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University funding falling behind U.S. peers

Sooner or later, quality of teaching and research could suffer, says AUCC report.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | AUG 05 2008

While the point wasn’t to ask for more money, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada made a case for increased revenues for Canada’s universities in the third and final chapter of its Trends in Higher Education report.

The third chapter, on university finances, found that Canada’s universities receive about $8,000 less per student than their U.S. public-university counterparts to fund teaching and research. This is in marked contrast to 25 years ago, when Canadian universities received about $2,000 more per student than their American peers.

The two earlier chapters of Trends, on enrolment and faculty, were released in May 2007 and November 2007, respectively.

Herb O’Heron, senior adviser, national affairs, at AUCC says his main concern with this funding gap is the impact it could have on the quality of the learning experience for Canadian students, and eventually what this could mean for future prosperity.

Much of our economic growth over the past few decades has been due to a growing labour force, but because of changing demographics we may no longer be able count on that, he explained. Therefore, for Canada to prosper, we need more highly skilled graduates who are innovative, productive and able to compete in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. This requires strong support for both the teaching and research functions of universities, but the current funding mechanisms in Canada could undercut the long-term sustainability of these functions and therefore “undermine the quality of the learning experience,” said Mr. O’Heron.

According to the Trends report, Canadian universities on average had revenues equalling about $21,000 per student in 2006-07, compared with $29,000 per student in the U.S. This level of funding in Canada is less, in constant dollars, than in the 1980s, when universities had revenues equalling $25,000 per student.

Canada fares better in comparison with universities in the U.K. and Australia, where per-student revenues are similar to ours. But Mr. O’Heron warns that the U.K. has changed its university funding mechanisms in a bid to bolster quality, and these policy changes will likely push U.K. universities ahead of their Canadian counterparts in terms of funding.

Governments in Canada have increased their funding for research and university operations over the past several years, but these increases have failed to produce any change in the level of funding per student, largely because of rapid growth in enrolment. There were 815,000 full-time students enrolled in Canadian universities in 2006, a 31 percent increase from 2000.

Canada’s universities have tried to make do with less by being more efficient, but these efficiencies can only go so far, said Mr. O’Heron. He noted, for example, that on the U.S.-based National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, Canadian universities don’t compare as favourably with their U.S. peers in the areas of student-faculty interaction, and active and collaborative learning (see chart).

These aspects of NSSE “are highly correlated with the skills that the graduates are going to need when they go into the labour force,” he said. But they are also resource-intensive, requiring “a great deal of face-to-face interaction among students and with faculty members in and outside the classroom.” The number of faculty members at Canada’s universities has been increasing, but student enrolment is growing even faster, leading to higher student-to-faculty ratios.

Technology has a role to play in increasing efficiency, but it is also expensive and doesn’t always lead to savings, said Mr. O’Heron. He cited the practice of recording lectures and placing them and other course-related materials online for students to review. This has not replaced what’s going on in the classroom, but has augmented it, raising the cost of teaching and likely adding to professors’ workloads, he said.

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