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By Adrian Morrow

Last November, Ryerson President Sheldon Levy met with the presidents of the University of Toronto and York University to discuss what may be the biggest problem facing Canada’s post-secondary institutions: In a few years, the number of students vying to go to university and college in the GTA is set to rise to 40,000, far outstripping the capacity of city schools to accommodate it.

That same month, a report by Statistics Canada — based on historical trends in university enrolment and the expected growth of Canada’s population — came up with the highest prediction yet for undergraduate enrolment in the country.

It forecasted that Canadian universities would see more than 300,000 new applicants within a decade. Ryerson alone had a 20 per cent rise in applications last year.

The three presidents agreed that something had to be done. Days later, Levy told the Board of Governors that Ryerson wouldn’t grow at the expense of the quality of education, and revealed a possible solution to the problem of growing enrolment.

“I think we will see a new institution in the GTA,” he said. “And we’ll be supportive of that institution.” And while a new school would require money, time and political will, it might be the only solution to Toronto’s looming space crunch.

The sign says “Future Home of Post-Secondary Institution,” pointing to a piece of empty land hemmed in by railroad tracks and big box stores.

This lot in Milton, Ont. doesn’t belong to a college or university, but town council is offering it for free to the first institution that claims it.

The goal is to ensure that this town of 50,000 on the fringes of the GTA attracts a university to accommodate its young and fast-growing population.

“We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” says Mayor Gordon Krantz. “We’re waiting for the province or an institution to come to the table.” A

nd it might not be long until that happens. The province is conducting a broad review of university enrolment, and looking for a way to solve the space crunch.

“[We’re] aware that a long term solution is needed, and that we’d have to provide a minimum level of access at the regional level. That would include the GTA,” says Kevin Dove, spokesman for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. “We’re exploring new ways of increasing access.”

The ministry is looking at the capacity of the province’s entire post-secondary system to figure out how to accommodate the demand, but remain tight-lipped about the outcome.

There are several options on the table, says Rob Tiffin, vice president students at York University. “We’re prepared to grow in selected areas, but we also want to look at working with some of the [community] colleges,” he says, and York might also consider building another campus.

He also points out that, while the GTA is booming, other parts of the province have seen declining enrolment rates, and the government might consider helping Toronto students travel there rather than simply creating more space in the GTA.

“We’re still very much in the discussion stages. Over the next 15 years there’s going to be pressure to grow. It could take five years to create a new university,” he says.

At U of T, enrolment is under the miscroscope in Towards 2030, a plan to consult the school on the university’s future. Like York, U of T lists creating a new campus as a possibility, as well as making a new university.

“It could very well be that there are other solutions that are possible — you might have a co-operation between a college and a university like Guelph-Humber,” Levy says. “

There are different options for building a fourth university: one of them is that you could in fact look at a fourth university having many campuses: one in Mississauga, one in Markham, one in Milton.”

An arrangement like that would suit Krantz just fine. “In my opinion, it makes a lot of sense for them to do that,” he says, adding that universities and colleges are already showing interest in the free land his town is offering.

“I can tell you some of our senior staff have spoken with the province, and they’re interested.” The government won’t finish its review of post-secondary capacity until September and won’t make any decisions until then, Dove says. Creating a new university isn’t easy — the legislature would have to approve it, and the government would have to put forward the capital budget to buy land, build the school, and hire staff and faculty.

And the clock is ticking. “At the moment, everyone is waiting to see which direction the provincial government is going to start moving in. And they’re going to have to do it relatively soon,” Levy says. “If you’re going to build in downtown Toronto, you start today and you open it in four years — three years at the earliest. And you’re now all the way to 2012. We know by our data that 2012 is about as late as you can leave it to be able to have a real impact upon the demand,” he says.

For now, the three presidents are waiting for a solution to Toronto’s perfect storm.

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