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October 25, 2001 Recession and rising enrolment: A looming prospect



by Robert Scalia
After a decade of funding cutbacks, Concordia administrators are looking at how a shrinking job market and a possible recession in Quebec could affect the university’s strained facilities.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Provost and Vice-Rector Research Jack Lightstone, Any further cuts to the universities would “cause anger and create a great sense of betrayal among university administrators, faculty and students.”

They would also come at the worst possible time, with Concordia bursting at the seams. Its student population has grown roughly seven per cent since last fall, five percentage points higher than the provincial average, according to CREPUQ, the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec. Enrolment at Concordia has risen by 12 per cent since 1997.

Increased funding promised

The Treasury Board has pledged to honour its commitment to revitalize education made at the Youth Summit in February 2000. Quebec universities were promised about $600 million over three years, $300 million of which were to be recurring in perpetuity.

We’re in the second year now, but the government could always argue that this promise was made in very different circumstances, Lightstone said. In an unprecedented move, the government, now admitting Quebec is in a major economic slowdown, will release a revised budget sometime this fall.

While Concordia’s present situation requires increased funding, Lightstone knows better than to ask.

“The government can’t spend money they don’t have. I don’t think you can realistically expect — especially in a mini-recession — that they will increase [per-student] funding just because your enrolment has gone up.”

Instead, Lightstone suspects the government might resort to “trimming” university budgets in ways that will “wash with the public.” One way would be to cut the coût de système, a yearly allocation based on a percentage of a university’s operating budget and intended to compensate for inflation and indexation levels.

They have done this to universities twice in the past two years, he said. Calculated roughly at 2.5 per cent, this allocation could cost Concordia between $11 and $16 million, recurring over three years.

Every penny counts for a university that has been forced to transform eight former cinemas in the below-ground level of the Faubourg into classrooms. Classes have also been held in the Hall Building’s 7th-floor dining room. On the Loyola Campus, where construction has forced the closing of the Bryan Building, classroom space has been rented in the basement of nearby St. Ignatius Church.

Skills upgrade

More students might be on the way as recession looms, said Brigeen Badour, a counsellor in Concordia’s Centre for Mature Students.

She explained that workers whose jobs are terminated tend to return to school, often encouraged by attractive severance packages that were designed to upgrade their skills.

Though she has yet to seen fallout from the massive Bombardier, Nortel or Air Canada layoffs, she claims it’s common for those recently laid off to take a couple of weeks to organize their lives before returning to school. “I think that for [the term starting in] January, the university will be at its limit,” she said.

A shrinking job market affects existing students as well, Lightstone pointed out.

With 70 per cent of the student body working, he speculates that less work might encourage students taking reduced courseloadsto take more courses in the hopes of finishing their degrees earlier, ultimately filling up classrooms.

Concordia’s new buildings — a science complex in the west end, and engineering, visual arts and business facilities downtown — won’t be ready before 2003. In the meantime, the possibility of more students and less money means Concordia’s vaunted accessibility could be threatened.

“At some point, what do you do?” asked Lightstone. “You can’t teach people out on the streets.”

Concordia’s graduation rate increases

It’s too early to celebrate, warns Cameron Tilson, but the number of full-time students who continue their studies all the way to graduation has increased between last year’s submission to the Maclean’s magazine survey of Canadian universities, and this year’s.

The graduation rate specified by the Maclean’s survey examines a group of full-time undergraduate students over a period of four years.

In the case of last year’s graduation rate, 70.5 per cent of full-time students who registered in their second year in 1994-95 were able to graduate by July 1, 1997. This year’s graduation rate is 78.5 per cent, and applies to students who registered in their second year in 1995-96 and graduated by July 1, 1998.

Last year, when Concordia administrators signed a performance contract with the Quebec government, the graduation rate was acknowledged as one of the university’s weak areas. One of the conditions of the contract was that an overall graduation rate for all disciplines must reach 80 per cent by the end of this decade, with no disciplinary sector below 70 per cent.

However, Tilson said, it must be borne in mind that this jump could be an anomaly, and it will take several years to see if the trend continues.

Cameron Tilson is senior planning and policy analyst in the Rector’s Cabinet.

Enrolment is up in School of Business

Enrolment is up at the John Molson School of Business, despite a continued raising of the bar. The School reports a 6.5-per-cent increase among undergraduates over last year, and a 18.8-per-cent increase in graduate students.

Dean Jerry Tomberlin said, “At the undergraduate level, we raised our minimum GPA entrance requirement this past year, and were expecting a slight decline; the overall increase is a welcome surprise.
“We also found that more students who were accepted to programs at the School decided to come. This year, our yield on admissions increased for domestic students from 68.6 per cent to 71.1 per cent, and for international students, from 48.3 per cent to 53.3 per cent.

“At the graduate level, enrolment in our new programs has been impressive, with many of our new students already holding advanced academic and professional qualifications. In this time of tough competition between business schools, these positive statistics are welcome news.”

In addition, the School’s Executive MBA program was named 44th among the top 50 EMBA programs in the world, according to the Financial Times of London (UK), and Concordia’s program was ranked third in Canada.