By Don McHoull
2015The health-care system is in crisis. Millions of aging baby-boomers, the oldest of them nearly 70, are overtaxing the province’s hospitals.
As it has for the past three decades, the provincial government plows more cash into health care at the expense of postsecondary education. Its reasoning is simple: Seniors vote in large numbers; students don’t. With no hope of increased government funding, Ryerson is forced to raise tuition to $10,000.
At the same time, universities are hit by a serious faculty shortage. Thousands of aging professors are retiring, while grad schools fail to churn out enough replacements.
Increasingly, many of those who do earn PhDs are choosing more lucrative work at American universities or in the private sector. The worst shortfalls are in science and engineering, and competition to hire profs from those fields is so intense that Ryerson is unable to replace many of its retiring faculty, hurting its research programs.
Class sizes rise, and more classes are taught by sessional instructors and retired profs teaching part time.
Ontario’s postsecondary education system is crumbling. After 60 years of unchecked expansion, the system is left with hundreds of aging buildings that would require billions of dollars to fix or replace.
Skyrocketing oil prices have plunged North America into a prolonged recession, and the provincial government has neither the will nor the ability to pump large amounts of cash into postsecondary education. Instead, it embarks on a massive restructuring program to make universities more cost-effective. In an attempt to cut down on administrative costs, smaller universities are merged together to create regional learning centres.
Entire faculties are slashed to eliminate redundancies in the system, and make universities more specialized. Ryerson avoids becoming a satellite campus of the University of Toronto, but finds many of its liberal arts programs cut back or eliminated. Ryerson’s main focus in the new order is to provide practical job training.
Trying to get the most bang for its buck, the government concentrates its spending on creating a group of elite research universities that can compete with American schools. Ryerson, with little history as a centre of research, is not among them. Instead it must struggle with overcrowded classrooms and budget cutbacks, and watch as a group of elite universities prosper.
Research has become a huge cash cow for universities, bringing in billions in grants and intellectual property rights, but little of that money winds up in Ryerson’s pockets.
Building new campuses or expanding old ones is too expensive for an underfunded system. Instead the government turns to virtual campuses as a cheaper way to meet the demand for postsecondary education. Courses from traditional universities are made available online, making it far cheaper to deliver education to students across the province.
Increasingly the focus is on educating workers, who need constant retraining to keep up with rapidly changing technology. Ryerson depends heavily on this market of older part-time students to stay in the black, but it faces steep competition from private universities like DeVry. With public funding for postsecondary education at an all-time low, universities must find revenue elsewhere.
Some, like Queen’s and U of T, find that wealthy parents are willing to pay near-American level tuition fees to ensure their offspring an elite education. Poorer universities like Ryerson depend more heavily on making private sector deals. Increasingly the curriculum is driven by the needs of massive corporations.
Postsecondary education has become one of the biggest industries in America.The worldwide demand for knowledge is booming, and online education allows American schools to grab a big chunk of the market.
Private American universities have been accredited in Canada for almost 50 years, but have focused mainly on training older workers. Now they turn their efforts to capturing the lucrative undergraduate market. Dozens of elite universities have banded together to create huge for-profit virtual universities.
Other private companies set up no-frills campuses in suburban areas around the country. Students, already used to doing much of their learning online, readily flock to the new American schools. Billion-dollar advertising campaigns have made the new universities and their star faculty members household names.
With millions of students worldwide and low overhead costs, the private universities can afford to undercut the tuition prices of the bloated and decaying public university system.
Degrees, long the life blood of traditional universities, are becoming obsolete. In a world of constant technological change, a piece of paper hung on a wall means nothing. Instead, students are trained in job-related competencies. Each new skill learned is recorded in a central database, allowing companies to quickly check the qualifications of potential employees.
The success of private education leaves the government little incentive to fund public universities. The most promising students receive scholarships from the elite research universities, but most students must pay for their education with loans. The demand for liberal arts education falls away, as risk-wary bankers prefer to invest their money in students seeking more market-oriented education.
Only an elite group of the brightest and richest students receive what was once thought of as a classical education. In small classrooms in ivy-covered buildings, they study classical literature, philosophy and history the way mediaeval elites used to study Latin and Greek. At Ryerson, by contrast, office workers take retraining courses provided by private education providers that have signed deals with the university.
Society begins to decay. The education system no longer produces critically thinking citizens, but rather well-honed cogs for corporate machines. Most knowledge is now privately owned, and available only to those who can pay. Without the bulwark of a well educated citizenry, democracy gives way to a military-industrial dictatorship.
As competition for dwindling natural resources heats up, the world erupts in endless war.
As plague sweeps through the city, Ryerson is finally abandoned. A few universities will remain open, keeping alive the light of knowledge in a new dark age, but not Ryerson. It is already nothing but a shell, its only function to churn out workers for industries that no longer exist. One day, though, in an even more distant future, a marauding band of warlords breaks into an underground chamber that had once been the RAC.
Inside, they find thousands of books, stored there when Ryerson’s library closed. Ironically, Ryerson’s meagre library holdings–once so decried by Maclean’s magazine’s annual university rankings–have become an invaluable store of knowledge in a world of ignorance and savagery.
As Bob Rae notes in his Postsecondary Review: “Since 1987, there has been an 18% decline in real per capita provincial operating spending on postsecondary education (at the same time that health expenditure per capita has risen more than 30% in real terms).”
Rae also writes that by the end of the decade, Ontario will need an estimated 11,000 new professors, but “with a shortage of graduate students (compared to our peer U.S. states), we won’t have enough qualified people.”
The 1996 provincial government discussion paper Future Goals for Ontario Colleges and Universities suggests that universities need to become more specialized. “Since many, very different types of programs are needed to meet the range of existing needs, it may be better, both in terms of cost effectiveness and program quality, for some institutions to specialize in particular areas rather than trying to offer a comprehensive set of programs.”
In 1994, a paper by the Ontario Council on University Affairs suggested a controversial plan to separate university funding based on research and teaching. One critic, writing in a faculty association publication, suggested the plan would create a system where “star” universities received all of the research money, leaving the rest of the universities to “process ever larger numbers of McStudent outputs.”
At a 1995 meeting in Denver, governors of 11 western states hatched the idea to create a virtual university. Western Governors University started operations in 1998. Author and former professor Mary Burgan describes it in The Chronicle of Higher Education as growing “in part from the reluctance of governors from states in the Southwest and the West to build campuses to accommodate projected influxes of populations–including a large measure of minority, immigrant, and single-parent students.
Those governors fastened onto the notion, eagerly sponsored by technology proprietors, that the computer could present a reasonable alternative to costly new campuses.”
The Canadian Federation of Students are very alarmed by this trend, noting on their website that “[i]n 2001, CISCO Systems donated $750,000 over the next five years, and $500,000 in equipment in exchange for influence in designing the curriculum for Carleton’s new undergraduate information-technology programme.”
In 1999, a report by financial managment and advisory company Merrill Lynch estimated that the worldwide education market was worth about $2 trillion.
In 2001, the government of Alberta gave DeVry Institute of Technology in Calgary (part of a for-profit chain of American universities) the right to grant degrees.
Such alliances already exist. One of the largest is the Universitas 21, a group of 17 elite universities from around the world, including McGill and UBC. In a joint venture with Thomson Learning, this group is currently working on developing for-profit online education targeting emerging markets in Asia and South America.
10 The largest private university in America is the University of Phoenix, which has more than 250,000 students and campuses in 15 states, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico and Vancouver. Although it mainly serves older students, according to insidehighered.com it has recently begun targeting undergraduate-age students. In the most recent fiscal quarter, its parent company had earnings of $87.1 million US.
A theory proposed by Arthur Levine, president of Teacher’s College, Columbia University, in an essay in the book The Wired Tower. Levine foresees an era of “rock star” profs.
Levine again, on the end of degrees. “Every person will have an educational passport. In the future, each person’s education will occur not only in a cornucopia of different settings and geographic locales, but also via a plathora of different educational providers.”
“A vigorous culture capable of stabalizing itself depends heavily on its educated people, and especially on their critical capacities and depth of understanding.”