Baby-boomers crisis warning

February 16, 2007

Ontario has too many students for too few university places. Stephen Strauss explains.

The news that Ontario, Canada's most populous province and home to upwards of 40 per cent of its university students, was experiencing a higher than expected flood of university applications has generated a storm of controversy.

The Council of Ontario Universities, a consortium of 19 institutions, last month sent out a press release saying that applications had risen by 5.2 per cent, or about 4,000 students.

This meant that over three years some 14,000 more students would enrol than the Government had forecast. The flood of entries translated into a C$100 million (£43 million) funding shortfall for 2006-07, which the COU projected would grow to C$300 million for 2009-10.

James Mackay, the COU's vice-president of policy and analysis, said: "There is more interest in university education than anyone predicted, yet because the per-student funding hasn't been adjusted to keep up, we are having to accommodate students by cramming them into classrooms and limiting their contacts with faculty."

Some university presidents suggested that students were either going to be turned away or the admittance criteria would go up. Sheldon Levy, president of the Toronto-based Ryerson University, where applications jumped by 17 per cent, said: "This means there will be many students who want to study at Ryerson who can't be accommodated."

However, within a week David Foot of the University of Toronto told a conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations that the increase was probably a demographic blip that would correct itself.

"Don't presume that today's situation will persist. Demand may well be going down as the baby boom echo leaves our system," said Professor Foot, an economist and the author of several books on the economics of the baby boom. "Ten years from now we may be talking about a whole new era... trends may even reverse."

Three days later, the COU issued a press release attacking Professor Foot's forecast. It pointed out that Ontario's population of 18 to 21-year-olds was scheduled to grow by 53,000 from 2006 to 2014 and would still be higher in 2021 than it is today.

It also argued that, despite any falls in the absolute number of young people, steady increases in the percentage of high school graduates entering university - this rose from 28 per cent in 1990 to 33 per cent in 2006 - would also push enrolments up.

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