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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2001

'Crisis Talk' Prompts Hope for More Funding

Ronald Melchers
Universities appear poised on the edge of the biggest faculty hiring boom since the 1960s when the conjugated effects of the post-war baby boom and new thinking about access to higher education saw more than 18,000 new faculty hired at Canadian universities in a single decade, more than tripling the total number of faculty teaching at Canadian universities and exceeding the total number of new faculty hirings for the next three decades.

But what evidence is there today that such a phenomenon is to be repeated? More to the point, who stands to benefit from the conviction that this is so?

The rapid expansion of post-secondary education in the sixties had dramatic consequences on academic life. Public capital spending for higher education soared to record levels as entire campuses sprung up from the ground. University labour costs increased at a rate yet faster than that of hirings as average faculty salaries soared by 36 per cent in "real" terms (adjusted for inflation) over the course of decade, even as average age of faculty dropped dramatically to under 39 years of age in 1970.

A front-page headline in the Globe and Mail for Nov. 3, 1959 reported a call by then University of Toronto president Claude Bissell for exceptional measures to recruit scholars from the U.S. and abroad. These measures included such things as moving costs, mortgage assistance, improved employee benefits and generous travel funds.

The trends continued until the seventies. The number of hirings tapered off after 1970 and began to fall further and further behind the growth in enrolments. The university construction boom wound down by 1973 and average faculty real salaries peaked at their historic level in 1976, just as university professors began to unionize in an effort to preserve the advantages they had gained.

The decades since then have seen university expenditures on both capital and labour fall far behind increases in enrolments. By the end of the seventies, increases in the number of faculty had begun to fall behind both enrolment and university revenues.

Real salaries of university faculty stagnated after the mid-seventies as university payrolls felt the pressure of faculty aging up through the wage structure. In fact, when this effect of aging is discounted for, real faculty salary scales declined by 15 per cent from 1971 to 1998.

In the past decade, enrolment declines, severe cutbacks in public funding, a decline in faculty numbers and in real faculty salaries have all contributed to making post-secondary education one of the fastest declining sectors in the services-producing economy. Little wonder the prospect of a return to the heady 1960s has captured the imaginations of so many observers.

University presidents have been on the front lines getting the message out. First the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada asked a former president of Carleton University to examine the issue. Then the Council of Ontario Universities commissioned a study of enrolment and faculty renewal piloted by a former president of Queen's University and aided by a reputable consulting firm. Now faculty associations and their provincial and national representatives have also joined in the chorus of voices warning of an impending crisis.

But, so much consensus should raise doubts, if only to follow the advice of Descartes: "it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things."

Elizabeth Bowen said: "Nobody speaks the truth when there's something they must have." University presidents must have more public funding to respond to this crisis. They must have more autonomy in seeking and maintaining control over their own source revenues. University presidents especially must have more freedom from what they consider to be burdensome collective agreements if they are to rise to the coming challenge and any who oppose such laudable measures are a danger to the public good.

Finally, faculty associations now joining in the calls to action must have more bargaining clout for their members and faculty must have better salaries and working conditions if the university is to be able to attract and retain the "best and the brightest." To achieve these ends all must have the ear of the media and the public if they are to influence public policy. The sense of urgency brought to a situation by impending crisis serves all these competing ends though not all equally.

What evidence do we have of an impending surge in enrolment, a crumbling of Canada's university campuses and a crisis in faculty renewal and retention? Before we examine this evidence, it must be pointed out that the physical deterioration of campuses, the decline of the university teaching profession and soaring student-faculty ratios have been going on over the past three decades with little apparent relation to the level of public funding.

In good times and yet more so in bad times, university decision-makers have used their discretion to spend elsewhere. Trusts, endowments, special purpose funds, university research and non-teaching operations have always received higher priority in financial decision-making than buildings, teachers and students. So, why are we now to believe that future new revenues will flow to these purposes?

The case supporting a dramatic increase in enrolment has been over-stated. There is certainly evidence the enrolment decline of the nineties is now ended for most universities and will continue to recover for another decade. Ontario universities in particular will soon experience a short-term surge in enrolments when the final year of secondary education is abolished and a "double-cohort" arrives at their doors.

However, this recovery in enrolment is not affecting all universities equally, and is indeed not affecting many at all. As Professor Marvin McInnis pointed out at a recent OCUFA conference on the faculty renewal crisis, most of this demographic pressure comes from an echo of past immigration and migration. Immigrants whose children are now arriving at university concentrated themselves in a few major urban areas, principal among them the Greater Toronto Area and lower mainland British Columbia. They were joined by immigrants from declining regions.

When the impact of the spiraling costs of attending university on the "hometown university" advantage is factored into the equation, it is clear that enrolment increases will be a localized phenomenon. Most universities and most provinces are not expected to experience any enrolment increases over the next decade and many will continue to experience declines. Furthermore, a decline in the birth rate after 1991 will result in a renewed decline in potential university admissions by the end of the current decade.

Much of the projection for higher future enrolment is based upon projections for a dramatic increase in the rate of participation in university education among 18- to 24-year-olds. This also may not be as durable a phenomenon as is advanced by some authors and commentators. Projecting future labour market trends, and even more so future responses to these trends, has always been a very dubious exercise.

A particular cause for second thought on these participation projections might be the rapidly changing nature of the college sector and its relationship to universities. The intent of present public policy is to revitalize the college sector so as to ensure its survival. The conferring of degree-granting status to colleges, generalized transfer of credit arrangements with universities and the emergence of a two-tier university system with most institutions relegated to non-research teaching missions are all steps in a redesign of post-secondary education in Canada.

We appear to many to be headed towards an American-style expanded college system occupying a broad-based lower tier in a hierarchical post-secondary education system. This sector will be hiring teachers below the fully qualified PhD level. Yet, this is not given weight in most projections for faculty demand.

There are similar trends towards hierarchical restructuring of faculty within universities themselves. The recent growth of non full-time, non tenure-track appointments has already been noted. With the significant exception of the very deep 1997 Ontario funding cutbacks, a tide that lowered all boats, this trend has accelerated. Rather than a purely financial measure, this seems to be part of a more fundamental restructuring of university teaching in particular. There is again no reason to believe that any restoration or growth of funding would reverse it.

Projections of a "crisis" also accelerate somewhat the timing of faculty retirements. Those entering the academic career stream in the 1960s and early 1970s were young, often in their mid-twenties. The average age of retirement for university faculty is very high when compared to other high income earners in the labour market, much closer to age 65 than to "freedom 55."

This is in large part a consequence of the unique skewing of career earnings of faculty towards the end of the career, which creates considerable incentive for older professors to remain employed as long as possible. In 1999-2000, there were just over 3,000 university professors aged 60 or over employed in Canadian universities (12 per cent of the total), essentially the same number as a decade earlier and close to what one would expect in that elusive "steady state" demographic model.

The largest cohort of future retirees (39 per cent of all faculty) are still in their 50s and remain as much as a full decade away from retirement. With very few exceptions, most universities will see their largest number of retirements occur just as the current demographic enrolment surge ends by 2012. Finally, none of the projections supporting the "crisis" hypothesis make allowances for the growing pool of faculty retirees eager to continue working, often less than full-time, full-year. As their ranks grow, so may pressures for new hiring recede.

There are also questions that can be asked as to projections of the supply of university teachers. When most faculty now approaching retirement were hired, a majority of PhD holders found employment in universities. According to the 1996 census, universities employed one-half of PhD holders over age 55 while employing only 27 per cent of PhD graduates aged less than 40. According to more recent information from the National Graduate Survey, university "take-up" is less yet in the fields of greatest projected demand.

It is true that early career earnings for PhD graduates employed by universities are less attractive than most outside opportunities, and this is true of all disciplines not just those in high demand. But this does not appear to have had any significant dissuasive effect on university hiring. Nor is this disadvantage immutable.

Furthermore, the work performed by PhD graduates inside or outside academe is already tending to diversify and ultimately may converge as a result of the increased role of the private sector in university research. The argument that there are insufficient highly qualified candidates for academic appointments is simply not always made convincingly.

So what is the goal of this "crisis talk"? My guess is that what is being sought is not so much understanding as it is simply the power to influence the public agenda. In "crisis talk" each party attempts to portray its own "must haves" as the only true solution to the impending crisis, disqualifying all opposition as uninformed and constituting an obstacle to the urgent task at hand. In this struggle for influence, it is less the quality of one's facts and argument that wins the battle than it is the influence one is able to gain.

I would caution anyone eager to enter the fray. Arguments for urgency and haste are double-edged swords and haste can dissimulate intent. While there may be less than appears in the arguments, there is undoubtedly more than appears in the intentions of those wielding them.

Ronald Melchers is associate professor of criminology (criminal justice policy) at the University of Ottawa.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.