This tremendous growth is good news if we want a sustainable,
competitive economy. We require these highly qualified
personnel, particularly as baby boomers start leaving the work
force in increasing numbers. A recent report by the Organization
for Economic Co-operation and Development, "Education at a
Glance," demonstrates that high levels of university education
mean higher levels of prosperity — not just for those who obtain
degrees, but for society at large. This is particularly
important as our traditional manufacturing base comes under
We also need to remind ourselves that universities are
pivotal players in sustaining the health-care system for the
coming wave of retirees, because they develop treatments and
train medical personnel. Universities are also the principal
source of innovative ideas to address climate change and energy
use, top concerns of Ontarians.
But this surge in enrolment creates significant challenges
for universities. The government took an enormously important
step with its "Reaching Higher" plan, following former premier
Bob Rae's review of postsecondary education. That plan invested
$6.2-billion, including an additional $1.5-billion for student
financial assistance. The money has improved opportunities for
graduate students, to the tune of an additional 14,000 spaces.
It has helped to reverse years of chronic underfunding, and in
tandem, every Ontario university has committed to regular public
reporting on the quality of student engagement.
However, Ontario still has not caught up to the average
provincial per capita funding, as recommended in the Rae Report.
And the sound of stampeding feet is about to outstrip even those
very considerable investments. We have to act quickly to get
ahead of this wave.
What's at risk? Growing student demand will place
considerable strain on the ability of universities to accept all
the qualified applicants. And without further major investments,
if we do accept these students, they are likely to see the
quality of their educational experience eroded: fewer
instructors, larger class sizes, substandard facilities, a lack
If this slippage is allowed to take place, students will want
to pursue their education in other provinces or other countries
where the required investments are being made. Those
universities will reap the benefits of the research. Many of the
students will put down roots elsewhere.
Ontario must ensure, then, that university funding keeps pace
with our surging student population. If this province values the
highly skilled thinkers, health-care workers and innovators that
will propel our society and our economy in the coming decades,
then the new government needs to move swiftly on a forceful plan
and the requisite funding to "Reach Even Higher." Key elements
of such a plan would address the following realities:!
- Universities need to begin hiring new faculty to replace
retiring professors, reduce student-faculty ratios and increase
the opportunities for student-faculty interaction;!
- Construction needs to begin on new classrooms,
laboratories, libraries and study spaces to accommodate the
influx of new students;!
- Additional graduate scholarships are needed to ensure that
we train the next generation of faculty and that we continue to
generate the research and the highly skilled personnel that will
sustain a vibrant economy.
The students' future, and ours, depends on it.
Beverly Harris is chair of the Board of Governors of
Wilfrid Laurier University and chair of the Council of Chairs of