The Undergraduate Crisis in Ontario

John Blattler

A great deal of hand wringing throughout Canada’s universities has marked 2011.

After decades of topsy-turvy growth, schools are finally assessing the effect of this on undergraduate education. Most do not like what they see. Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University, told a conference of his fellow university presidents in March that:

“We all know that the character of undergraduate experience has deteriorated in our lifetimes, especially so in the last decades. And we know in our hearts of hearts that this experience can and should be much better”

Data collected from undergraduates confirm Dr. Campbell’s point – the National Survey of Student Engagement shows that Canadian students are less engaged and less satisfied with their schools and instructors than their American peers.

Ontario universities can better serve their undergraduate students, and do so with low-cost but high quality alternatives, argue professors Ian Clark, David Trick, and Richard Van Loon in their new book Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario. They released their book at the University of Toronto Nov. 2.

PPGR Exclusive: Interview with authors of “Academic Reform”

Notably, there are some important reasons why undergraduates have come to be underserved in Ontario’s universities.

When Harvey Weingarten – former president of the University of Calgary, now the CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario – addressed the C.D. Howe Institute a few weeks ago, he identified three fiscal reasons why the undergraduate experience is deteriorating.

First, expanding student bodies – which after 60 years of growth still show no sign of abatement – are driving up costs. Second, the internal rate of inflation inside schools typically runs 1-2 per cent above the Consumer Price Index because of specialized materials, supplies, and labour costs. Third, and finally, schools are continuously investing in new buildings, resources, and learning experiences.

Funding these expenses is not easy. Universities live out of a basket of government grants, tuition, and entrepreneurial revenue. Since the 1980s, however, expenditure growth has outpaced revenue growth. The only way to overcome this structural imbalance is to take in more students. As Dr. Weingarten told his audience,

“In short, the sad but inevitable consequence of the way we now manage and fund public postsecondary education in Canada is an erosion of quality.”

With an empty treasury, it is unlikely that the government can ride to the rescue. This stark fact has prompted a debate on available policy options to improve the quality of undergraduate education at minimal or no cost to the public. Alongside calls for transparent accountability, a critical consensus is starting to gel around the notion of institutional differentiation for schools. In a nutshell, this means allowing universities to choose their own values and goals, and giving them the autonomy to pursue them by changing existing government incentives, which have thus far micromanaged Ontario’s universities into having an expensive research-heavy focus.

In 2009, Ian Clark, Greg Moran, and Michael L. Skolnik, and David Trick argued in their book Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario that a differentiated system should allow teaching-oriented universities to flourish, charged with an exclusive mission to provide a high-quality undergraduate education. Two years later, this focus seems prescient. Public attention is finally locking on to the issue of oversized classes, distant faculty-student contact, and institutional reliance on harried session instructors. In his October 21st, 2011 column in the Globe and Mail, Jeffery Simpson forcefully summarized the collective result: “undergraduate students”, he wrote, “… have been getting the shaft.”

Now, Academic Transformation is succeeded by Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario, written Ian Clark, David Trick, and Richard Van Loon. In a preview op-ed for the Toronto Star, Dr. Trick claims:

“Suppose we compare two new universities with 10,000 students — one teaching-oriented, the other based on the traditional model. A detailed financial analysis prepared for our new book, Academic Reform, shows the teaching-oriented university could balance its budget while offering students classes that are 44 per cent smaller than the traditional university. It could also offer lower tuition, saving students $2,000 over their four-year programs.”

With numbers like this, buzz is starting to build. James Downey, former president of Carleton University, the University of New Brunswick, and the University of Waterloo, as well as the founding president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, calls Academic Reform a “splendid book.” Lorne Whitehead, a former provost at the University of British Columbia and a current Carnegie Fellow, writes “I hope and believe that this solid, inspiring work will play a key role in advancing the long overdue improvements it so insightfully describes.”

It remains to be seen though, whether decision makers will pick up and examine these new options. With a minority government at Queen’s Park, risk aversion could easily be the order of the day. Furthermore, universities jealously guard their academic autonomy and are historically loathe to accept limits on it. Ultimately, though, demographics should force action. In 2007, roughly 45% of Ontarians aged 18-24 were full-time students at a postsecondary institution. Both the number and percentage of young Ontarians in higher education is expected to climb, despite their shrinking share in the demographic makeup of the province. Finally, as Ontario’s economy moves away from heavy industry, future job-growth will come from effectively using Ontario’s human capital.  According to Bob Rae’s 2005 report for the Ontario government – Ontario: A Leader in Learning – up to 70% of new jobs will require some university experience. Giving tomorrow’s undergraduates a suboptimal university education is not the way to build for this future – and we will surely pay dearly if we allow it to continue.

John Blattler is a second-year student in the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. He holds a Master’s of Arts in English Literature (Toronto), a Bachelor’s of Education (British Columbia), and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Classical Studies (British Columbia). 


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Brent Barron says:

    The Rae report states that 70% of new jobs will require some *post-secondary* experience, not *university* experience. A critical distinction for those who feel that colleges, with a focus on developing skills for the labour market, should be the major PSE growth area. #corrections

  2. John Blattler says:


    Thanks for the correction. That was an oversight on my part. Rae writes:

    “The federal government estimates that up to 70% of all future jobs created in Canada will require some postsecondary education.” (Rae, 2005)

    And I completely agree with your point that colleges are essential for Ontario’s wellbeing and cannot be ignored or minimized in any meaningful strategy.

    Let’s grab a coffee sometime and discuss further.


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