How Canadian Universities Are Managing Change

By McConaghy, Tom | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1997 | Go to article overview

How Canadian Universities Are Managing Change


McConaghy, Tom, Phi Delta Kappan


Canadian universities are entering a period of self-examination. University officials in most provinces are being forced to tackle the task of restructuring their institutions in order to weather the fourth year of government cutbacks and to survive in a global society. Surprisingly, many administrators are optimistic about the new order emerging on their campuses. They see a more vibrant and meaningful university as we enter the 21st century.

Canadian universities expanded rapidly after World War II both to accommodate returning veterans and to make higher education more widely accessible to students, regardless of their economic status. Money was not an issue as billions of dollars were spent on building universities in all provinces. In addition to readily available scholarships, bursaries, fellowships, and other kinds of monetary awards, good-paying jobs were also plentiful in the summer months. Thus very few students were piling up huge debts. Even in the more costly areas of study, such as medicine, debt was not a serious problem for most students.

This situation prevailed for a number of decades. For instance, in 1985 only 3% of medical students owed more than $75,000 on graduation day. Just 10 years later, however, more than 30% of graduates in medicine had debts in that range.

Until cash-strapped universities were forced by circumstances to make revolutionary changes, they were slow-moving monoliths that resisted changes in governance and continued to operate much as they had since the turn of the century, when they were small academies available only to an elite group. But the 1990s provided a wake-up call for most of Canada's universities. Today's students are no longer the carefree lot that filled the halls of academe from the 1950s through the 1970s. Instead, they are saddled with very large debt loads; the average debt of graduates today is $17,000, whereas in 1990 it was $8,700. Federal estimates suggest that it will climb to $25,000 by 1998.

In these trying times, many universities are finding creative ways to stay afloat. Most are already in the throes of downsizing, and many have offered their senior faculty members very attractive retirement packages. For example, last year 115 of the 800 full-time professors at Montreal's Concordia University accepted a retirement package.

The University of Alberta is planning for the biggest change of academic staff in 30 years. During the 1960s, as the university was expanding, the shortage of professors was a problem, and faculty members were recruited from around the world. Approximately half of the present faculty of 1,400 will be retiring in five years. The question posed by this turnover in faculty members is how to recruit top-rated professors when salary freezes are in effect. In addition, other problems affect recruitment, including poorly equipped laboratories, deficient research libraries, and lack of up-to-date technology. To meet this challenge, the University of Alberta has put together a high-profile team to attract $1 billion in external research funding by the year 2000.

Most provincial governments have allowed their universities to charge higher fees in the past few years. Quebec, where student fees have been frozen for three years and are now the lowest in Canada, is the exception. Quebec has a very militant student body, and for political reasons the provincial government has acquiesced to the students' demands to keep fees low.

Not only are student fees rising rapidly in most provinces, but a majority of students are forced to work in order to help finance part of their education. In the 1994-95 school year, 67% of full-time students held a job, compared to 55% just four years earlier. Their average weekly income remained about the same, while their average spending on supplies increased from $584 in 1990-91 to $982 in 1994-95. In addition, financial support from parents fell by an average of about $800 over the same period. …

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