Farewell to equal access

Ann Dowsett Johnston July 1 1998

Farewell to equal access

Ann Dowsett Johnston July 1 1998

Farewell to equal access

Ann Dowsett Johnston

When the faculty went on strike at Dalhousie University this spring, only three weeks before the end of term, frustrated students set up a makeshift graveyard outside their student union building. Small headstones, crafted out of cardboard, mourned the fact that their degrees were hanging in the balance: “R.I.P., accessibility to education,” read one; “R.I.P., my B.Sc.” and “R.I.P., my BA” read two others. “Not that we needed that last one,” joked a student. “Everyone knows the BAs been dead for years.”

Really? Maybe he’s been talking to Mike Harris. Last fall, the Ontario premier threw down the gauntlet to a roomful of university presidents, asking who would decide to close programs that were no longer relevant to the job market—ones like sociology or geography. When it comes to steering the educational boat, Harris is a true believer in the finger-to-the-wind test: check which way employers are blowing, and poof, he has an educational plan. This spring, Harris’s finger detected a need for high-tech grads— thanks, in part, to a white paper submitted by Nortel president and CEO John Roth. Accordingly, the Ontario government announced it would “double the pipeline” of computer scientists and electrical and computer engineers over the next three years.

But the double-or-nothing approach has hit a high-profile snag. The University of Waterloo, renowned for its excellence in high-tech, has announced that it cannot afford to participate in the program, both from a cost and a reputation point of view. Currently, enrolment in those programs accounts for 18 per cent of Waterloo’s incoming class; doubling those numbers would change the character of the entire institution. And hiring 80 new professors—professors who can command a pretty price in the high-tech sector itself — would be prohibitive, to say the least.

Unfortunately, Waterloo had been prepared to increase enrolments in those programs by 30 per cent this fall, with a corporate partner lined up to share the costs. That fact would have pleased a record number of new students: in the mathematics stream, which includes computer science, Waterloo applications are up a stunning 43.4 per cent over last year. Instead, cash-starved institu-

tions with much less seasoning in the subject area—and, arguably, less perspective on the ramifications of the decision—will likely seize the carrot of extra funding. So much for common sense.

But in terms of national attention, Harris’s high-tech initiative is small potatoes compared to his recent deregulation of fees for professional and specialty programs. For Canada, this is a watershed moment. Hands down, the University of Toronto is poised to gain the most, given its rich mix of programming. Over the next two years, first-year law fees at that school will rise 110 per cent; first-year medicine tuition will zoom up by 127 per cent. Given that Ontario universities sit rock-bottom in terms of funding, who can blame Toronto for seizing the day? Higher tuition spells an opportunity for critical reinvestment in faculty

and resources. And given its endowment, resources and market, Toronto will make the best of this opportunity.

What is unforgivable about this turn of events is that Harris forgot students in the equation. He muscled ahead with deregulation without the second part of the equation: a promised, and long overdue, addressing of the student aid crisis. With that omission, he ushered in a meanspirited new era. For decades, Canadians have been smug about their advantage over Americans on the tuition issue. Kiss that patriotic notion goodbye. Yes, even with the announced increases, fees are still lower than at American public institutions. But let’s connect the dots to student debt. For an undergraduate degree, American students are currently saddled with an average debt of $16,900, while Canadian students are shouldering an average of $25,000. Given that fact, is it hard to

understand why applications to Ontario engineering programs are up 32 per cent this spring, while those to arts programs have risen only 2 per cent. Making the job connection has become a critical issue.

And yet, according to many CEOs, their ideal employee is a graduate of the liberal arts. Matthew Barrett, chairman of the Bank of Montreal, has said that “it is far more important that students graduating from university can divine the patterns of imagery in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales than understand the practice of doubleentry accounting.” Gord Cheesbrough, president and CEO of Altamira—a philosophy major himself—agrees. What does he look for in a new employee? “Intelligence. Character. And most importantly, judgment—because judgment knows no age. The rest we can teach.”

Those in corner offices may appreciate the critical skills of a philosophy or English major, but do their personnel departments share their perspective? Who but the wealthy can afford to gamble in the job market with a liberal arts degree? When Avie Bennett, chairman of McClelland and Stewart, gave his inaugural address upon becoming chancellor of York University in May, he declared that he “didn’t buy the thinking of those in government who say that departments with names . . . like philosophy should be shut down.” The politicians’ problem? “They understand training, but not education.”

Bennett asked students to buck the trend, and he deserves applause for saying so. The liberal arts hone a student’s critical, creative and analytical thinking, arguably the most transferrable of skills. But what kind of stomach lining does an 18-year-old need to dig themselves $25,000 in debt for a philosophy degree? The current generation has already passed Reality 101: they understand that, on graduation, they will start making loan payments and rent payments—only to be followed by diapers, plus their own RESP and RRSP payments.

What happens to a country when liberal arts degrees are undervalued? James Downey, president of Waterloo and himself a scholar of 18th-century literature, sums up the effect: “a coarsening of the culture.” “And let’s not forget,” he warns, “the track record of governments predicting the job market has been quite dismal. Remember when we needed more teachers?”

Last fall, lower-income families in the Maritimes reported that they now felt the university experience was out of their financial reach. Contrast that with a recent poll of Grade 7 and 8 students at Upper Canada College, a Toronto private school with annual fees of $14,600:98 per cent say they intend to go to university—but only 41 per cent say they will be heading to a Canadian school. Sounds like we’re losing on both counts. Tell me: just who is steering the educational boat in Canada?