Saturday, January 31, 2009

Recessions and universities

During recessions, more people tend to enroll in universities, both to improve their credentials and to wait out the tough economic times in a (hopefully) stimulating environment. At most universities across Ontario (with the notable exception of York), first year applications are up - by about 6% in the case of my institution, the University of Guelph.

This week, York University's contract faculty and teaching assistants were legislated back to work. The University of Toronto's contract faculty have struck a tentative deal on Thursday. While I did not agree with all of the York union's demands, both they and the university's president pointed to one crucial issue which is being overlooked. University funding is stagnating, as enrollment continues to rise. Promised increases in university funding, which were supposed to keep pace with inflation, have been halted by Dalton McGuinty's government. This is particularly troublesome when you consider that this is the same government that encouraged Ontario's universities to hire more faculty in order to grow their graduate programs. They did, and now the promised funding isn't coming through.

At the same time, the federal government, which also contributes to university funding (especially through scholarships and research funds) is also causing headaches. While the spend-o-rama federal budget included funds for capital improvement, it cut back on funding to the major research granting councils, and scrapped funding to the Genome project.

What does all of this mean? Well, unless one level of government or the other decides to think about the long-term implications of their decisions, it means that universities will be filled with more and more students, who are increasingly taught in nice buildings with massive lecture halls to accommodate huge class sizes. They will be increasingly taught by part-time faculty who don't have time to do research because their teaching load is so high. The lucky faculty who do land tenure-track jobs will also find themselves with larger class sizes, and fewer teaching assistants to help them grade and run tutorial groups. And they will be competing for an ever-shrinking pool of research funding - assuming that they have time to squeeze in a bit of research in between grading for the hundreds of students they teach each term.

I'm not optimistic that the next provincial budget will include increased university funding. Although more and more Ontarians are sending their children to university and college, post-secondary education is the poor cousin of the provincial budget, falling far behind health and primary/secondary education. Because its benefits are long-term, it probably won't be seen as a priority area for a "stimulus package", and it's not going to be perceived as a vote-getter. This is unfortunate, because the huge cohort of students flooding our universities will not be receiving the best education that they could.

Perhaps I'll be surprised, and Dalton McGuinty will show some long-term vision, and use the recession to improve how institutions are funded, with a view to the future. But judging by past experience at the provincial level, and the fingers-in-the-dyke approach to crisis management being demonstrated in Ottawa, I'm sadly not optimistic.

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