The Toronto Star
Saturday, February 21, 1998

Education cuts starting to look suicidal

by David Crane, Economics Editor

Ontario Premier Mike Harris has some anxious letters piling up on his desk. And a lot of people are waiting for his answer.

The letters warn that Ontario is going to lose out on jobs and growth because the Ontario government is simply not investing enough in education.

Our high-tech industries, the letters warn, are unable to fill the jobs that are essential for future growth, and face big future shortages so that Ontario companies will have to shift job-creating activities outside Canada.

In a letter to Harris, Northern Telecom Ltd. president John Roth warns that without a much increased supply of technically literate graduates "the continued development and vitality of the province's high-tech industry is at risk".

In another letter, John Kelly, president of JetForm Corp. and chair of the Canadian Advanced Technology Association, warns that major shortages of knowledge workers already exist, holding back the growth of Ontario-based high-tech companies and thus the growth of the Ontario economy.

Similar representations have come from the Information Technologies Association of Canada.

Roth pointed to a survey of Canadian technology firms that planned to hire 10,000 knowledge workers this year - yet all of Canada's computer science and electrical engineering programs combined produce only about 5,000 graduates a year.

"It's critical that the company has access to an abundant supply of graduates holding degrees in information-related disciplines such as computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering and applied physics and mathematics", Roth told Harris.

World-class companies such as Newbridge Networks Corp. and Cognos Inc. of Ottawa, Hummingbird Communications Ltd., Cybermation Inc. and IBM Canada Ltd. of Toronto and OpenText Corp. of Waterloo are, Kelly told Harris, "only the most visible tip of a vibrant technology community that successfully plays in the global market".

But, he warned, while up to 56,000 new jobs could be created in the industry in Ontario over the next five years, Ontario universities will graduate just 14,000 potential new employees.

The problem is not a lack of potential students.

Last year, for example, Ontario universities had places for just 2,745 new students in computing science and electrical engineering, and were forced to turn away a much greater number who had high marks but for whom there were no places.

In 1996, according to Nortel, the University of Toronto turned down three students for every student accepted in engineering, even though those turned down included students with 85 to 90 per cent averages.

In a brief to Harris, the company stresses that "universities and colleges cannot supply the number of program places to meet the demand".

The issue ultimately boils down to money.

While companies can and should do more to provide co-op places for students and fund universities and colleges, the provincial government has to do much more.

Moreover, as Nortel stresses, this can't simply be accomplished by steady increases in student fees.

The province has to increase funding to universities. As Nortel points out, "Ontario now spends less per capita on its universities than any other province. It would take an increase of approximately $490 million to bring Ontario up to the per capita national average."

Yet the Harris government's funding statement in mid-December seems to mean that Ontario universities won't receive urgently needed additional resources.

In fact, University of Toronto president Rob Prichard has suggested Ontario universities face a 4 per cent decline in university funding over the next two years.

At the same time, the formula Ontario funding uses to fund different types of courses is a serious disincentive for universities to increase enrolment in expensive high-tech areas.

Ontario provides $3,500 per arts student compared to $17,500 per medical student.

For undergraduate engineering and upper-year honour science courses, Ontario provides just $7,000 per student.

But this should be raised to $14,000 per student, Nortel argues, because of the high cost of technology needed in educating such students.

Ontario's high-tech industry needs some answers from the Premier. People are the key resource of the knowledge-based economy and if the Harris government fails to address this issue seriously and significantly, then Ontario's future prospects will be much diminished.

Copyright © 1998 by The Toronto Star. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.