Canadian Universities Hurting For Funds

September 2008

Universities are receiving thousands of dollars less for each student on their campuses than they did two decades ago, a drop that is hurting the quality of higher education and putting Canada at a competitive disadvantage, a report released Wednesday morning by university leaders says.

The report, by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, finds that while the amount of money going to universities is increasing, rising student numbers and expenses associated with research mean that these dollars are being spread more thinly. The end result is crowded classrooms, less contact with professors, and aging buildings in need of repair – all factors that are contributing to a general decline in the calibre of education.

“To me, this is a wake up call,” said Tom Traves, president of Halifax's Dalhousie University and head of the association. “Let's be honest about it, the Canadian situation reflects a serious deterioration over the last 20 years, and it reflects an inability to keep up with our key competitor, the United States, and others as well.”

Last year, university funding from all levels of government was approximately $15,000 per student, compared with $21,000 in the early 1980s and $17,000 in the early 1990s, the study finds.

By comparison, it notes that public universities and colleges in the United States have seen their funding levels rise in the past three decades to the point where they receive about $8,000 more per student than their Canadian peers. Major private U.S. institutions have substantially more.

Over this same period, hiring of professors has not kept pace with the increasing number of students that have come to Canadian campuses. The effect of those rising student-faculty ratios can be seen in survey results that show Canadian campuses falling behind U.S. schools on key measures of student engagement, the report finds, and point to a decline in quality.

University leaders may be reluctant to talk about declining quality at their own school, but Mr. Traves said he hopes the new report, which looks at the system as a whole, will allow them to have a more candid conversation about the problem.

“I think if you try to track this back to one institution, you end up getting a lot of defensive talk,” he said, declining to give specifics on how Dalhousie University has been affected.

He also hopes the report will sway governments to continue their recent investments in the sector and drive home the point that more needs to be done.

Indeed, the numbers in the report show the situation has improved in recent years. While the gap between Canadian and U.S. funding levels has grown since the early 1980s, the report also finds a slight reversal of this trend since 2002, thanks to major investments by some provinces and the federal government.

Since the early 1990s, Canada's funding for universities also has outpaced that of Britain and Australia, although recent policy changes in those countries have all but eliminated that difference.

Further changes in Britain, such as planned tuition increases, are expected to give schools more money, the report says.

Here in Canada, Mr. Traves said, he worries that there is a sense of complacency about the university system on the part of governments and the public because it continues to produce some top researchers and students.

The recent increase in support in many jurisdictions for higher education also may lead government leaders to feel they have addressed the situation, he said. Other pressing problems such as health care and the environment are top of mind.

But he said unless funding continues to be improved, Canada risks falling badly behind other countries when it comes to training and attracting talent.

“I think this should really worry us for the long haul because the things that we are putting in place now will impact for the next thirty years the quality of our work force,” he said. “It is not easy to turn that around.”