McGuinty’s post-secondary priorities take shape

Minister Glen Murray expecting 60,000 new undergrads by 2015, planning construction of three new universities

Dalton McGuinty’s provincial Liberal government will continue with plans to address the myriad issues facing the post-secondary system, following up on this month’s 30 per cent tuition grant.

For much of the last eight years, the province has emphasized accessibility in post-secondary education, creating 200,000 new spaces at colleges and universities across the province. But critics say that the focus on growth has come at the cost of quality. At the same time, the province’s ranking slipped across several key indicators. Today, Ontario’s per-student funding and student-faculty ratios are the worst in Canada. According to a March 2011 poll, only eight per cent of Ontarians believed the quality of post-secondary education had improved under Dalton McGuinty.

The Liberals intend to continue expansion in order to meet the province’s projected needs. In his speech from the throne, premier Dalton McGuinty confirmed a plan to build three new university sites by 2015, taking in an additional 60,000 undergraduates. A September 4 report by the Canadian Press cited Barrie, Milton, and Brampton as probable locations. Others have suggested that the province should be eyeing high-tech hubs that would benefit from an infusion of research money and youthful talent, such as the Kanata region east of Ottawa.

But increasingly, university administrators and other experts have vocalized their desire to turn away from the intensive growth-based model. Issues such as cost and quality of education, neglected during the growth spurt, have now become the focus of attention.

“While we have welcomed this growth, it has not always occurred in a particularly well-planned way,” former Minister of Training, Universities, and Colleges John Milloy told an audience at the Canadian Club this past summer.

“One size does not fit all,” Queen’s University principal Daniel Woolf told The Globe and Mail. Queen’s, Woolf admitted frankly, “has not prospered by a growth-only formula.”

The impetus for growth comes largely from the funding agreements between the province and the universities. That agreement is up for renegotiation this year, and the stakes are high.

“The current funding formula does not place enough emphasis on teaching, does not promote teaching quality, and is needlessly complex,” said Ian Clark, a U of T public policy professor and former president of the Council of Ontario Universities, in an e-mail to The Varsity.

The opportunity to renegotiate funding agreements means that Murray can begin to pivot away from the growth-centric attitude of his predecessors, to focus on other concerns.

Though the minister admitted that he has been preoccupied with the new tuition grant, he recognizes that there is “more need out there” among demographics excluded from the recent grant and promised to work with student organizations to address these needs.

“I see myself as the person negotiating on behalf of the students with the universities,” said Murray in a recent conference call with campus media.

He added that he was “concerned about a number of things” heading into negotiations, including “the flat-rate policy that many universities have introduced, where you pay full-time for a part-time education.” U of T introduced such a policy in 2009 and it remains deeply unpopular among students and other critics with recent international changes to post-secondary education.

“You have to look at our university degrees and our college degrees in an international context,” said Murray.

Murray spoke emphatically about the importance of “the portability of degrees and the transference of credit,” which he believes to be “a real problem in Ontario.” He has been monitoring the ongoing Bologna Process, which seeks to harmonize all higher education across Europe, and is also keeping an eye on Australia’s recent overhaul of its system. If Ontario is to keep pace abroad, the coming years will likely see the introduction of 2- or 3-year degree programs.

“There are some very big challenges that we’re trying to manage, at a period when restraint for government is at an all-time high because of the global economic situation,” acknowledges Murray. “It’s a lot of balls to keep in the air.”

No victory in victory laps?

Weighing the benefits of spending more time getting a degree

No victory in victory laps?

The time required to complete a post-secondary degree is increasingly exceeding the traditional four-year period. The need for an additional fifth — or even sixth — year of school is such a common occurrence that students have dubbed it “the victory lap.”

In light of the five-year phenomenon, some colleges and universities are introducing a new initiative called the Four Year Degree Guarantee.

In the United States, approximately 15 private colleges guarantee students that they will complete their degree in four years, provided that they stay on top of coursework and meet with advisors regularly. If the school does not hold up its end of the bargain — if courses are unavailable or if poor guidance is given — the university will cover all tuition costs until the degree is completed.

The University of Calgary is the only school in Canada to currently offer a Four Year Degree Guarantee, and U of T has yet to adopt a similar initiative.

According to U of T media relations director Laurie Stephens, students decide to take a “victory lap” for a number of different reasons.

“At U of T, many students elect to extend their undergraduate education by enrolling in co-op programs, taking a Professional Experience year, doing a year of international exchange or taking time off for personal reasons,” she says.

Some programs at the undergraduate level are designed to stretch over five years, such as the Concurrent Teacher Education Program offered at the OISE. Other students find their true academic calling only after one or two years spent studying another subject altogether.

However, some students claim that poor course selection and limited class enrollment, among other things, force them to complete an unplanned fifth year of studies at great financial and personal costs.

Ellen Chang, a fourth-year visual arts major, plans on returning to U of T next fall for an additional semester and possibly even a full year.

“Visual studies offers about 10 courses per year with over 200 students vying for 25 spots in each of these courses,” she says. “A lot of people have trouble getting into courses and end up staying five or six years.”

Some, however, believe that completing a degree in more than four years could be beneficial.

Fifth-year political science major Jessie Russell began her studies at U of T with the intention of completing her BA in five years.

“I wanted to be able to work part-time while I studied, so I had always planned on taking three to four courses per year,” she says. “The fact that I could pay per course really benefited me because I could work and study simultaneously.”

Chief spokesperson for CUPE 3902 James Nugent agreed, saying that longer years spent completing a degree allows for critically important research.

“Research in many disciplines requires extended experiments, learning a new language, overseas fieldwork, etc., which simply cannot be done in four years,” he says.

Despite the benefits, however, graduate students have seen funding towards their research plummet through the years.

“We increasingly see the administration taking research grant/fellowships away, forcing grad students to conduct their dissertation research for free while at the same time having to shoulder the burden of new RA responsibilities,” Nugent says.

CUPE 3902 is currently asking the U of T administration to reinstate the Doctoral Completion Grant (DCG). The DCG, which was eliminated last spring, was a special tuition rebate that reimbursed fifth and sixth year graduate students for a portion of their tuition.

“Our union is currently asking the administration to continue funding graduate students for their dissertation research so that they are not forced to do hundreds of hours of new work responsibilities if they don’t want to,” Nugent said.

Ultimately, for Nugent and for many students, the issue can be boiled down to financial concerns. For instance, students who have taken more than four years to complete their program do not qualify for the recently announced 30 per cent tuition grant.

“We need to ensure that adequate dissertation-related funding is available to graduate students so that they can focus on their research.”

Liberals announce 30 per cent tuition grant, for some

Limited scope draws criticism from students, opposition

The Ontario Liberal government is fulfilling a major campaign promise this month in handing down a 30 per cent tuition grant.

For those who are eligible, this year’s grant will amount to $800 for university students and $365 for college students. Those totals are expected to rise to $1,600 dollars and $700 respectively beginning in September 2012.

310,000 students qualify immediately for the grant. The number of recipients is expected to grow annually, says Glen Murray, Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

IAN MACK/THE VARSITY

The grant was introduced under a strict set of parameters. Qualified applicants must be in a program that can be applied to straight out of high school, must be studying full-time, must report gross family income of less than  $160,000, and must be no more than four years — or six for students with disabilities — out of high school.

The limited number of eligible students has sparked criticism from organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS).

“Despite Dalton McGuinty’s repeated promise to reduce tuition fees, his government is introducing a grant that will reach just over 300,000 of Ontario’s more than 900,000 students,” CFS Chairman Sandy Hudson says.

According to CFS estimates, the government could instead have slashed tuition fees by 13 per cent across the board, at the same annual cost of $420 million.

The Ontario Conservatives have also expressed their disappointment with the grant. They have argued that a government facing a $16 billion deficit should not be launching such an expensive program.

Addressing financial concerns, Murray explains that the new grant will be deducted from pre-existing funding mechanisms.

“The only negative is that we had to find the money within existing funding,” he said. “The only direct student aid program that’s gone is the technology and textbook grant which is about $150.”

There are also some out-of-high school scholarship programs that are being phased out — one of them being the Queen Elizabeth scholarship program.

“Anyone who has received it in the last year will see it to the end. It’s a multi-year scholarship and [past recipients] will continue to get it. We will just not be accepting any new applicants into the program after this year,” says Murray.

Students have taken to social media to post their opinions on the grant. Reactions range from praise and delight (“SO happy for the 30% Ontario Tuition Grant,”) to frustration (“whyyyyy do they keep e-mailing me about this Ontario tuition grant if I don’t even qualify.”).

For students already enrolled in the OSAP program, the 30 per cent tuition grants will be processed automatically. All other students can apply for this grant through a link on the OSAP website. The application is now open and the deadline is March 31.

The application process, Murray said, is a one-time deal.

“Once you’ve applied you’re basically doing a life-agreement, so the entire time that you’re in university or college this will apply and you’ll just have to do a short renewal form online each year,” he says. “This is permanent — as long you’re student you’ll never have to reapply.”

Six suspects still at large in sexual assault case

Police are seeking six male suspects in one of the worst sex crimes in recent memory. On January 3, just after 9:30 pm, a woman walking around the Ryerson campus area at Yonge and Gerrard was forced into a black minivan. Taken to a home near Yonge and Eglinton, she was sexually assaulted for several hours before managing to escape and contact the police.

The Ryerson Student Union and local residents have complained that the police did little to notify them of the incident. “They would normally issue a warning for this,” Caitlin Smith, Ryerson Student Union president told the Toronto Star. “When anything like that happens it’s good for the community to know so that we can be aware of what’s happening on our campus.”

Police have since released two community bulletins urging residents to be cautious.

With files from the Toronto Star.

Western pulls red flag on student-made series

On January 1, 3 Audrey, a scripted web series premiered its first show after causing uproar within the University of Western Ontario (UWO) faculty and administration for the latter part of 2011.

The six-part series is about student life at UWO, depicting alcohol consumption and promiscuity among students.

3 Audrey, which is not an official Western production, was shot on Western’s campus during homecoming weekend, and the university is concerned about the portrayal of Western’s purple branded clothing, sports teams, and infrastructure.

Western media student Dave Provost, who wrote the show with his friend director Miguel Barbosa, defended his work.

“We are just trying to show the realism of post secondary education,” said Provost, justifying the scenes of excessive partying and provocative behavior shown in the series.

The controversy led Provost and Barbosa to include a disclaimer to their show, stating that the actions and opinions expressed do not represent any educational institution.

With files from Maclean’s OnCampus.

“I’m walking on sunshine,” four-limbed fish’s last words

An oft-conjured image when imagining the process of evolution is of fish crawling out of water on four limbs. A common theory explains this fish-moving-to-land event as a result of shrinking lakes and ponds in a desert environment. Professor Gregory J. Retallack of the University of Oregon’s department of geological sciences, however, posits that this is an unlikely hypothesis. Examining fossils from the Devonian (approximately 416 to 359 million years ago) and Carboniferous (359 to 299 million years ago) geological ages, Professor Retallack found that the fossils were associated not with arid desert conditions, but rather, humid woodland soils. He hypothesizes that our distant ancestors were not trying to escape but rather to take advantage of the richly nutritive environment that vegetative woodland banks have to offer. Limbs would allow the creatures to navigate roots and logs; another adaptation found in this period are flexible necks that allowed for feeding in shallow waters.

Paikin vs. Naylor: Young Liberals go head-to-head

An online feud between outspoken young Liberals Zach Paikin and Max Naylor last month drew attention to the fractured state of affairs the party finds itself in after last year’s disastrous election.

Naylor, son of University of Toronto president David Naylor, published an extensive blog post bashing Zach Paikin, 20, a McGill student vying to become the Liberal Party’s new National Policy Chair and the son of TVO anchor Steve Paikin.

Naylor wrote that Paikin’s political views fall on the far right, citing that his opponent works for “a right-wing rag,” the Prince Arthur Herald, and his alleged penchant for “[cutting] ties as he continues to waltz further right.”

Paikin declined to issue a personal response, but his director of communications later released a statement affirming that the candidate still desires to hold the Liberal’s National Policy Chair position.

With files from The Grid.

Link found between loss of gray matter and psychoses

Young adults suffering from schizophrenia and other psychoses seem to show a greater loss of gray matter in comparison to healthy teenagers free of any psychoses. Celso Arnago, MD, PhD, and his team at the Hospital General Universitario Gregorio Marañón in Madrid, Spain analyzed the results of magnetic resonance imaging on 61 patients with a variety of psychoses as well as 70 healthy control participants two years after their initial diagnosis. In contrast to the control patients, those suffering from schizophrenia showed both greater loss in gray matter in the frontal lobe and an increase in cerebrospinal fluid in the left frontal lobe. The authors, however, found that patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder had results very similar to the healthy control group. Given the findings, the way forward for developing therapeutic strategies requires more studies on the neurobiological underpinnings on the dramatic changes in the brain — particularly gray matter loss in those diagnosed with schizophrenia and other psychoses.
—Nish V.
Source: Science Daily