Ontario universities: the demographic dilemma

We must act quickly to get ahead of the dramatic surge in enrolment

Globe and Mail Update

While much attention has been paid to our aging population, few realize the rapid rise in young people clamouring for space in our universities and the challenges this growing demand is placing on our postsecondary institutions.

In the past academic year alone, 357,000 students attended university in Ontario, an all-time high and fully 14,000 more than anyone expected. In the past four years, universities accommodated an additional 74,000 students. Looking ahead, we expect the student population to swell by almost 50 per cent over this decade, with 120,000 more expected by 2021. That's the equivalent of adding another University of Toronto, Queen's and Waterloo to our system.

This dramatic growth is spurred by three factors: an impressive rise in participation rates, immigration and the "boom echo" in the age groups that shape demand for a university education.

First, participation rates: Last year's 14,000 increase was in no small part due to the provincial government's important investment in student financial assistance. It was also encouraged by the growing recognition that a university degree is critical in today's job market. As well, due to the "boom echo" and to immigration, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, the 18- to 29-year-old segment of our population will be considerably larger than today's for at least the next 25 years.

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 stress.

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 of laboratories.

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 Ontario Universities.



Our commentary in the Globe and Mail

October 10, 2007

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