Canadian liberal arts face up to a cash crisis

May 19, 2000

Small public liberal arts universities are becoming increasingly vulnerable in Canada, and the door may be opening for private universities to take their place.

Ontario and New Brunswick have opened their formerly public systems to private universities, and other provinces are toying with the idea. But many critics believe the smaller, less research-intensive colleges will be casualties in this environment.

"The public system is slipping through our fingers, and it's the smaller schools that will feel the hit first," said David Robinson, director of public policy for the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

There have been a couple of recent examples of these hits as some colleges have severely curtailed programmes. Malasapina University-College, a small institution in Nanaimo, British Columbia, recently announced its plans to cut 30 courses, including basics such as English, psychology, chemistry and physics. During the past five years, the college, located off the province's coast, has cut four degree programmes and cancelled more than 60 courses, while not replacing retiring professors.

Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, a 36-year-old liberal arts university, has been operating at a deficit of C$9 million (Pounds 4 million) this year. President Bonnie Patterson plans to help the university's crisis by selling two of its historic buildings, which house many of its arts programmes.

All public universities in Canada now have to survive on less public money than in the early 1990s. This has meant that since 1993, those universities' per-student budgets have shrunk from an average of C$7,450 to C$4,730. The result has been ballooning class sizes, rising tuition fees and many retired professors not being replaced.

The small liberal arts universities are not traditionally known for having a strong research base, and with private-sector money now being used to fund many universities' research projects, they are even more vulnerable.

Mr Robinson and other critics say the only way to prevent closures is to restore funding, but he does not feel optimistic. "Most universities have accepted that government funding won't be there."

Many liberal arts activists say the constant change in the workplace and the need for diversity is something that a BA can tackle. But they say that without government recognising the merit of a liberal arts degree, restored funding will never materialise.

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