Does Ontario really need three new universities?

TorStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sat Jan 14 2012.   Rick Miner

Do we really need three new university campuses in Ontario?

That’s the province’s response to improving access to post-secondary education in order to reach its target of having 70 per cent of the workforce attain some level of higher education.

Certainly, post-secondary attainment levels need to improve. A report I released last year examining workforce demographics and transformations in the workplace predicts that in 10 years’ time, more than 700,000 people in Ontario will be unemployable due to insufficient education and training.

However, it’s unlikely the proposed changes to post-secondary education that are currently being discussed in Ontario will address this challenge.

Even if the new universities or campuses are launched as teaching-oriented universities — which are less expensive — it’s doubtful the academic community will allow that model to continue over the long term. Eventually, the institutions will become “real” universities, with all the associated research and administrative costs.

And the added expense for new university spaces is unlikely to significantly change the number of people who are properly trained for the workforce.

Currently, many university students are spending more time in school than initially planned. That’s because they graduate from university without the qualifications to find meaningful work and have to pursue further programs at Ontario’s colleges.

In 2003, there were 11,291 university graduates enrolling in colleges. By 2010, that number rose to 19,572, an increase of 73 per cent. These figures would be even more dramatic if we included the 14,412 students enrolled in full-time college programs who have some university credits. That is the size of three or four universities.

Many of these students entered university expecting their university degree would lead to a job. Little did they realize their route to employment would take much longer, resulting in a significant level of debt, frustration, and lost income.

As taxpayers, we pay for their education twice. We pay universities to educate students in a four-year bachelor’s program and when they have difficulty finding a job, we pay the colleges to give them a one- or two-year job-related program. It also creates unnecessary costs for students. They pay twice, as well. Do we really have enough money to further expand this double-payment model by creating more universities?

The focus of our attention right now seems to be on what is best for universities and what is politically popular, rather than what is in the best interest of students.

What should Ontario do to increase post-secondary attainment levels?

The focus needs to be on delivering higher education to people who, traditionally, wouldn’t have pursued any education after high school. In most cases, these are students who have had academic challenges and find theoretical learning more difficult than hands-on training.

We should probably be looking at a different or expanded role for colleges, and new partnership arrangements between colleges and universities that allow students to get career-focused higher education in a more expedient (and less costly) manner.

Within the college sector, reforms should be implemented that ensure that any college student moving from a diploma program to a degree program is able to complete his/her education within four years of study.

We might also want to consider creating different types of institutions that make our system stronger.

Rather than being university fixated, let’s refocus the debate on models and approaches that break the mould and put students and our economy first.

Our post-secondary system is not a hierarchy. Ontario’s universities and colleges have unique and often complementary expertise that should be better utilized for the sake of our students and the province’s economy.

We need to be willing to ask different and difficult questions. Most of all, we need the fortitude to withstand the pressures from those who will resist change.

Rick Miner, president emeritus of Seneca College, has three decades of senior management experience in universities and colleges.

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