. Sure, there have been some interesting federal initiatives, especially those targeted at research. But let’s be honest: in the battle for public dollars, health has stolen all the thunder. As Stéphane Dion once said, “Popular pressure is on health because people die in hospitals and they do not die in universities—except at times from boredom.” Well, sure. But doesn’t the future health of Canada depend on a well-educated public? Shouldn’t we have done a better job in getting ready for the biggest class ever? Did it not strike anyone as odd that while the Americans boosted their investment in public universities by 30 per cent over the past 20 years, Canadians shrunk theirs by 20 per cent? Did no one notice that the Irish had followed suit? And the Koreans. And the French. And the Australians. I could go on.

When I headed to university in 1971, the student-faculty ratio was 23 to one. Today? Thirty-nine to one. And that gap will only widen. Canadian universities are expecting an additional 200,000 students over the next decade. Meanwhile, the

number of faculty is 10 per cent lower than what is was a decade ago. Yikes.

Now, in the best of all possible worlds, the federal government and the provinces would quit their squabbling and show true leadership, working together as their counterparts did in the 1960s. In a perfect world, they would use some of that $ 15-billion surplus to boost operating grants, giving Canadian universities the resources they need to renew faculty. They would shift the responsibility for setting tuition to the universities themselves (as British Columbia just did). And yes, tuition would rise (as it did at B.C. institutions, when a six-year freeze was lifted in February). Finally, all universities would earmark a significant portion of the new revenue for three purposes: increased financial aid, improvement of the learning environment, and better communication with the K-12 system, to ensure that access was preserved.

Yes, if you dreamed in technicolour, that’s what would happen. But let’s be realistic: at best, operating grants are going to stay right where they are. Which means that if the learning environment is going to improve, tuition must go up. And yes, the three other conditions must apply.

Now, some will say that I’m letting government off the hook. But last I looked, government wasn’t on the hook. As Canadians, we pride ourselves on university access. But isn’t it time we asked: access to what? If education is one generations debt to the next, how can we believe we are making good on that debt when course offerings are shrinking and multiplechoice exams are becoming increasingly common? Freezing tuition, or keeping it low, is not a cost-free policy for students investing upwards of four years on a mediocre experience.

If, as Arthur Koestier once suggested, humans were equipped with necks for the sole purpose of sticking them out, isn’t it time some of us put our necks to good use? Bill Leggett, the principal of Queen’s University, certainly should be commended for using his: recently, he asked Ontario to approve a proposal whereby the university would raise tuition in all regulated programs by 10 per cent in each of the next four years. By 2005, fees would amount to $5,900—less than the current tuition at Acadia. With the additional funds, the university was going to significandy boost student financial aid, upgrade the learning environment, and hire faculty and staff to reduce the student-faculty ratios in Arts and Science. The government said no. Now, instead of hiring 50 faculty in Arts and Science, the university is eliminating 22 faculty positions. Quality, once again, is about to be compromised. And this mother, for one, is shaking her head. E3