On Campus

Is there really a looming university space crunch in Toronto?

National newspapers reported an enrolment bust in February--now they say it is an inevitable boom

With a provincial election in Ontario just around the corner, now is an ideal time to lobby politicians. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the pages of The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star in their articles about the looming space crunch at Toronto universities. The presidents of the three major campuses in the GTA—the University of Toronto, York University, and Ryerson University—have all put in their two cents about what to do about the surprise surge of students expected to fill their classrooms.

The articles say that between 40,000 and 75,000 additional spaces will be needed in the Greater Toronto Area(GTA)universities by the time current Grade 7ers are ready for post-secondary education. However, whether or not that estimate is accurate is far from clear. In fact, one needs only to dig a little deeper to see that the “inevitable” space crunch described in the newspapers(the Globe used the headline “Will there be space for your child?”)is up for debate.

As University Affairs Magazine noted, in February of this year the tone was very different. The National Post ran the headline “University boom headed for a bust” while the Globe went with “Declining student numbers risk country’s future.” So how did a looming bust in February turn into an inevitable boom in July?

Many of the estimates are supported by a May report by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada(AUCC), a national lobby group representing over 90 universities. The report suggests that despite falling demographics, university enrolment will continue on its uphill trend, bringing 70,000 to 150,000(9 to 18 per cent growth)additional students to university campuses nationally. Since the research is national, the report acknowledges that not all provinces and institutions will be affected equally.

Maybe that is what explains contradictory statements coming out of different areas in the country. Enrolment found itself in the news again in June when the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission reported that universities in the Eastern provinces should prepare to compete for international and out-of-province students because shifting demographics would see their traditional student pool shrink by 14 per cent. “In the past, when we have done projections it has always been with the assumption of growth built in,” said the commission’s CEO Mireille Duguay. “That’s changing.”

Duguay isn’t alone in disagreeing with AUCC’s cheery prediction of tens of thousands of students lining up for their turn at higher education. The gloomy February headlines were a reaction to yet another report, by the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which noted that Statistics Canada says that the number of university aged people in Canada is expected to decline starting in 2012. It argued that if universities hope to keep enrolment at its current level(not to mention grow), they have to find a way to convince a larger percentage of young people that higher education is the way to go. Professor and demographer David Foot also suggested that this might be the case when he told a group of Ontario faculty that the faculty shortage might “solve itself” as the baby boomers’ children leave the system.

So if Stats Can data shows that the pool of potential students will begin to shrink, why are the Toronto universities bracing for a surprise jump in enrolment? A look at the AUCC predictions suggest that just considering demographics when forecasting enrolment won’t provide an accurate picture.

Herb O’Heron, who researched the AUCC report, explained to University Affairs that many people assumed that we had reached some kind of limit in participation rates(the percentage of university-aged people who pursue higher education)when enrolment flattened 15 years ago, therefore further projections should be based on demographics. However, he believes that the slowing enrolment was due to major government funding cuts rather than stable participation rates.

“Really what was happening in that five-year period was that capacity was being constrained,” O’Heron said. “Fewer and fewer capable students who wanted to go to university were able to go. So when the brakes came off, when governments began to reinvest, enrolment exploded. In the last decade, from 1996 until 2006, full-time student enrolment grew by 40 percent. That’s 245,000 more students than we had a decade earlier.”

O’Heron says that participation rates are still growing because young people realize that a university education improves their job prospects. Also, university is becoming more attractive to different demographics other than the traditional pool of potential students, including adult learners and students from low-income brackets.

And faith in participation rate growth is what is needed to accept that 40,000 to 75,000 students will be demanding spaces at Toronto universities in five to ten years. The trend reported by the Globe and Star is expected to be unique to Toronto, fueled by immigration and participation rates, and comes from projections made in a University of Toronto document called “Towards 2030.”

Robert Steiner, University of Toronto assistant vice-president strategic communications, explained that the projections are based on the assumption that participation rates will be between 30 and 50 per cent. Currently, 24 per cent of youth aged 18 to 21 are enrolled in university fulltime. The discussion paper acknowledges that the declining births of the 1990s will shrink the student-aged population in a decade or so. “However, these general projections may not take full account of changing participation rates,” it states.

“50 per cent is not unrealistic,” Steiner said. But he does admit that the numbers aren’t perfect. “No one actually knows the right number. But you can’t plan without a solid place to start.” He believes that it is very important to start planning now. “When people prepared for the double cohort [the surge of students when Ontario eliminated Grade 13], no one could agree on a number. They spent more time arguing over the number than planning. And the planning wasn’t as good as it could have been.”

Steiner said that the University of Toronto is hoping the government will act sooner than later. And it is understandable that the universities are pushing a little; the one thing that all of the reports agree on is that enrolment and participation rates were stunted by funding cuts 15 years ago.

Regardless of whether you accept the numbers or not, Toronto universities are throwing around ideas about how to accommodate new students. York has much room to expand. Ryerson University has asked the provincial government for permission to expand in the old Sam the Record Man building at Yonge and Dundas and has even mentioned the possibility of opening a second campus near the waterfront in Toronto.

The University of Toronto just seems to want to address the problem without pushing students out of Toronto. “We don’t want to push more students out of the GTA, especially students in the lower-income groups, but the concept that one has an unequivocal right to commute to university is bogus,” U of T president David Naylor told the Star.

“The way we dealt with the double cohort was like an anaconda swallowing a rabbit, and to just push more students into the system would be naive.”

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