University growing pains

By increasing quantity, Reaching Higher has decreased the quality of education in Ontario

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the $6.2 billion Reaching Higher plan in 2005.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the $6.2 billion Reaching Higher plan in 2005.

Governments have the unfortunate tendency of aiming high but missing the mark. An example of this is the Ontario government’s Reaching Higher plan, which was designed to improve the accessibility and quality of Ontario universities.

It has certainly succeeded in improving accessibility, over 120,000 more students are currently enrolled in Ontario universities and colleges than were enrolled in 2003.

Quality is a separate issue. Funding under the Reaching Higher plan was tied to various growth targets, so universities have done everything short of getting rid of the kitchen sink to cram more students in.

Although, with the conversion of many residence common rooms into double rooms, the kitchen sink at Queen’s is often gone too.

Queen’s has chased growth targets aggressively. In the past 10 years, it has added 2,500 undergraduate spaces, the equivalent of almost three Victoria Halls worth of students.

Graduate enrollment has increased as well. There are 50 per cent more graduate students than there were 10 years ago; the number of new graduate students would fill Victoria Hall almost twice.

Yet only 70 tenure-track professors have been added during the same period.

In other words, for every professor recruited at Queen’s, we have accepted 35 more undergraduate students and 18 more graduate students.

This growth has led to several major challenges. Due to tuition caps, Ontario universities have been unable to raise revenue fast enough to keep up with cost increases.

The government has also been unwilling to cover the shortfall.

Paradoxically, these pressures have created a situation where enrollment is increasing but resources are decreasing.

For instance, there are 35 sections of English classes instead of the 50 there used to be.

This reflects lower course availability, more students in each class and less flexibility for students interested in taking English courses.

Quality has decreased in other areas of the University as well. In science programs, labs and tutorials have been cut.

Medial degree programs and many degree options and combinations have also been lost.

Entire departments, such as language studies, have faced the chopping block.

In Where Next?, Principal Woolf’s vision document for the future of the University, he states that rather than doing more with less, Queen’s needs to begin to do “less with less.” Spend a minute thinking about what this means.

What is truly appalling with this statement is that, in the context of the University’s financial situation, he is correct.

If you disagree, take some time to read the 2010-2011 Budget Report (posted online at Woolf’s conclusion appears to be both obvious and unavoidable.

In this situation it is absurd to focus on growth; to do less with less for more people.

Yet this may just be the beginning. The next phase of the Reaching Higher plan has a target of providing 70 per cent of the Ontario population with a university degree.

Much of the population is employed in industry, retail or services; why is it an advantage for many of these people to have degrees? Why is the government continuing to emphasize quantity of education over quality?

In many ways, Ontario has been giving education the “Field of Dreams” approach: if you build an educated population, industry and commerce will come.

The problem is that we have been building bigger, not better.

Increasing the percentage of the population with a university degree means nothing when the value of a university degree drops.

Furthermore, this approach does a great disservice to students, especially those pursuing graduate degrees.

Due to the increased graduate enrollment there are now 23 PhD students in Philosophy at Queen’s, with another 16 pursuing Master’s degrees.

Presumably, many of these students want to remain in academia. There are currently no jobs in Philosophy at Queen’s.

This is not just picking on the social sciences. Chemistry has 45 PhD students and has no jobs in academia posted.

There are 54 PhD students in Biology and the staff recruitment link on the department’s webpage doesn’t even work.

This situation is more than a little disturbing. Ontario’s funding decisions have encouraged universities to increase the number of graduate students but have simultaneously decreased the number of job opportunities for these students when they graduate.

The Ontario government will spend billions of dollars over the next few years on its “Reaching Even Higher” program.

Rather than attempting to increase enrollment, the focus of this spending should be on improving quality to achieve and maintain academic standards.

The Ontario government’s pursuit of enrollment growth hurts the quality of our education and is diminishing the number of opportunities available to us when we graduate. Its policy is rooted in idealism rather than reality.

As students, we know the value of our experience and we are the first ones to feel the impact of this decision.

Students should get more directly involved in the academic planning process at Queen’s, and speak up about what we really need.

On a larger scale, we can get involved with organizations such as the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), which represents student interests to the Ontario government.

Now is the time to stand up and defend the quality of your education.

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