Cash-strapped universities are struggling to teach students how to adapt to an ever-changing world

MARY JANIGAN November 9 1992


Cash-strapped universities are struggling to teach students how to adapt to an ever-changing world

MARY JANIGAN November 9 1992


Cash-strapped universities are struggling to teach students how to adapt to an ever-changing world

In a different world, Toronto employers would surely find work for Philippe Frappier. Fluently bilingual, diligent and urbane, he graduated in May from Bishop’s University with a bachelor of arts degree. On his campus in Lennoxville, Que., he was a fraternity president with consistently good grades. Throughout his summers in Toronto, he ran his own maintenance firm, installed computer programs for a food company and collected overdue bills for an oil company. But after weeks of interviews, Frappier, 22, cannot find a job. He is taking a night course in financial accounting at a polytechnical school, and plans to go back to university for a master’s degree in business administration. “I’ve concluded that I do not have enough education to get the job I want,” says Frappier. “It is very tough out there.”

Indeed, and getting even tougher. Like Frappier, many Canadians are discovering that their university education falls short of the job market’s demands. In a country accustomed to prosperity, that lesson has been a difficult one. For decades, an increasing proportion of Canadian youth flocked to universities, blithely confident that their basic degrees would guarantee them fulfilling, lifetime jobs. But the world has changed. In the global marketplace, the economic superpowers are competing feverishly—and the demand for new skills is shifting at a revolutionary pace. Companies like Bell Canada and even General Motors, once the providers of security and advancement, now find their needs changing almost overnight. And young employees find themselves on the street.

As a result, universities are struggling with a serious challenge: faced with unpredictable change, they must teach their students how to keep learning—and how to keep adapting. That challenge is especially acute in Canada where an unusually large proportion of industry is foreignowned—and is now especially vulnerable to free-trade pressures. Across the nation, firms are focusing on what they do best—and shifting less-competitive operations to more-efficient global locations. Canada is missing opportunities. Two months ago, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development stated that the competitiveness of the Canadian economy had deteriorated during the past two decades, largely as a result of an inadequate educational system. Warns Douglas Wright, president of the University of Waterloo: “This is the first time that Canadian children are probably destined to have a lower standard of living than their parents. The recession may have jarred us out of our complacency, but it’s too early to tell.”

The shock has forced Canadians to take a hard look at their entire educational system. Many express doubts that their children are receiving the right education; they wonder if their expensive university system, once a source of great pride, is producing graduates who can compete in a global economy. The answers are not reassuring. Graduates often lack basic scientific and literacy skills, as well as the vital ability to learn. Those shortcomings are major ones: in the 1990s, the ability to continue learning is the key to economic survival. As industries evolve, workers will switch jobs, training and retraining, adding new skills. To meet those needs, the universities are being forced to wrestle with the very definition of what they are. Observed Elizabeth Parr-Johnston, president of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax: “We are moving into a knowledge-based society and that requires a higher level of basic education. The dilemma is how to deliver basic education to more people when the funds are shrinking.” The educational system, in fact, is under financial siege.

Since the 1950s, universities have opened their doors to an increasing proportion of the population. But as universities have grown more accessible, cash-strapped governments have slashed their funding. The reductions have been dramatic. Operational revenue per student has declined 13 per cent in real terms over the past 15 years.

The most accurate international comparison is bleak: the Council of Ontario Universities reported that, in 1992, public universities in the United States received 35 per cent more revenue per student than comparable universities in Ontario. When private U.S. universities were added to the calculation, the difference widened to 45 per cent. “Underfunding is the paramount problem,” says University of Toronto economist David Stager. “The constraint is affecting the performance of the universities: we are reducing the number and the diversity of courses, in spite of the demands of the students and the labor market.”

That dilemma has clearly jarred the university’s clientele. Increasingly, students and parents are asking why graduates, with 16 years of education or more, cannot find a job. Slowly, they have

awakened to a sad truth: no one is steering the educational boat. Canada is the only federation without a federal education ministry; although it provides funds for postsecondary education, it does not set national standards. And until recently, provincial governments and universities have been lackadaisical, at best, about educational reforms.

The result is a severely disorganized system. And any attempt to fix it has to take account of the fact that the pieces do not fit together. At the elementary level, many pupils lack basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. At the high-school level, many students perform abysmally in science and mathematics. And, unlike Germany, Canada has offered few respectable alternatives for non-academic students. Instead, the entire system is designed to funnel them towards university—even if they lack the skills to learn. Says Arthur Kruger, director of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE): “Technical and vocational schools are viewed as almost mini-

mum-security prisons that take troublesome kids. We have not put enough money or effort into building an alternative for those who are probably not going to get that much out of university.”

Those problems land squarely on the universities’ doorstep, and their position is becoming desperate. Squeezed for funds and saddled with unsuitable entrants, they are under the gun to meet society’s needs. Even the best university presidents cannot respond fast enough to meet the economy’s escalating demands. Said Jock Finlayson, vice-president

of policy and research at the Business Council on National Issues: “Universities have a very difficult time responding to shifts in the marketplace because they have a shortage of resources, they are tightly regulated by governments and they have an institutional inertia that makes it very difficult to respond and to free up resources in a changing world.” With the stopwatch ticking, the best universities are reaching beyond the campus walls to forge new links with the community. Many are paying attention to the pressing needs of the labor market, and communicating those needs to their students. The legendary co-op program at Ontario’s University of Waterloo shepherds almost 10,000 students between the workplace and the classroom. As well, universities are beginning to work with their neighboring community colleges, co-operating in technical programs and recognizing diplomas. And they are finally accommodating the students of the future—adults upgrading their skills. Those students are a vital asset: the federal government estimates that 40 per cent of the new jobs between 1989 and 2000 will require at least 16 years of training; but, in 1986, 47 per cent of all workers did not even have a high-school diploma. Still, the adjustments are clearly not taking place fast enough. Across the nation, tough-minded students and parents are demanding that the universities account for their use of the taxpayers’ resources. Last year, in a landmark report for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), commissioner Stuart Smith demanded that the universities account for their perform-

ance in meeting the “reasonable expectations” of society. “I saw a tremendous gulf between what the universities thought they were doing and what society expected of them,” says Smith. “All I heard from them was a great wail that society was not serving the

university properly. I saw a great unwillingness to look inward to see whether the universities were serving society properly.” Educators say that Maclean ’s annual survey of universities is a significant component in that process of examination. When the survey first appeared in 1991, some educators attacked the criteria and data, arguing that it was impossible to rank institutions. This year, Maclean’s editors spent ten months working in consultation with the academic community, improving the survey and creating a system that groups similar institutions. For the first time in Canada, universities are being ranked, on an institution-wide basis, with their peers. The underlying assumption is that the universities can no longer remain aloof from society’s scrutiny. Said Ian Newbould, president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.: “There are difficulties in ranking students, but we do it every day of the week. It is only natural that someon look at us.” In political circles, accountability is the in-word. For the past year Ontario’s Task Force on University Accountability has been examining the reliability of a long list of “performance indicators.” Meanwhile, Saskatchewan is reviewing programs at the province’s two univer-

sities. Manitoba’s University Education Review Commission is holding public hearings this month on the “role and mission of universities in a rapidly changing and highly competitive world.” Said Timothy Andrew, chairman of the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission: “People want to have windows in the ivory tower to see what is going on.” Their efforts deserve decidedly mixed grades. Universities get high marks for accessibility: Canada has the second-highest participation rate in postsecondary education in the world. More than two million Canadians, some 10 per cent of the adult population, have at least one university degree. In 1988-1989,16 per cent of Canadians between 18 and 21 were full-time university students. The universities, in fact, are overloaded and some institutions are sagging under the strain. The University of Toronto, for one, is reducing its record-high enrolments. Obviously, accessibility is not the only test of university performance: the quality of education may now be more important. In the past, nations

became rich if they had more natural resources, more capital or superior technologies. Now, scientific advances have reduced the importance of natural resources: the increase in farm productivity, for one, has outgrown the world’s need for more food. Capital moves freely around the globe, sweeping across national boundaries. And nations can easily duplicate new products, taking over the inventor's markets through cheaper methods of

production. That leaves only one wealth-producing factor: learning. As Lester Thurow, dean of the Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass., stated: “In the 21st century, the education and skills of the workforce will be the dominant competitive weapon.” For decades, many Canadians have airily assumed that they possessed that dominant weapon. Their university system was the pride of the prosperous postwar generation—the product of the flourishing economy of the 1950s and 1960s. Governments, flush with unanticipated tax revenue, concentrated their resources on the so-called baby boom. They poured money into the construction and expansion of universities and community colleges. Full-time university enrolments doubled between 1955 and 1962; they doubled again between 1962 and 1969. The increase has continued throughout the past 23 years, despite the departure of the last wave of the baby boom in the mid-1980s. Some academics argue that Canada will have to limit that enrolment if it wants to recover the quality of its education. And they ask: has the system’s great virtue become its greatest flaw? Have the universities become holding tanks for those who cannot find jobs or who have no direction in their lives? Unmotivated, those students drift through their programs. Other students lack basic skills; they do not even know how to learn. University of Toronto business economics professor Edward Safarían maintains that the universities have an obligation to society to raise their entrance standards. That action, in turn, would force the elementary and secondary schools to ensure that their students graduate with basic skills. It would also weed out many unmotivated applicants. Says Safarían: “There is a lot of pressure from governments and from the public to make access as broad as possible. And, to some people, access implies not having standards. But we are elitist, and that should be obvious to everybody.” Most universities recognize that they are on the cusp of change, tom between their traditional ideals and society’s practical needs. Few would abandon their commitment to learning for its own sake: classics departments, for one, will not be closed simply because there is little demand for ancient Greek scholars. But many universities are also exploring new, often daring, approaches to learning. Says Geraldine Kenney-Wallace, president of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.: “We are the ones mandated with the long-term view and we’re worried about what will happen in the year 2025. We have to be—it’s our graduates who will be sitting in leadership positions.” To groom those leaders, universities such as McMaster are redefining their programs, breaking down the walls between disciplines. Students are learning how to synthesize theories, data and common sense, combining engineering skills with philosophy and ethics. Other universities are forging partnerships with business. Last April, students at Saint Mary’s in Halifax won the Conference Board of Canada’s National Award for Excellence for their small-business consulting program. The program offers students invaluable on-the-job experience; the businesses, in turn, receive help that would normally be beyond their means.

University officials know that they have to build bridges to the larger community. Some institutions are designing innovative programs to meet the needs of their adult clients. Joyce Murray, the co-owner of a reforestation company, graduated last month from Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University with a master’s degree in business administration. Her three-year “executive” program was thoughtfully constructed: for $1,800 per four-month term, Murray, 38, received dinner at a downtown restaurant twice weekly followed by evening classes with about 30 students at the new downtown Harbour Centre campus. “I wanted to study with my peers, not kids straight out of high school,” she says. “We were treated as if we were clients, with a lot of attention to good service.”

As well, universities have forged novel partnerships with community colleges.

The University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, B.C. offers both technical courses and university-level programs. Students can take an arts program that meets the standards of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and emerge with a Bachelor of Arts degree from UBC—even though they never leave Kamloops. In future, if the B.C. government grants its approval, the Cariboo hopes to “ladder” courses: graduates from a three-year college course in respiratory therapy could receive a university degree in health sciences with an additional year of study.

Students welcome those innovations. Jason Haywood, 19, is earning an undergraduate degree in economics in a high school in Thompson, Man. Although his professors are at the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, 800 km to the south, their lectures are transmitted through a loudspeaker to 20 students in the collegiate classroom. Each student can push a button on a receiver to ask a question or use a special calling card to reach a professor after class. Essays are shipped to the university by bus. The practical Haywood hopes to graduate within two years. “It’s cheaper than moving south—and a lot more convenient,” he says. “My friends at university found themselves partying too much, dropping courses and running out of money. I don’t need the social part. For me, these are the learning years.”

Those innovations may appeal to the clients, but they do little to resolve the overall financial crisis. Governments provide roughly 75 per cent of the total operating income of Canadian universities—$8.7 billion last year including research funding. Tuition fees provide only 13 per cent of that figure. Although education is a provincial responsibility, the federal government covers a portion of postsecondary education and health care through transfer payments to the provinces. The provinces, in turn, can spend the money any way that they choose.

But few provinces have concentrated on educational priorities. Instead, as the baby boomers age, many provinces have pumped an

increasing proportion of the federal payments into health care—and put less into postsecondary institutions. To add to the problem, through an arcane twist in the funding formula, federal cash payments are scheduled to phase out over the next 12 years. Then, the provinces will have to fund their universities with their provincial tax revenues—although the poorer provinces will still receive transfer payments.

In anticipation of that crisis, many are focusing on rationalization. The governments of Saskatchewan and Alberta have forged innovative deals, sharing the costs of expensive programs. Saskatchewan students who want to study occupational therapy train at the University of Alberta; Saskatchewan picks up the non-tuition portion of the tab. Alberta students who want to study veterinary medicine, in turn, attend the University of Saskatchewan; Alberta foots that bill. Says University of Alberta president Paul Davenport: “Increasingly, that kind of specializa-

tion is the way of the future. In meeting our financial problems, we have adopted a selective approach to excellence.”

But that resourcefulness merely narrows the difference between what the universities need and what they receive. There is little hope for more help from governments: although Ottawa and the provinces are now renegotiating the funding formula, it is not likely that the federal government will transfer enough funds to cover the universities’ tab. As a result, most universities are becoming more aggressive fund raisers; many are also scrambling to develop lucrative programs such as Simon Fraser’s executive MBA. Still, many experts say that there is no alternative to raising tuition fees, if there are adequate student-loan programs to assist poorer applicants. As New Brunswick’s Premier Frank McKenna told Maclean’s:. “We have been trying to meet our funding requirements by begging, borrowing and taxing the money from our people. But we are going to end up with high tuition fees.”

Still, there are no road maps to prosperity in the 21st century. The global economy is changing too quickly; technology is evolving too fast. In the face of that challenge, the universities cannot devise a simple prescription for success. They can only aspire to educate students who can adapt with wisdom and grace to their new world. OlSE’s Kruger notes that “change is the only thing that you can predict.” Canada’s only hope is that the universities can master their own transformation—before it is too late for everyone.

MARY JANIGAN with files from DIANE BRADY in Toronto