Columns

Adjust your headsets

Ann Dowsett Johnston March 20 2000
Columns

Adjust your headsets

Ann Dowsett Johnston March 20 2000

Adjust your headsets

Columns

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the first class of Downward Expectations. We'll start this morning with a question: how many of you parents are expecting your children to attend university? Hmm. By the number of hands raised, it looks like the majority. Now, how many have accepted that your children will have to forgo the experience? Do I count only 25? Anyone willing to change your mind? No? Very well. Then, lets move straight to the auditorium for this mornings main event, a game of musical chairs. There, you will find 600,000 seats, one for every student who will get into university in the fall of 2003. Seeing as we have 650,000 sets of parents here, we need to reduce our numbers before we move onward. So lets get started: if you believe that your son or daughter will have an average grade of less than 75 per cent, please move to the exit at the rear.

Our purpose, as you know, is to help you manage your reduced expectations.

Sound like science fiction? It shouldn’t.

For a growing number of baby boom parents, the penny has begun to drop: when it comes to university access, the next generation faces some critical obstacles. Frank Reinholz is one of those parents, and he’s hopping mad. Since last December, he has been trying to buttonhole Dianne Cunningham, Ontario minister of training, colleges and universities, on her plans to accommodate the needs of echo-boom students—specifically, the double class that will graduate from high school in the spring of 2003, when Ontario eliminates Grade 13. Fast month, he invited Cunningham, or her representative, to attend a public information night at Holy Cross Catholic Secondary in Kingston, Ont. More than 350 parents and students turned out for the March 1 event, some travelling more than 100 km. Not Cunningham. She sent her regrets, via assistant Hazel Tomilko, who asked parents to accept the minister’s “best wishes for a successful and enjoyable event.” Reinholz is furious: “What did she think this was? Some kind of strawberry social? We’re worried about the lifelong consequences for our kids.”

Furious, and for good reason: unless Canadian universities receive a major infusion of operating dollars, there isn’t a hope in Hades that they can keep pace with the imminent demand. And while the pressure in Ontario will be ferocious three years from now, it’s just a blip in a decade-long demographic bulge. Fast year, it was estimated that Canada would witness a 25per-cent increase in demand for undergraduate education by

2010. Now, that prediction looks too conservative: over the past two years, Ontario has seen the largest jump in university applications in more than a decade. In British Columbia, where the 18to 24-year-old population is skyrocketing, cutoff marks for university entrance are already among the highest in the country.

So why not follow the simple maxim of the Sixties? If you build it, they will enrol. It’s not quite so simple: between 1993 and 1998, governments across Canada whipped more than $3 billion out of higher education. Read: crumbling concrete, antique labs, outdated libraries. Operating funds ground to a bare minimum. Read: faculty cuts, overcrowded classrooms. Fast month, the Ontario government launched its SuperBuild program, its most ambitious expansion since the 1960s: $1.4 billion in capital construction, aimed at boosting the physical capacity of postsecondary institutions by 2003. That initiative may offer access—but access to what? Without a significant increase in basic operating grants, do universities continue to bump up student-faculty ratios? Overflow residences? Compromise the learning environment? All of the above? Take Queen’s University in Kingston. I Fast fall, Queen’s raised its enrolment by « six per cent, with a minimal increase in operating funds. This year, applications are up a further 10 per cent. Yes, the university received a whopping $50.8 million in SuperBuild grants for three major building projects, and it has tabled an enrolment proposal that would allow an increase of 3,000 students over the next decade. But principal Bill Feggett warns those extra spaces can only be created if the province antes up with financing. Says Feggett: “We intend to be part of the solution, but we’re not prepared to water down quality.”

This week, Ontario universities will mail out their first offers of admission to students across the country. They have yet to be informed of the province’s allocation of operating funds or guidelines on tuition fees for the upcoming academic year. As is their custom, the renowned University of Waterloo will send out three offers for every one student they hope to secure. But popularity can be a curse: last fall, Waterloo’s target was 4,010; when the dust settled, 4,600 students had accepted Waterloo’s offer. This year, the university is determined to take no more than 4,120. All I can say is: good luck.