Measuring Excellence

Faced with the great expectations of the next generation, Canada has an urgent need to reinvest in its future

Ann Dowsett Johnston November 15 1999

Measuring Excellence

Faced with the great expectations of the next generation, Canada has an urgent need to reinvest in its future

Ann Dowsett Johnston November 15 1999

Measuring Excellence


Faced with the great expectations of the next generation, Canada has an urgent need to reinvest in its future

Ann Dowsett Johnston

It’s a dreamy September afternoon in Kingston, Ont., one of those heartbreaking days that fall seems to steal from summer. The occasional maple is turning gold, but the weather is drowsy-hot. Down by the lake, one block from the limestone halls of Queens University, sailboats drift on the horizon and runners weave between the trees. All of nature seems to be conspiring,

taunting—a beckoning finger of distraction. But at 3:55 on this picture-perfect afternoon, Geoff Smiths students are having none of it. Instead, they swarm in determined packs, swelling into the foyer of Etherington Hall, cramming themselves, and their knapsacks, into their seats. In sandals and shorts and baseball caps, they focus forward. At 4, there isn’t an empty seat in the house.

Pacing at the front is Smith, readying himself for today’s performance. For the next hour and a half, the 58-year-old veteran will entertain and provoke 275 students, cajole them and prod them through Conspiracy and Dissent in 20th-Century America. Part

Letterman, part lion tamer, he’ll whip them through A • , , , „„ ° their paces: up through Watergate, and on to Waco. He’ll draw bloodlines between the shootings at Kent State and the bombing in Oklahoma City. For good

As the echo boom heads to university, faculty are heading out the retirement door

measure, he’ll entertain them with the story of how Elvis really died, face forward on a brown shag rug. He’ll tease them with small helpings of Dirty Harry and The Manchurian Candidate and newsclip morsels of George Wallace and Joseph McCarthy. At times, he’ll turn confessional, telling them why he quit law school after one semester—“it was the most boring, mercenary thing next to Queen’s commerce.” Laughter. And then the whip is out again. Whiplash: that’s what they’re here for. “To be curious, to be skeptical of what you see,” barks Smith. “That’s why you’re here, folks. You’re learning how to think!”

A winning performance, and a sold-out one, too. In fact, one might argue that this year, History 275 has been oversold. Just weeks into the school year, it was announced that, for the first time in 31 years, there was no space to accommodate the tutorials for the course—tutorials where groups of 10 to 15 students would debate the lessons of Waco and Watergate. “I could teach in Richardson Stadium, but the kids aren’t getting the hands-on experience they’re used to,” says Smith, who is now holding what he calls weekly “bear-pit” sessions on Friday afternoons, to maintain the personal touch. “Seminars are sacrosanct, but they’re bursting with 30 kids—and they’re sitting on radiators. Who’s at fault? Perhaps the province for failing to provide resources to allow us to cope with our numbers? We’re digging into the bone marrow of the entire experience.”

Welcome to the overcrowded class of 1999, where all across the country, the chickens are coming home to roost.

For the third time in recent history, there is a huge surge in university demand: first came the troops, home from war; then came their babies in the Sixties. Now, their babies—the echo boom—are banging on the door. This fall, Canadian universities witnessed the largest one-year jump in enrolment since 1991 : an overall increase of five per cent, or more than 7,200 new firstyear students in the system. In Ontario and Quebec, it ran as high as 6.6 per cent; in Alberta, 6.3. Many campuses were scrambling to accommodate the newcomers. In July, University of Waterloo president David Johnston sent a no-room-at-the inn letter to all faculty,

staff and retirees, appealing for their help in finding extra space. At the University of Toronto, more than 100 students are still being housed in downtown hotels. Both schools are in the process of constructing major new residences.

And this is just the wake-up call. Despite the fact that tuition has more than doubled in the past decade, despite the fact that student debt has soared, an ever-growing number of Canadians believe that university is a prerequisite to a meaningful, productive life. Call it great expectations, times three: in the past 25 years, the number of degreeholders has tripled. And as those graduates have morphed into parents, they want the

same for their children. Between now and 2010, enrolment will skyrocket by 20 per cent—and that’s a conservative estimate. In university terms, it presents a “capacity problem,” writ large. In political lingo, it raises the huge question—and understood promise—of accessibility.

An accessibility problem, only exacerbated by another demographic truth: just as a record number of students are steamrolling towards university, a record number of faculty are heading in the opposite direction, flooding out the retirement door. Between now and 2010, more than 20,000 of the country’s 33,000 faculty will have retired or departed. Between now and 2010, Canadian universities must go on a shopping spree for 32,000 new professors. And since the retirement bulge is a continent-wide phenomenon, the competition for faculty stars will be brutal.

In other words, after years of warning, push has finally come to shove. Between 1993 and 1998, governments whipped $800 million out of higher education in this country. Canadian universities are stretched, to say the least. The fallout, in many corners, has been the gradual dismanding of quality. For most undergraduates, the most glaring result has been a rising student-faculty ratio. “Faculty renewal” may be the slogan of the moment, but it’s an especially loaded

ENDOWMENTS Four Canadian universities have 55 per cent of the endowment money in Canada. How do they stack UP against the top two American schools?

Harvard $21.3 billion Yale $10.6 billion Toronto $1.2 billion McGill $618 million UBC $614 million Alberta $517 million

term when you consider that Canada has lost at least 2,300 professors since 1995.

What’s happening in Geoff Smith’s corner of Queen’s is not an isolated event. Ask Mordechai Rozanski, president of the University of Guelph, and he will say bluntly: “The quality of the experience has deteriorated.” It’s not that smart leaders haven’t used their wits: at Guelph, students who are studying the same subject are “clustered” in residences, to mitigate the reality of larger classes. Across the board, there has been extraordinary resourcefulness in the face of deep cuts.

But the fallout has been huge. The number of lab assistants has been dwindling for years; lab equipment is outdated; library journals have been cancelled. And in many cases, what is known as the “physical plant”—the bricks and mortar—is crumbling. Two years ago, the administration at the University of Saskatchewan received an engineer’s report, warning that the roof on their physical education building was in danger of collapsing. This came just three hours before the first Christmas exams were to be written; the building was evacuated, and demolished last year. A random sampling of three universities on the cost of deferred maintenance produced this: for Dalhousie, roughly $75 million; for Saint Mary’s, more than $33 million; for the University of Calgary, $85 million. “The last 10 years were about survival,” says Robert Prichard, president of the University ofToronto. “It was very hurtful.”

Now, in a viciously competitive market, the trick is to make a lightning turnaround. Is this a crisis or an opportunity? Much depends on how quickly governments, both federal and provincial, are willing to help reverse the damage. The good news: for the first time in years, there is a

strong consensus that universities are critical—perhaps pivotal—to the country’s future success. Finally, the light bulb has gone on: in a tough global marketplace, knowledge is the capital on which both companies and countries compete, and Canada cannot afford to outsource knowledge development. In fact, the economy demands a reinvestment: if the proportion of jobs held by university grads now sits at 18 per cent, many believe that it will easily shoot to 25 per cent within the next five years. “Unless you want to bankrupt the country, you have to pay attention,” warns Bernard Shapiro, principal of McGill. “And there is a very big leap between rhetoric and doing something.”

Last month, the federal government went well beyond the rhetoric with the announcement of the 21 st Century Chairs for Research Excellence. The initiative will establish 1,200 new research chairs over the next three years, with a further 800 to be created after that—estimated to cost $300 million annually. In the past three years, the federal government has come through with a series of strong initiatives, from the extraordinary Canada Foundation for Innovation to the Millennium Scholarship Fund, which will kick in as of January,

2000, providing $300 million in annual grants to postsecondary students. With the research chair announcement, certain university leaders are willing to believe that the brain drain just might reverse to a brain gain. According to Prichard, the new initiative will add roughly 10 per cent to his school’s academic budget alone. “We’re back in the game,” he says. “Government’s onside.”

Yes, it’s onside. Now, the question is: how much is it willing to deliver? Last week, Finance Minister Paul Martin announced a $95-billion surplus over the next five years, half of which will go to new spending. That’s music to academic ears, especially if it means the restoration of lost transfer pay-

ments. In 1995, transfer payments for health, social services and postsecondary education were cut by $6.2 billion. Earlier this year, the government restored a huge wallop to health. Now, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is fighting for equal treatment, asking that its share be restored to 1995 levels, in part to pay for deferred maintenance and infrastructure costs. “The best single thing this country could do is reinvest in higher education,” says Waterloo’s Johnston. “Quality is very much under pressure. In this province, Mr.

Harris has promised that there will be a place for every motivated student, but it’s legitimate to ask, ‘Will it be a good learning place?’ ”

It’s a very good question. The answer will lie not only in the federal government’s renewed commitment, but the commitment of individual provinces to reinvest as well—in bricks, mortar, books and more. If the financial commitment is forthcoming, the strength of that growth will lie in the ability to hire a new generation of strong faculty—not in the next 10 years, but in the next three. It’s that simple, and that urgent.

Many may argue about the reality of a brain drain. Not Shapiro, who is looking for 150 new faculty between now and 2003: “At the highestquality level, the hemorrhage has been extreme.”

In the coming years, what will distinguish universities is their ability to recruit new faculty who can, as Robertson Davies wrote, “astonish.” And as information becomes more ubiquitous, the transformative quality of that undergraduate experience will become more precious. Doug Wright is anxious for that experience. At 18, Wright has an average in the low 90s; he’s president of his student council at North Toronto Collegiate Institute, a member of the soccer team, the cross-country team and the track-and-field team. His hope is to get into Queens next year, or, “if that fails, McGill.” And to get there, he has been

A Message in the Rankings

All figures represent the percentage change PROPORTION OF between the 1995 and OPERATING BUDGET SPENT ON 1999 surveys, reflecting SCHOLARSHIPS data from the 1994AND BURSARIES 1995 and 1998-1999 academic years. FIRST-YEAR NUMBER OF CLASSES CLASSES IN THE FULLTAUGHT BY FIRST AND TIME TENURED SECOND FACULTY FACULTY YEAR .8% -7% -4%

doing some serious homework, writing essays for scholarship applications. But sitting at a terminal at Toronto’s hip cybercafe The Electric Bean, Wright is momentarily flummoxed. With a financial planner up on the screen, he is tallying the costs of first year. Residence and books, he expected; new computer, he expected; three train trips home, for sure. Cleaning supplies? “Maybe I’ll spend $20 a month—not too clean.” The grand total: $13,641.51. Wright is momentarily glum: “There are a lot of costs I didn’t think of.” Still, he is firm in his resolve. Says Wright: “Both my parents went to university.”

Say no more. That expectation is what lies at the feet of all leaders—political and acade-

mic. That, and the challenge of shaping and reinvigorating a strong undergraduate experience. It would seem, on the face of it, that the winners will be obvious: 55 per cent of the endowment funds in this country are now in the hands of only four universities: UBC, Alberta, Toronto and McGill. But we sit at a juncture where it’s all up for grabs: as Toronto adds 2,300 more residence beds and ups the ante in crosscountry recruitment, Janyne Hodder, principal of tiny Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que., is targeting a North American audience interested in a strong liberal arts experience. In the past four years, the number of American students at her school rose 181 per cent; in the

past two, scholarships funds have doubled.

With the right kind of leadership, both Bishop’s and Toronto will flourish—as well as Queen’s, McGill, UBC and many more. We sit at a historical juncture, a fork in the road, where the quality of the Canadian system is on the line. It will take true gumption—and imagination—to face the challenges ahead. But with a convergence of voices, much can be won. For the generation that follows, we can afford to do no less. E3