Undergraduates: Their Future

Behind the desk of Emöke Szathmáry hangs a century-old photograph of a native Canadian woman, her eyes fixed firmly on the camera, an infant held tightly in her arms. "To me, she symbolizes strength," says the new president of the UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA.

Undergraduates: Their Future

Behind the desk of Emöke Szathmáry hangs a century-old photograph of a native Canadian woman, her eyes fixed firmly on the camera, an infant held tightly in her arms. "To me, she symbolizes strength," says the new president of the UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA. "Standing erect, protecting her child - she is clearly a very resourceful woman." And one with whom Szathmáry can no doubt identify. When she arrived on campus last July, the university was heading into its fourth consecutive year of government cutbacks and declining enrolment. In June, the student union had released the "Path to Excellence," a blistering 30-page critique of university policy that called for the elimination or downsizing of programs in which enrolment was dropping, and demanded a greater say for students on everything from curriculum design to strategic planning. In May, Minister of Education and Training Linda McIntosh had introduced a bill - now passed - to give the government sweeping new powers to set academic and funding priorities at the province's universities, and ordering them to work more closely with community colleges. Says Szathmáry: "I am facing a government that is using a cudgel approach to change and a student body whose actions have put everyone's teeth on edge. This is a very adversarial time to be doing this job."

Like university presidents across the country, Szathmáry is learning some hard lessons in a highly demanding subject. Some might call it Reality 101. Its prerequisites are a tough skin and a keen eye for the bottom line. Its required assignments are to predict and play the marketplace of ideas, divest the enterprise of weak divisions, and maximize returns to nervous investors. Its instructors? Hard-nosed governments and a student body that has transformed itself from Generation X into Generation Y. Why can't professors spend more time ensuring that courses are professionally relevant? Why is the focus on expanding the intellect rather than expanding marketable skills? Why don't four years of hard work and high bills lead more directly to a good career? "It's pretty simple," says Trevor Lines, president of the University of Manitoba Students' Union. "The university has got to learn some priorities. It has to zero in on what it does well, what it doesn't, and what exactly its tuition-paying clients need to survive in the outside world."

In fact, both students and governments are becoming downright dictatorial in their quest to turn the ivory tower into a sleek and efficient employment machine. Slashing budgets, politicians are taking a firm hand in the division of the spoils: diverting scarce resources to vocational training, pressing universities to work more closely with local colleges, dispensing seed money to private-sector educators, and setting aside special funds for universities that produce job-ready graduates or that replace traditional classrooms with high-tech, on-line learning. "There are some who think this will all go away," says UNIVERSITY OF SASKATCHEWAN president George Ivany. "That's bullshit. We are witnessing a fundamental reorientation of how we operate, what we offer and who we are."

As cash-strapped universities scramble to accommodate the demands of their student and government investors, many administrators maintain that higher education is fast becoming education for hire. Manitoba's new legislation, for example, requires written government approval for any university or college that wishes to expand, significantly modify or cease to provide a program of study. And McIntosh makes no apologies for what some are calling political interference, noting that federal cuts to postsecondary education, health and social services will total $7 billion nationwide over the next two years. Declares the minister: "The days are gone when we could say, 'Here's hundreds of millions of dollars and we won't ask you what you intend to do with it.'" And the orders do not have to be in writing for the pressure to be real. "A new program in agricultural BIOTECHNOLOGY? Yes, that may get special funding," says Ivany, who has eliminated 195 positions over four years in response to government cuts of 11 per cent. "But try finding new money for classics departments or courses in gender studies. You won't."

Increasingly beholden to the outside world, many academics fear that universities are losing the critical distance needed to nourish the ideas that fuel a modern knowledge-based economy. Even among students, there are grave concerns about the pace and direction of change. Some predict the emergence of a two-tiered university system, with those institutions that succeed in playing the market beginning to charge top dollar for their top-drawer offerings. Others are questioning whether a focus on bottom-line relevance will make for any great universities at all. "Since when has the market been the goalpost for quality?" asks Brad Lavigne, chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students. "The economy will get what it needs, at least in the short term. But will students get the education they deserve?"

Still, for many undergraduates, any fear that universities will be compromised by the real world is outweighed by their determination to prepare themselves for a career within it. "Simply put," says Peter Emberley, author of Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities, "students are deathly afraid of not finding jobs." And they have every reason to be. For too many, university has become a debt sentence. Fees have climbed 140 per cent in the past decade, to an average of about $3,000, while government grants have gone the way of the handwritten essay - if not extinct, getting pretty close. For the three-fifths of Canadian students forced to take loans, average debt loads for four years of study have climbed to $17,000 this year from $8,700 in 1990. And according to federal estimates, that number could jump to $25,000 by 1998.

Reeling from sticker shock, students are discovering that the product comes with no guarantees. In August, officials at the UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA in Edmonton proudly trumpeted the findings of a survey showing that 98.5 per cent of the class of 1990 were employed in 1995. While impressive, the news was not all healthy paycheques and generous benefit plans. Only two-thirds had secured full-time, permanent positions. And only 40 per cent described their job as "directly related" to what they had studied. A recent survey of Quebec graduates, meanwhile, found that in 1994, only 58 per cent had full-time jobs two years after leaving school, compared with 77 per cent polled in 1982. Numbers like those make many students see red. "If you pay $100 for a lawnmower, you expect a certain product, certain guarantees," says Lines. "If you pay $200, you expect a better product, better guarantees."

And among graduates, it is arts and science majors who appear to have the hardest time landing on their feet. In both the Alberta study and another that tracked the 1993 graduates of British Columbia's three universities, former arts majors were among the most likely to be working in jobs unrelated to what they had studied. What's more, they had among the lowest median annual incomes. "Corporations say they want graduates with broad analytical, thinking and organizational skills," says Marsha Hanen, president of the UNIVERSITY OF WINNIPEG. "But more and more, when they actually hire, they say, 'I need this, and I need this, and I need it now.'"

Such doubletalk may be one reason students appear to be making a slow but unmistakable shift towards more practical programs. Nationwide enrolments in political science, English and history dropped between 1991 and 1994, following a decade of steady growth, while those in such fields as nursing, computer science and environmental studies continued to edge upward. It may also explain why overall undergraduate numbers peaked two years ago, and actually fell by just under one per cent last year - the first drop since 1978.

"These are real warning signs to universities," says Sid Gilbert, a professor of educational sociology at the UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH. "Young people look at tuition rates, debt loads, their economic chances, and it all looks radically different from even five or 10 years ago. They appear to be thinking, 'Maybe university was once a ticket to success, but that's not the reality now.' "

At a time when universities - like their students - face intense competition, many presidents are working hard to turn that around. At CARLETON UNIVERSITY in Ottawa, a report released in late October recommends the closure of the religion and classics departments, and a reallocation of science faculty into software technology programs, where job growth in the region is growing by up to 20 per cent annually. According to Carleton president Richard Van Loon, the logic behind those changes is simple. "Why do students come to university?" he asks. "Mostly because they want jobs, and to be well positioned for the rest of their lives." At MCMASTER UNIVERSITY in Hamilton, president Peter George put the challenge bluntly in a speech last fall. "We must start asking ourselves tough questions," said George. "'Who is the customer? How can we serve the best interests of the customer? How can we do it even more cost-effectively?' "

As administrators pose those questions, students are jockeying to play a greater role in framing the answers. Many are making significant headway into the halls of power. For the first time ever, undergraduates at St. Thomas University in Fredericton secured four seats on the 29-member senate this fall. Beginning in May, 1997, the 44-member board of governors at QUEEN'S UNIVERSITY in Kingston, Ont., will include two student representatives. Saying that "students have made it clear they want this thrust," education minister McIntosh paired her new legislation with a law that guarantees students at the University of Manitoba one-quarter of the seats on each institution's board of governors - an unprecedented political guarantee of an unprecedented level of representation. "The stakes are too high, and the need to be heard is too great," says student union president Lines. "The days are gone when it is enough to stand on the steps of the legislature or the administration building and throw macaroni and scream."

Determined to keep their clients happy, other universities are aiming to pre-empt the need for senate votes and picket signs by paying closer attention to consumer demand. UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE president Howard Tennant now maintains a system of "flow-through tuition," channelling student fees directly into the budgets of the faculties in which students are registered. The higher the enrolment, the greater the funding. "It comes down to making a business decision every time you make an academic one," says Tennant. "Universities are there to satisfy students, and this gives them one measure of how they're doing."

Alberta Minister of Advanced Education Jack Ady will soon begin applying a similar formula to entire universities. This fall, government officials began measuring such "key performance indicators" as student satisfaction and the employment rate of graduates at all publicly funded postsecondary institutions. Early in 1997, Ady will issue what he calls "a report card" on each school. And beginning next April, a portion of each institution's funding will be tied to its performance. "It's a way of forcing schools to correct their deficiencies," says Ady, "by becoming responsive."

If client satisfaction is the goal, some are actively arguing that it is high time to eliminate the middleman altogether - and put government funding directly into customers' pockets. "The best way to empower students," insists Kenneth Ozmon, president of SAINT MARY'S UNIVERSITY in Halifax, "is to remove politicians from the day-to-day running of universities." Ozmon, along with a growing number of academics, advocates a so-called voucher system, in which governments issue postsecondary funding directly to students, who then convert it into tuition at the school, and in the program, of their choice. "Governments should begin limiting their role to what it is in the restaurant business," says Ozmon. "Inspect the kitchen on behalf of the general public, and then let the customers decide whose food is worth buying."

While governments continue to provide more than three-quarters of university revenues, most balk at such a challenge to their authority. Still, Alberta is not the only province determined to hand students a greater role in reshaping higher education. This fall, British Columbia is underwriting one of the boldest experiments in student power with the opening of Royal Roads University in Victoria. Located on the grounds of the historic former military academy closed by Ottawa cutbacks, the school's explicit mandate is to develop a curriculum in consultation with student groups and industry representatives, in an effort to provide the specific high-level skills needed by the B.C. economy. When it opened its doors to 400 students this September, Royal Roads offered two undergraduate degrees: a bachelor of arts in entrepreneurship and a bachelor of science in environmental sustainability. President Gerald Kelly insists that he is merely following the early lead of many traditional Canadian universities, which in recent years have launched 27 MBA programs aimed at fitting graduates for detailed industry niches. Says Kelly: "Our whole purpose is to work with the public and the market. In many ways, we are simply joining the mainstream."

Still, others see the thin edge of a very dangerous wedge: vastly higher tuition. Precisely because it comes with a virtual guarantee of employment, an MBA from Queen's, for example, also comes with a $23,500 price tag. And while the B.C. government currently requires Kelly to charge standard provincial fees, covering roughly 20 per cent of program costs, Royal Roads hopes that it will be allowed to charge full tuition for planned graduate programs in the future. "We're witnessing the outright selling off of university programs," says student leader Lavigne. "The logical end point is a two-tiered U.S.-style system, with one class of private universities offering cost-recovery programs to those who can afford them, and a second class of universities for the rest of Canadians."

There are certainly more traditional ways of giving students a leg up on the world of work. For years, universities like SIMON FRASER in Burnaby, B.C., and Ontario's UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO have offered co-operative degrees, alternating semesters of traditional classroom instruction with on-the-job training. Now, others are experimenting with variations on that approach. One of the most intriguing examples is Carleton's new College of the Humanities, whose curriculum is heavily weighted towards such traditional subjects as history, literature and philosophy. "Our aim, first and foremost, is to offer the most well-rounded, rigorous liberal arts education we can," says Zero Tolerance author Emberley, who is the college's founding director. "But we also realize that students live in the real world, and that it would be parochial in the extreme simply to offer another 'great books' course."

To that end, each of the 50 students in this fall's inaugural class is required to intern at a variety of local companies. In addition, each is assigned one of 50 businessmen and other professionals who have agreed to act as intellectual and professional mentors. To the cautious consumers of Generation Y, such a combination has evident appeal. This year's incoming students had an average entering grade of 88.6 per cent. "By the time I leave here, I plan to have lots of specific skills," says Rodney Larsen from St. Stephen, N.B. "But I also intend to be able to speak my mind, and to express my thoughts and feelings accurately, whether I'm writing a novel or chairing a meeting."

In a highly wired world, it is perhaps inevitable that academics are also exploring the information highway as a way to drive home practical lessons. This fall, 20 undergraduates signed up for what the UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY is billing "a lectureless course" in media studies. In fact, there are two introductory lectures by Prof. Tim Buell. After that, he limits his time with students to informal meetings, and encourages them to make use of libraries, public archives - and the vast resources of the World Wide Web. He also invites them to work with professors from other departments, as well as real-world experts who have agreed to take part. "If they get interested in an aspect of engineering, I can send them off to an engineering professor," says Buell. "If they want to know more about advertising, I have a communications consultant downtown ready to work as an adviser."

Other academics are looking at the Web as a way to prepare students for cutting-edge careers. Last summer, with $13.1 million in federal funding and additional money from such high-tech communications firms as Microsoft Canada Ltd. and Rogers Cablesystems Ltd., researchers at Simon Fraser launched the TeleLearning Research Network, which includes a project known as Virtual University. A prototype for a nationwide cyberspace campus, it connects 750 students and 130 professors at 12 test sites including the University of Alberta in Edmonton and UNIVERSITÉ DE LAVAL in Quebec City. While enabling students to incorporate on-line learning into their coursework, the project's long-term goal is to perfect both the software and the teaching methods to equip future students for highly integrated learning cultures. Saying she is "against lectures - I don't like lecture halls," network leader Linda Harasim describes Virtual University as "a 21st-century model of higher education that can produce knowledge workers for a knowledge economy."

Not everyone in the university community so keenly embraces that notion. David Noble, an expert in the history of technology at YORK UNIVERSITY in Toronto, describes the corporate involvement in Virtual U as "menacing," and the university itself as a "bald attempt to turn teaching and learning into high-tech commodities that can be bought and sold." Some students, meanwhile, are pondering the trade-off between high-tech relevance and old-fashioned low-tech pedagogy. "Education is not just about the delivery of information," says Heather Cameron, a student in social and political thought at York and a graduate teaching associate of the university's Centre for the Support of Teaching. "Universities talk about giving students critical thinking skills, mental flexibility, value-added this and that. Then they want to set them loose on the Internet, give them an e-mail address, and call it higher education."

While some universities are nudging students onto the information highway, others continue to take more well-trod routes to relevance. For several years, British Columbia and Alberta have insisted that universities work closely with community colleges: easing credit transfer, and encouraging university professors to teach courses on college campuses. And for more than two decades, both the UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF CAPE BRETON in Sydney, N.S., and Toronto's RYERSON POLYTECHNIC - given university status in 1993 - have granted both diplomas and degrees.

Now, for reasons both budgetary and philosophical, other provinces are making flexibility a cornerstone of higher education. McIntosh's new Manitoba legislation calls for what she describes as "an end to fiefdoms - a far greater degree of articulation" between the two types of institutions. Last spring, the government of Nova Scotia created two boards of governors - one English, one French - for the province's 21 community colleges, and approved the Metro Halifax Universities Consortium, which will co-ordinate course offerings and faculty appointments at the seven universities in that city. While those moves were part of a drive to rationalize costs, Education and Culture Minister Robert Harrison says they were also motivated by the government's determination to streamline communication between colleges and universities. "One of the greatest challenges facing both groups is learning to understand the other better," says the minister. "As that happens, I expect greater co-operation to follow."

And in Ontario, where academics have traditionally resisted such arrangements, new co-operative ventures are just around the corner. This month, the College-University Consortium Council recommended that the government give the green light - and seed money of $800,000 - to several of 41 proposals for the province's first co-operative degree-diploma programs. In addition, in early October, Education Minister John Snobelen, who cut $400 million from postsecondary budgets over the past year, committed $38 million to the construction of Seneca at York, a hybrid institution scheduled to open its doors on the York campus in the fall of 1998. Building on past alliances between the two institutions, it will offer such joint majors as applied chemistry, communication arts and early childhood education. But beyond specific programs, Seneca at York promises to offer a new educational product, one whose strength, in the words of York president Susan Mann, "lies in blending the analytical and the technical."

But will such a product really make Canadian universities stronger, healthier, more influential? Or in their efforts to become more consumer-oriented, will their greatest strengths be fundamentally diluted? "Because they are trying to be responsive, universities are having an identity crisis," says Kate Jenkins, president of the students' union at ACADIA UNIVERSITY in Wolfville, N.S. "They want to be colleges and they want to be universities. They want to give vocational training and produce graduates who can assess a situation, take charge, run with the ball. The big question is, 'Can they do all those things and still be universities?' "

Not everyone is sure that they can. "When you become driven by short-term goals, everything that achieves them starts to appear worthy and anything that conflicts with them is seen as bad," says Ronald Ianni, president of the UNIVERSITY OF WINDSOR. Such pressures, say some, threaten to undermine the very essence of the university as it struggles to retain its influence into the next century. "What we're losing sight of is the university's defining role as a place to step back from the immediate needs of society, of students, of the economy," says Frank Burke, a professor of film studies at Queen's. "As we get more involved in narrowcasting, we risk losing the ability to create new paradigms, and to propel the country into the future by promoting original thought."

In fact, as downsizing and deficit-cutting increase the demands on the university - and the strain on the social fabric - many argue that forward-thinking role will become even more vital. "In difficult times, it is important that we maintain a broad liberal education as a crucial part of the university experience," says Ianni. "There is a side of the brain that is creative, complex and reflective, and there is a side of society that should be that way, too. If we are to function as a person or as a society, we need to nurture both. If not, we are in for a kind of deformed development."

The challenge now facing universities is to strike their own delicate balance: to serve the needs of students and the economy without dissolving into mere service organizations. At her office at the University of Manitoba, Szathmáry, for one, says she is up to the challenge. "Some people get upset about using business talk. I don't. Our business is knowledge," says Szathmáry. "But for that business to thrive, we have to satisfy the country's need for ideas and information, our students' need for a relevant, thought-provoking education and the university's need to maintain a real measure of independence and autonomy." In a world that is asking universities to be many things, maintaining an intelligent balance will be no mean feat.

Maclean's November 25, 1996