Ontario universities are crammed with students, and education is suffering, according to a survey of professors and librarians released today. The study, conducted by the Ontario Confederation of Faculty Associations (OCUFA), revealed that 57 per cent of academic staff say education quality has been declining over the past year. OCUFA president Mark Langer calls the results a “warning bell” issued to government from “the people working on the front line in the universities.”
Other results showed that 55 per cent of respondents reported larger class sizes and 38 per cent said retiring or departing faculty had not been renewed. As a result, 38 per cent said that out-of-class support for students had declined, and 39 per cent were using fewer essay-style exams to compensate for larger classes. Fifty-one per cent said that programs, or classes, had been canceled due to budget constraints.
Langer said the survey results were directly linked to government initiatives to encourage more and more students to go to university. “We’re just packing them in,” he said. “It’s not like stamping out widgets. It doesn’t work that way.”
The Ontario student teacher ratio is among the lowest in the country at 26 to one, compared to the national average of 19 to one. Langer also says that Ontario per student funding is the lowest in the country, but he didn’t have exact figures available, calling the numbers “complicated.”
According to the Canadian Press, John Milloy, minister of training colleges and universities, objected to the claims in the report. “Quality is not declining . . . it’s in fact the opposite . . . We’ve seen a phenomenal investment in the system,” he said. Operating grants to universities have risen from $1.9 to $3.2 billion since 2002, an increase of 77 per cent.
Langer does not dispute that the government has invested heavily in higher education, but he says any extra funding is being “swallowed” up by disproportionate number of students being admitted. “[Funding] is not keeping pace with demand,” he said. Landger adds that the government is not solely to blame, noting that the recession wreaked havoc on university endowment funds and pension plans. When asked if OCUFA would support lowering the number of students admitted to Ontario universities, he dismissed the idea. “We’re certiainly ready to educate them, but give us the support.”
Bonnie Patterson, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, agrees that universities are underfunded, but says that the OCUFA survey failed to account for the many out-of-class programs she says universities provide. She says institutions have shifted some resources towards support for students from underrepresented groups and international students. “And yes there has been some trade-offs in the classroom,” she said.
Meaghan Coker, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, says the survey does not account for the quality of teaching in the classroom, focusing too much on measures like student teacher ratios. “It depens less on class size, and more on the practices professors use,” Coker said. She is referring to “active learning” versus “passive learning” and says even in a class of 250, a professor, properly trained, could be effective.