Universities 2000

Measuring Excellence

As the echo boom generation begins to head to university, the halls of higher learning are bursting at the seams

Ann Dowsett Johnston November 20 2000
Universities 2000

Measuring Excellence

As the echo boom generation begins to head to university, the halls of higher learning are bursting at the seams

Ann Dowsett Johnston November 20 2000

Measuring Excellence

Universities 2000

As the echo boom generation begins to head to university, the halls of higher learning are bursting at the seams

Ann Dowsett Johnston

It was, by any standards, a politician's nightmare. On a chilly evening in April, just as hockey fans were settling in to watch the Maple Leafs go head-to-head in the playoffs with New Jersey, more than 250 adults were beating a determined path up the front steps of a Toronto high school, ready to go head-to-head as well. Armed with takeout coffee and a long list of questions, they made their way down the school’s tired halls, past the grubby lockers and the fraying posters to the cafeteria. Doctors, lawyers, teachers—parents from four different high schools in the North Toronto ward— settled down on hard plastic chairs, perched on tables and lined up against the wall. It was a capacity crowd, and an angry one to boot. Tonight, they had one mission: jimmying some straight answers out of a handful of educational bureaucrats. What, they wanted to know, was going to happen to their kids after Grade 12? Were universities preparing for the largest incoming class in 30 years, the so-called bulge?

“We have been told,” began one school-board official, “that there will be provisions in place to support these kids. At least that is the plan.” She paused. “Let’s say, people are working on it.” Guffaws and bitter laughter. She continued: “The government has ensured us that there will be a place for every qualified and motivated student.” “Oh, get serious!” a father heckled from the back. “We’re not stupid!” Just what were the government’s plans for growth? Would there be extra spaces for these students in first year? How about in business, law or medicine? “So far,” came the reply, “there has been no meaningful increase in operating dollars. So, I think it’s safe to say that there will be severe limitations.” More guffaws. “The options will be there, but not necessarily in this city, or this province.” “This meeting’s over,” said one angry dad, heading out the door. “If they’re not going to deal with the bulge, I’m taking mine home to watch the hockey game—and break it to my kids that they’re going to university in Inuvik!”

Call it the bulge. Call it the echo generation. Or call it, as they do in California, “Tidal Wave II.” The catchy nicknames may differ, but across North America the reality is pretty well uniform. The baby boom generation, aka Tidal Wave I, has begun to send a record number of sons and daughters off to university, and the halls of higher learning are beginning to burst at the seams—a capacity crowd if ever there was one.

This is not a simple demographic blip. Yes, the generation weaned on Woodstock produced its fair share of babies, but there’s more to it than that. From pre-school through high school, these well-educated parents have put a high priority on the education of their children. Now, what they accepted as their own birthright— access to high-quality post-secondary education—is exactly what they expect for their sons and daughters, especially in a global economy where brains have become the prime commodity on which both companies and countries compete. Fiow does one compute that demand? The math is simple, if unpredictable: take the increased number of children, and goose the participation rate, given that it’s a knowledge economy.

The result? A bulge, a crush, Tidal Wave II—and one that many have seen coming for a long, long time. Last year, the wave began to roll. Canadian universities witnessed their largest one-year jump in enrolment since 1991 ; this year, enrolment rose again. How high will the demand run over the next decade? A conservative estimate would be 20 per cent across Canada. In British Columbia and Ontario, it will run as high as 40. “We’re on the verge of the greatest growth in more than 30 years,” says Ken Snowdon, vice-president of policy and analysis at the Council of Ontario Universities. “The bottom line? There are going to be a heck of a lot more students than anyone imagined. Period.”

While university demand is soaring, funding for higher education has been marginal

A heck of a lot more students heading to not a heck of a lot of empty chairs. Let’s not forget: between 1993 and 1998, governments across Canada slashed more than $3 billion out of higher education. Translation? Overcrowded classrooms, outdated libraries, faculty reductions. Only Rip Van Winkle could have been surprised when those same universities announced a total deferred maintenance bill of $3.6 billion this year. Read: crumbling buildings, antiquated labs. And the perverse truth is that while Canada turned off the funding tap, the United States showered its institutions with support. In Ottawa, a diagram illustrating the investment gap between the two countries has been nicknamed “the duck chart”: it shows that since 1993, per-student spending on higher education has risen 20 per cent in the United States, and dropped 13 per cent in Canada. The gap yawns wide, like a hungry duck’s mouth.

Those angry parents may not have seen the duck chart. But in their eyes, someone has ducked a major responsibility. They have peers from Vancouver to Halifax who think so, too. This year, for the first time in almost a decade, all provinces turned on the funding tap again, but in most regions it was merely a trickle. The net effect? A massive game of musical chairs as a larger group of students compete to find a spot. In the past two years, applications have risen 29 per cent at Queen’s, 25 per cent at Acadia and 21 per cent at Waterloo.

In the most elite programs, entry grades have ratcheted up in the process. What did you need to get into Queen’s high-profile commerce program this year? Ninety per cent. Computer engineering or electrical engineering at Waterloo? Low to mid-90s. Fourteen hundred students applied for 80 spots in McMaster University’s new bachelor of health sciences program. Of those offered admission, three-quarters had averages of 92 per cent or higher. And at McGill, it was easier to get into medicine than to win a spot in electrical engineering. “The standards of admission are becoming extraordinary,” says Bernard Shapiro, principal of McGill. George Granger, registrar at McMaster, points out that universities have begun installing more sophisticated selection procedures and mandatory supplementary applications to aid in “choosing elites from elites.”

If parents are panicking across the country, nowhere is that anxiety higher than in Ontario, home to 40 per cent of Canadian high-school and university students. With the elimination of the fifth year of high school only three years away, the province will produce a double class graduating in 2003. Already, many students are playing beat the clock, fast-tracking to avoid the stampede. This year, the Ontario government launched the Super Build program, its most ambitious expansion since the 1960s, aimed at boosting the physical capacity of postsecondary institutions.

But in getting ready for the mega-class, bricks and mortar are only part of the solution. If shifting demographics has worked its magic in boosting student numbers, it is playing an equally powerful role in making faculty disappear. Between now and 2010, more than 20,000 of the country’s 33,000 faculty will have retired or departed. One-third of the faculty at Canadian universities is now 55 or older, and the replacement needs are starting to grow. Between now and 2010, Canadian universities will need to hire 30,000 new faculty to accommodate the growth.

That hiring will have to be done in a fiercely competitive global market, where those with much fatter wallets are merrily cross-border shopping. Let’s put it into perspective. In the past year alone, Harvard’s endowment has grown by $7.5 billion—more than all Canadian university endowments lumped together. Its total endowment now sits at $28.8 billion. And over the past five years, California has boosted its post-secondary funding by 58.8 per cent. Speak to any president, and you get a casualty report. York University recently lost a chair in mathematics to the University of North Carolina. Shapiro fears that McGill is about to lose a star string theorist in physics to a non-academic research institute. The rumoured salary: $250,000.

Bear in mind: Canada only produces, on average, 4,000 PhDs a year, and there is tremendous competition for them. Last year, a study by the Business Council on National Issues reported that those with PhDs were eight times as likely to leave the country than other Canadians. Says Doug Owram, vicepresident, academic, at the University of Alberta: “We will quickly soak up the existing supply of PhDs, and within five years this will be desperate because of the growing student demand.”

Robert Birgeneau, the former dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has just taken the reins at the University of Toronto, believes that it is key for Canada to boost support to its graduate students. “Our top grads are going to be rapidly sought af-


Projected enrolment growth, due to demographic shifts and increased participation fuelled by a knowledge economy

ter not just by the United States, but by Japan, Western Europe and the rest of the world,” says Birgeneau. “We need to significantly increase stipends for graduate students, and increase the number of graduate fellowships so people can focus their energies. They shouldn’t be spending half their time in part-time jobs in order to feed themselves.” At Toronto, Birgeneau is in favour of introducing direct-entry PhD programs—skipping the master’s step altogether, as is done at MIT “The great strength in the United States is that graduate schools get the best people in the world,” says Birgeneau, “and the best people in the world tend to stay. That’s where Silicon Valley comes from.”

If the American players are poaching Canada’s best, it is also true that the research-intensive universities in this country have more purchasing power than their peers. This year, the federal government launched its Canada Research Chairs initiative, establishing 2,000 chairs at Canadian institutions over the next five years. Since the primary means of allocating the chairs is based on success in attracting funding from the three federal granting councils, it’s not surprising who has the lion’s share. More than a third have been allocated to UBC, Alberta, Toronto, Montréal and McGill. This year, much of the key reinvestment in higher education has been in research and targeted funds: witness the establishment of the $500-million Alberta Heritage Foundation for Science and Engineering Research. In a very short time, a hierarchy has been established, with the relatively rich institutions growing substantially richer. “Yes, there is a food chain,” says Owram, “and increasingly, resources are becoming unevenly distributed.”

Axel Meisen, president of Memorial University of Newfoundland, is more than aware of the changes at hand. Three weeks ago, faculty at his university went on strike over a tiered salary proposal that offered those with doctorates a boost of 22 per cent over the next three years, and those without only 18 per cent. “The PhDs are the ones we have to fight to keep and attract,” says Meisen. “Our current salaries are roughly 20 per cent behind those at other Comprehensive institutions.” In the next several years, Memorial will need to hire approximately 50 new faculty annually to deal with retirement and attrition. “And as a midsize university in one of the extremities of the country,” says Meisen, “we are in a particularly vulnerable situation.”

He is not alone in feeling vulnerable. David Atkinson, president of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., is all too aware of that fact. Three years ago, Brock spent $100,000 on a year-long international search for a senior NSERC chair to head its new Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute. With much fanfare, Brock named Hennie van Vuuren, a South African. Less than two years later, UBC hired him away. Atkinson is still smarting. This year, seven of Brocks 35 new hires in the tenure-track stream were what he calls ABDs— short form for “all but dissertations.” “It’s back to the 1960s, when you hired PhDs sight unseen,” says Atkinson. “And we can’t take 1,700 more students with our current faculty complement—we just can’t keep cramming them in.”

In a global economy where brains have become the prime commodity on which countries compete, Canada cannot afford to underfund education

“Has the government even bothered to do the math?” asks Judy Pace, a mother in New Liskeard, Ont. “I haven’t seen any evidence that it’s planning.” Pace’s son Jonathan, 16—an A student fast-tracking to beat the bulge—hopes to go to medical school. But Pace is skeptical that there will be enough spaces for all the bright students in this country. “What are they going to do? Draw straws?” she asks. “Choose them on the colour of their hair? These kids are going to pay a price. When my son says that he wants to go to the United States to study, we don’t even discourage him.”

For some time now, parents in British Columbia have been confronting this difficult reality in spades. High immigration from other countries as well as other provinces has sent the demand for education soaring. In recent years, that province’s system has turned away thousands of qualified students because the post-secondary spots did not exist. “The key issue here is access,” says Martha Piper, president of the University of British Columbia. “And while there has been an effort to increase the access, it still falls far short of what the province will need to succeed in a knowledge-based economy.” “There will be a place for students,” says Ross Paul, president of Windsor. “But it might not be in the institution or program of their choice.” Which means that more students will be looking further afield. And as three provinces brace for the bulk of the echo boom—namely British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario—the rest of the provinces, with flat or declining growth in that age group, are busy courting the overflow. This year, for the first time ever, Memorial established entrance scholarships for out-ofprovince students. Meanwhile, the University of Winnipeg is developing a long-term housing strategy, aimed at increasing its international and out-of-province draw.

All universities are now savvy to the American notion of “enrolment management”: chasing the student you want and need. As Mordechai Rozanski, president of the University of Guelph, says: “It costs five times as much to recruit as to retain a student. You have to do it well up front to get people who are truly motivated.” This year, registrar Granger integrated eight laptops into the McMaster booth at the Ontario University Fair, inviting prospective students to enter their addresses and select from a group of follow-up publications. It gave the university the edge in producing a quick turnaround in mail-outs. More universities are offering automatic scholarships to bright students—also known as tuition discounting; an increasing number are offering residence guarantees to the first-year students. “As parents become more engaged in university choice, bringing their own experience to bear on the issue, personal safety and wellness are going to become bigger factors,” says Granger. “It’s incumbent upon universities to take an almost parental role.”

“There’s a huge shift in the sophistication of communication with the prospective students,” says Drew Ness, director of Canadian operations for Noel-Levitz, the U.S. giant of enrolment management. “We’re seeing the use of the telephone for recruitment—not the frantic July phone blitz when universities don’t meet their targets, but re-contacting, mining the inquiry pool.” What changes does he foresee? “Two years from now, Canadian universities will purchase names of Grade 10 and 11 students and contact them through direct mail, 24 months in advance. They have already begun to do that in the States.”

A Message in the Rankings

All figures represent the percentage change between the 1995 and 2000 surveys, reflecting data from the 1994-1995 and 1999-2000 academic years.

Perhaps they have. But there are other American traditions that might have a more profound effect on the future of Canadian students. This fall, in an open letter titled “Queen’s at the crossroads,” principal William Leggett challenged his alumni community to embrace a long-term goal: to look to Princeton and Stanford as role models, midsize institutions of undeniable excellence. Both are also, as he says, “effective in their development of private-public partnerships.” Acknowledging that his university’s endowment sits at less than four per cent of Princeton’s or Stanford’s, he made it clear that

he wanted to gather broad support—both intellectual and financial—for his goal: to move Queens to a position of academic leadership in North America. “Our vulnerabilities to the vagaries of public-sector support must be reduced,” says Leggett. “We can’t expect government alone to bear the full cost of developing a truly world quality university. But we want the freedom to innovate, and we must be strategic about our growth.” In other words, Queen’s does not want to dilute quality to make up for a shortfall in funding.

Right now, the Queen’s campus is abuzz with the possibility that the university may ultimately push for the deregulation of undergraduate arts and science programs, increasing tuition by as much as 20 per cent. Two weeks ago, Leggett attended a so-called town-hall forum, put on by the students’ alma mater society, to discuss the future. “The biggest concern raised that evening was that this would have an impact on people’s younger brothers and sisters,” says AMS president Paul Heisler. “There is a feeling here that this will come to a head.”

This, and a great deal else across the country as a growing number of parents and students wake up to the new world order. In a remarkably short time, the university system has been reconfigured. Hierarchies have been established, both between institutions and within their own walls. Gone is the illusion of homogeneity. And gone, in many quarters, is the deep and cherished promise of access to excellence.

Will governments eventually do the right thing, and reinvest for the coming generation? When parents demand that their children be educated, will they respond? Who knows. But make no mistake: access, and access to excellence, will be the key issues of the next decade. By not responding to the needs of future students, Canada is policy-making by default. If opportunities are not created, all the rhetoric of the knowledge economy will be for naught, and the country will pay in ways unforeseen. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, once said: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”