Universities across Canada are altering their shape and substance in unprecedented ways

JOHN DeMONT November 9 1992


Universities across Canada are altering their shape and substance in unprecedented ways

JOHN DeMONT November 9 1992



Universities across Canada are altering their shape and substance in unprecedented ways

The ivy-covered stone buildings have an aura of prestige and privilege. For almost 175 years, Halifax’s Dalhousie University has been the pride of Atlantic Canada, the very embodiment of a tradition-bound campus.

But in the autumn of 1992, it is clear that the stereotype no longer fits. Asians, blacks and other minorities pour through the glass doors into the student union building. In a cluttered lounge a group of older students—whose numbers account for nearly 60 per cent of enrolment—sip coffee and discuss their return to the classroom. “I thought I would feel out of place among the 19and 20-year-olds,” says Lynn Cvitko, 33, a former real estate agent. “Nothing could have been further from the truth.” Echoes Louise Parsons, 41, a languages student and mother of four: “I’m surprised—I don’t really feel out of place at all.”

From Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., to the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island, the face of the Canadian campus is undergoing a dramatic transformation. The changes can be traced back

to the 1960s, when Canada embraced the notion that every individual should have access to higher education and its related opportunities. Thirty years later, that accessibility is more than apparent. Part-time, adult and nontraditional students are the new majority on Canadian campuses. And the boundaries of those campuses are expanding through distance education, co-operative education and executive education. In meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse—and demanding—population, universities are altering their shape and substance in unprecedented ways. “It certainly looks different than when I was here,” declared Gordon Archibald, former chairman and president of Maritime Telegraph and Telephone, Ltd. and a Dalhousie graduate. “Back in 1933 all the fellows were pretty much my age, and everybody seemed to be from New Waterford, Glace Bay and Halifax.”

The changes are apparent on a stroll across almost any campus. Take York University, which is set in a heavily industrialized section of Metropolitan Toronto. According to a recent survey, one-third of York’s 42,000 students have a first language other than English, one-fifth belong to visible minorities and 17 per cent come from households that earn $20,000 or less per year. Not surprisingly, 55 per cent of full-time students have part-time jobs, and nearly half of the 38,000 undergrads at York are enrolled on a part-time basis. “The principle of access,” says Harriet Rosenberg, associate dean of arts, “is woven into the very fabric of this university.”

In more ways than one. Last month, the dean of arts and three vice-presidents spent a day touring the campus in wheelchairs, getting a firsthand feel for the barriers that disabled students must face every day. Laurie Alphonse, a black third-year student who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, is impressed with York’s commitment. “The administration,” she says, “is determined to make things better.”

At Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, the trend towards older students is particularly evident. More than one-third of its 8,200 enrolment qualify as mature students—they have been out of school for at least five years and are 22 or older; most fall into the 28-40 age bracket. One is Annie Grosvold, a 31-year-old single mother of three. A native of Riverview, N.B., Grosvold finished high school and obtained a college diploma in hotel and motel management before getting married and starting a family. But two years ago, separated, she found herself trying to support her three sons on social assistance. Grosvold moved to Halifax and entered Saint Mary’s, where she is now a second-year criminology student getting by on loans. “I didn’t want to be dependent upon anyone,” she says. “And I wanted to see if I could still think and function.” function.”

There are many factors fuelling the maturestudent boom. Many men and women are updating their professional skills for a fiercely competitive workplace or retraining for entirely new professions. Carl Vesterback, 40, an education student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says that he was no longer finding fulfilment in his reporter’s job at the Alberni Valley Times on Vancouver Island. “I had worked there for 14 years and felt that I had done everything I could really do in the field,” he declares. “Besides, I felt that I wanted to do something that contributed more to the community.” Still, enrolling in the program was a sacrifice. Until the fall of 1993, when the program ends, he will live in Vancouver during the week and commute the 125 km to Port Alberni, to spend the weekend with his wife and three children. Says Vesterback, who hopes eventually to teach history and social studies to high-school students: “I’m sure in the end it will be worth it.”

Whatever their reasons, the nontraditional students stride onto campus with firm goals and special needs.

“The students of today are a lot more demanding than their predecessors,” concludes Elizabeth Parr-Johnston, president of Mount Saint Vincent, a predominantly female university in Halifax. At her school, like others, that involves opening day care centres and providing special ramps and elevators for the physically handicapped. As well, larger numbers of classes are now held at night and on weekends in an effort to accommodate students who must juggle school with jobs, families and other obligations. “There’s a regular traffic jam at our campus each day at 4:30 p.m. when the day students leave and the night students arrive,” says Kenneth Ozmon, president of Saint Mary’s.

Universities have designed a wide variety of programs to prepare students for campus life. Ozmon’s school is one of many now offering special orientation programs for

mature students. This fall, the University of Manitoba launched a halfcredit course for new students making the transition to university. And York University’s Atkinson College is offering disadvantaged groups in low-income areas of Toronto special preparation programs in such skills as studying, writing essays and making oral presentations.

Many universities have established special transition-year programs aimed at upgrading the skills of native or black students to prepare them

for the university environment. Dionne Bryan, 21, who is black and grew up in Halifax, thought university was out of her reach. “In Halifax, black students are streamed in high school, so many don’t have the right courses to go on to university,” says Bryan. After graduating from Queen Elizabeth High School, she was two credits short of normal university entrance requirements and enrolled in a nursing assistant’s course at a local

community college. Then a neighbor told her about Dalhousie’s transition-year program, designed to prepare Micmacs and blacks for the university mainstream. “Without this program I would never have made it into Dalhousie,” declares Bryan, who intends to enter the bachelor of arts program after finishing her transition-year courses, and who ultimately wants to become a French teacher.

In attracting—and keeping—native students, few schools can match the efforts of the Edmonton-based University of Alberta. The school, which sets aside quotas for natives in nearly every faculty, has its own transition-year program and a special native-studies program, as well as a native student service to provide personal, academic and career counselling. The university’s native enrolment has doubled in the past decade to an estimated 350 this semester.

To measure the commitment of 45 universities to change, Maclean’s distributed a questionnaire on contemporary trends and issues. Among the findings: •More than 90 per cent of the universities reported that they have a sexual-harassment officer on staff. •Fully 80 per cent offered special orientation sessions for mature students. •A total of 16 universities reported that they required first-year students to take basic writing or language proficiency tests—but only 60 per cent of those students passed. •Only 14 schools publish a student evaluation of courses in an annual guide: UBC, Bishop's, Dalhousie, McMaster, McGill, Moncton, Mount Allison, Ottawa, Cape Breton (UCCB), Toronto, New Brunswick, Western, Windsor and York. •At only 13 schools do women hold more than 25 per cent of vice-presidential offices or dean positions: Mount Saint Vincent (80%), Mount Allison (67%), Trent (50%), Lakehead (40%), Concordia (33%), Acadia (33%), Queen’s (33%), Windsor (31%), Carleton (29%), Wilfrid Laurier (29%), Brandon (29%), Toronto (27%), York (27%).

One of them is Josie Auger, a 25-year-old Cree from the tiny hamlet of Wabasca who said that her confidence was at a low ebb when she enrolled in the University of Alberta’s transition-year program in 1991. “There were more than 50 of us and, from the start, they took us by the hand and guided us around campus,” recalls Auger. She also benefited from group meetings with a psychologist and regular tutorials to help prepare for exams. “It was a good experience,” she says. It was so good that, after passing the transition year with honors, Auger is now enrolled in the first year of Alberta’s native studies program, hoping eventually to study film.

The modern campus has few geographic limits. University satellite campuses are popping up in cities and rural areas throughout the country. And technology extends the outer edge of academia even further as more students, particularly in rural areas, are taking degrees long-distance. One leader in that area is St. John’s, Nfld.-based Memorial University, which is trying to spread higher education to the outports. Each semester, more than 2,000 students sign up for the 75 to 80 courses the school offers through a combination of correspondence classes and audio and videotapes, as well as teleconferencing available through facilities located in 100 communities around the province.

With that new technology, students are completing degrees without ever setting foot on campus. One recent graduate is Lynn Ann Dixon, 47, a supervisor with community and residential services for the Prince Edward Island government, who lives in the remote village of East Baltic, 100 km east of Charlottetown. In the spring of 1991, Dixon completed her gerontology certificate from Mount Saint Vincent after seven years of televised classes. “It was quite a

challenge,” she says. “I didn’t have cable television, so I had to depend upon friends in another town who taped the classes for me.”

Across Canada, the academic community is also reaching out to the business world, with creative results. Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University has set up a special campus along Vancouver’s harbor front to service the business community. Mount Saint Vincent is in the process of raising $500,000 to launch a program to support women in business. At the same time, working professionals are contributing to advisory boards on curriculum, standards and other matters. One of the most successful alliances has been the establishment of co-operative programs. The acknowledged leader in that field is the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ont., exposing 10,000 students a year to a mix of classroom studies and practical on-the-job experience. In Quebec, the Université de Sherbrooke has made a large commitment to co-op, with 17 undergraduate programs such as business, engineering and computer science.

The barriers between the campus and the surrounding community are also beginning to blur. A case in point is York University’s Westview Family of Schools Project. The brainchild of Stan Shapson, the university’s dean of education, the program takes education students and puts them in a tough, ethnically mixed high school in Toronto’s Jane-Finch corridor, trying to train teachers in the special needs of the students at such schools. “When I first heard that I would be working at Westview, I was a little uneasy,” says Barbara Nyman, 31, a third-year education student. “The name alone made me take a step backwards. But now I think it’s one of the best things that has ever happened to me.” The everchanging modern campus clearly offers not just a new look, but new opportunities and challenges, as well.

JOHN DeMONT in Halifax with PATRICIA CHISHOLM in Toronto, JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and HAL QUINN in Vancouver