SPECIAL REPORT

Eyes On The Prize

VICTOR DWYER,DIANE BRADY November 15 1993
SPECIAL REPORT

Eyes On The Prize

VICTOR DWYER,DIANE BRADY November 15 1993

Eyes On The Prize

VICTOR DWYER

There was a time when the path seemed so clear, the payoff I so certain. Kids made their way through high school, and then headed off to university, certain of the future. Sure, they had to pull a few all-nighters, and maybe a few strings to make ends meet. But there was a real payoff just the other side of that degree—a life they could count on to be challenging and eventually comfortable. Remember that time? Well, times have changed. Want your pick of schools? Better have marks in the high 80s—and even then an open mind about where you want to study. A student loan? Better make it a big one: university presidents and even some student leaders are calling for dramatic increases in tuition—up to 60 per cent by 1995—to offset massive government cuts. A good job when you graduate? Do not bank on it. As a record number of students enrol in Canadian universities, a record number are also graduating into an uncertain job market. Says Jennifer Napier, now in her final year at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.: “I always knew I would go to university. In my family, university is the established

way. But,” she adds, “grads from my class are now earning $6 an hour.”

Throughout academia, from the office of the president to the freshman dorm, there is a growing sense of a world turning upside down— and of the ivory tower, once autonomous, being asked to answer for itself. “Not since the Russians launched Sputnik, and made for a complete rethinking of higher education, have people looked so hard at what the university is doing, and what it is not,” says John Stubbs, president of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. And although that rethinking is part of a broader public questioning of the entire educational system, the university community is working overtime to explain its role to a nation facing immense competitive pressures—and to students desperate to fit into a rapidly changing economy. “The search lights are on,” says University of Manitoba president Arnold Naimark, “and believe me, we find them very, very bright.” Under that unaccustomed glare, one central question prevails: What, besides a piece of paper, does a university degree really provide?

In tough economic times, the answer to that question is complex. Although graduates are finding that a degree provides no guarantees, a study released in 1992 by the secretary of state shows that they continue to earn 64 per cent more than those with only a college diploma—and are half as likely to be unemployed. That marketplace edge is keeping demand high: 889,000 Canadians attended university last year—up 110,000 from five years earlier—an increase of 14 per cent at a time when the population grew only six per cent. David Strangway, president of the University of British Columbia, estimates that his province would have to create between she and 10 new spaces daily to keep up with applications. And as demand increases, so does competition. In Ontario, where applications from high-school students rose 2.1 per cent this year, Sheryl Janzen was turned down by her first two choices—Queen’s and Trent— despite her 87-per-cent average. She ended up at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, 1,400 km from her home in Hamilton. Meanwhile, Toronto’s Geoff Brown, 26, completed a three-year automotive marketing diploma at Georgian College in Barrie, Ont., topping up his four-year BA from Western Ontario—and won a mid-management position at the head office of Canadian Tire Corp. “College gave me the basics of the trade,” says Brown. “But writing well, speaking well, working under pressure— those were all things I learned at university, and I know they made the difference in landing this.” Stubbs echoes that defence: “Everything we do heightens people’s communication and analytical skills,” says Stubbs. “I think we’ve hidden our light under a bushel for too long.”

But while students seem increasingly appreciative of the university experience, provincial governments across Canada are wielding the axe. Ontario is chopping 10.5 per cent from the budgets of its 17 universities over the next two years, prompting fears of staff reductions and program cuts. Faced with continuing cutbacks by the Nova Scotia government, Dalhousie University president Howard Clark proposed in September the elimination of three entire departments—theatre, music and public administration. The following month, Alberta amended the Financial Administration Act, dubbed “the War Measures Act on universities” by University of Fethbridge president Howard Tennant, to give the government sweeping control over university finances and operations, should the province’s universities fail to cut budgets by 20 per cent in three years. And the assaults are likely to continue. “All of the parties, from left to right, talk about the importance of education,” says Claude Fajeunesse, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “Then, they start talking about fiscal responsibility, and it all goes out the window.” In fact, many predict that the biggest jolts are yet to come. “It feels right now like the opposite of an earthquake,” says Geraldine Kenney-Wallace, president of McMaster University. “The shocks keep coming, each one getting worse. We’re all wondering when the earthquake is going to hit.”

Struggling to serve a lot more with a lot less, universities are also being asked to become more accountable. This year, commissions and task forces in six provinces trained a collective eye on university performance, examining issues of cost, accessibility and program duplication. Pushed to the wall, university leaders are searching hard for answers. “People have to realize that steering the boat forward involves difficult questions,” says Ian Newbould, president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. “And those questions return to the bigger one: What it is that Canada wants from its universities?” For those involved in the debate, there are four pivotal issues to resolve. At what point does the tradition of accessibility—upheld, until now, by capping tuition at between 15 and 25 per cent of operating costs— threaten the overall quality of Canadian universities?

What constitutes the core of a university education, and what is the long-term effect of eliminating pro grams and departments that do not fit the bill? To what degree should Canadian universities provide

their graduates with more job-oriented skills? And in what ways should the postsecondary system encourage, rather than frustrate, an easy flow of students between its universities and its community colleges?

For students, the most urgent debates concern tuition—and the connected threat that certain universities may go so far as to privatize themselves. The average cost of tuition in Canada is about $2,000— a figure held in check by a variety of formal and informal government caps. And although many universities have doubled, and even tripled, tuition in the past 10 years, fees remain comparatively low. In the United States, tuition at public universities averages $2,800. In Britain, the cost is closer to $4,500. Even at Mount Allison University, where tuition of $2,890 puts it among the highest in the country, Newbould estimates a net cost to the school of $7,000 per student. “It is a level of subsidy,” says Newbould, “that students simply cannot count on forever.” Fast August, the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) upped the ante on the tuition issue. In an official position paper, the COU called for an increase of 30 per cent to Ontario fees—as well as an increase in the discretionary annual fees that universities are allowed to make, to 30 per cent from the current 13 per cent. If adopted, the proposal would push maximum tuition from $2,026 to $3,030 by 1995. And while Ontario Education and Training Minister David Cooke has said that there will be no formal statement until later this month, he told Maclean’s that the proposal received “substantial support” during semi-formal discussions at an October meeting of the Council of Ministers of Education, representing all 10 provinces. “Look, I would prefer to be able to announce that there is a tuition freeze and a rollback,” said Cooke. “But the reality is that there are no resources available.”

According to most student leaders, the tuition proposal constitutes a direct assault on accessibility. “Letting fees rise is fine and dandy if you’re talking about Harvard or Yale or Princeton,” says Emechete Onuoha, chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. “But when you’re talking about a system that has been built upon the notion that education should remain within the means of everyone, it’s not tenable to let fees shoot through the roof.” Many agree, especially when almost 20 per cent of students are unable to find summer employment. “Hiking tuition right now,” says Jocelyn Charron, spokesman for the Canadian Federation of Students, “would really be a double blow.”

Aware of the formidable opposition, many academics are advocating that higher fees be tied to a new system of granting and collecting student loans. An “Income Contingent Repayment Plan” (ICRP) would make loans available to all students, regardless of income. In turn, the pace of repayment would be geared to a graduate’s earnings—calculated as part of personal income tax. ICRP would replace the current system, which demands that all graduates repay loans at the same rate, costs taxpayers millions in defaulted loans and, say some, is unfair in denying aid to middle-class students. Last November, student councils at six universities—Queen’s, Western, Wilfrid Laurier, Waterloo, Toronto and Brock—formed the Ontario Undergraduate Students Alliance (OUSA), based on their shared support for ICRP. ‘Tuition in effect becomes a tax,” says John Sears, vice-president, academic, at St. Francis Xavier. “If ‘A’ gets a better education than ‘B,’ and sees economic benefits from it, he must repay his loan more quickly. But,” he added, “if you are a poorer student, inhibited by a concern over the higher fees, then you will really not be free to go to university.”

Still, the ICRP alternative is far more palatable than what many see as the ultimate threat—the prospect of privatization. Unlike the United States, which has 1,976 private institutions, Canada has no mainstream private universities. But for several years, there has been speculation that two Ontario universities—Queen’s in Kingston, Western in London—might choose to go private. Last month, that prospect came closer to reality when officials at Queen’s school of business announced their intention to privatize the master of business administration program— raising tuition from the current $5,200 to about $20,000. And some academics argue that this may be the only alternative. “One of the reasons for the strengths we do have is that we already must compete with the Ivy League schools,” says David Johnston, principal of McGill University, adding that his own school has no current plans to privatize programs. “But if we want to continue attracting research grants and bright young scholars, it may become necessary to create our own spectrum of private and public universities.”

Without those alternatives, universities face difficult choices. Western’s president George Pedersen draws a direct connection between tuition ceilings and his own proposal last April to cut Western’s graduate school of journalism. Although Western’s board of governors voted 13 to 12 to save the school in late October, Pedersen insists that the time of hard decisions cannot be put off forever. “Low tuition reduces accessibility, plain and simple,” says Pedersen. “If we don’t have the resources, we eventually have to say, We don’t have the goods.’ ” At McMaster, which has built an international reputation in research, and whose innovative, tutorial-centred medical school served as a model for changes at Harvard, president Kenney-Wallace puts it more bluntly. “Students can’t go on demanding a first-class system,” she says, “and not be prepared to pay for it.”

Still, the elimination of entire departments—known as “vertical cutting”—has some observers worried about a different kind of academic deterioration. “When funding gets this bad, people immediate ly think in terms of staying with what they know is safe and secure,” says Alan Andrews, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and a professor of theatre at Dalhousie. “Look at Dalhousie’s cuts—all disciplines away from the traditional core.” Claude Corbo, head of the Université du Québec à Montréal, shares his concerns. “You don’t build a university in six months,” he says. “It takes decades of work. If we don’t learn fast how to make these cuts well, we will be harvesting problems five, 10,15 years down the road. And international competition won’t be any easier if we have made the wrong decisions.” Ultimately, international competition is the focus of educators and students. “The pressures are very real,” says Janet Halliwell, chairman of the Nova Scotia Council on Higher Education. “And they are pressures that the universities have not faced since the 1930s. Being asked to do more with less, they are also being asked to help provide a solution to major problems.” In the face of global competition, the issue is one of skills. While academics such as Simon Fraser’s Stubbs insist that universities.provide students with a broad range of analytical abilities, others question whether that is enough. In tough economic times, employers are demanding both specific skills and the broader ability to think and communicate clearly. “More and more, graduates not only have to know things, but also how to do things,” says Patricia Roman, vice-president of the Montreal-based Corporate Higher Education Forum, an organization composed of 75 corporate executives and university presidents. “If people want jobs, and if we all want a forward-moving economy, we have simply got to start putting the emphasis not just on the acquisition of knowledge, but also on its application.”

How deeply universities should get into the skills business is a contentious issue. “University should not be looked at as a way to get technical information,” says Robert Jeneau, a master’s student in social an-

thropology at Laval University. “It needs to be preserved as the place where you devote all of your energy to opening your mind and really understanding the world.” St. Francis Xavier’s Sears agrees.

“Ultimately, we want to teach wisdom in the university,” says Sears. “Sometimes we have to settle for knowledge. I don’t want to settle for information.”

But for others, the future calls for the creation of a new kind of institution— one deliberately blending the goals that colleges and universities have traditionally pursued in isolation. “More and more, there is a recognition that training

without education, and education without training, are meaningless in today’s world,” says Halliwell. She cites the University College of Cape Breton as a model for others—a school that grants both university degrees and college diplomas, and encourages students to take both technical and theoretical courses. Several provinces have eased the movement of students between colleges and universities—while maintaining the strengths of both. British Columbia and Alberta have long made flexibility a cornerstone of postsecondary education. And other provinces—including Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland— have been actively working to create similar arrangements. In Ontario, a special government commission released a report in August calling for

From The President’s Office To The Freshman Dorm, A Sense Of A World Turning Upside Down

the removal of barriers between colleges and universities. The title— “No Dead Ends”—seemed particularly apt While governments forge ahead at the policy level, many Canadian students—faced with the threat of unemployment—are creating their own opportunities. Geoff Brown, now sitting in Canadian Tire’s head office as a purchasing assistant, was reluctant to head off to the automotive marketing course at Georgian College in 1990. His classmates were three and four years his junior, and he had just spent four years earning his history and political science degree. But after canvassing several

friends on their success in the job market, Brown felt he had no choice. “I knew that otherwise I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting anything real—and I didn’t want to saunter around for a year and then land a job as a McDonald’s management trainee,” he recalls. “In the end, I don’t think having just a university degree or a college diploma is sufficient any more.”

No longer a guarantee of success, a university degree now seems, instead, to be a prerequisite of sorts, an essential to be built upon. At Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton, guidance counsellor

Marian Springer sees students “exploring every avenue—taking summer courses, taking courses two and three times—anything that will get them inside those doors.” For such students, the university experience remains a golden opportunity, one too great to pass up. “You might not get the white picket fence with a BA,” says Todd King, a third-year humanities student at the University of Prince Edward Island. “But you’re less likely to get it without one. Instead of buying one lottery ticket, it’s like having 20.” In a world where both the questions and the answers are more complex than ever, those odds are still enviable ones.

With DIANE BRADY in Toronto