Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hair on Fire: The Decline and Wait For It of the Educational Complex State

Tonight, because a storm was in the forecast, I took the bus to the University of British Columbia's "Irving K. Barber Learning Centre."* forcing me to walk the maze of cordoned off routes through ongoing construction projects between bus loop and, uhm, "Learning Centre."

Or not, as the case may be. As an old man, I am inclined to curse these latter days, and suspect them to be as loose and ready to fail as my joints or my bowels. My enthusiasms have become strange, my judgement suspect.

I do not like what they have done to my university. But I think I have something more here than the rambling free association of my own aging (I have, for example, no hair to set on fire). I returned, not through the quiet off-streets of the designated cycle route, but down the West 19th-Dunbar-West Broadway bus route that I have been taking, on and off, since I first enrolled at the university in September of 1982. This gave me the opportunity to see some commercial space that is not where I work, dressed up for Christmas.

Or not, as the case may be. I wasn't racing a supervillain in a fun, if cheesy, television show shot in Vancouver, but the lack of Christmas decorations is not restricted to the store at which I work. They are spotty, limited to a few neighbourhoods, probably the ones with mroe energetic business associations. It is certainly no lack of inclination for the season that is holding my company back.  It's our current paid hours target, about which subject I would be more discrete if my corporate board were to show up to help me pull dairy skids off the delivery truck with an unpowered handjack. (Though such is the way of things that they would be shocked, just shocked, to know that such things were happening, and the blame would fall upon my boss, or my boss's boss, because what else is middle management for?) 

As for confirmation of my suspicion that it is lack of time and energy, and not a War on Christmas,, I will note that it is pretty much the chain stores that are falling down on the job here. (To be fair, the Subway down the street as a strand of Christmas lights up in the window.)

So that's the symptom, the gesture of the hand at the idea that there is something larger going on here. Now let's take a walk through campus.   
I enrolled in first year in 1982, but, being utterly unprepared for  university emotionally, I had to go off to rusticate in the countryside for a few years. When I returned, I was a sufficiently "mature" student to live in the towers yonder, the Walter H. Gage Towers. 
They were okay.

At the time that I was living in the towers, the space I am standing on as I take the picture was an staff-decal controlled parking lot.

 So was the space behind me, all the way to the building looming over the busses, UBC's General Services Administration Building, a spectacularly ill-executed --referring here to the details of the concrete pour which are, understandably, not imaged on the website-- example of whatever kind of architecture it is.

The old-man-rant point of this is that the space to my west, whose length you may grasp here, if not width, also considerable, was a great, green, grassy sward, of the kind that you probably imagine when you think of "college campus."

There's not a lot of those on the UBC campus these days, which is amazing, really, when you consider that it is a thousand-acre campus. The reason, I do not have to tell you, is that it's being built over. The  new Student Activity Centre at least has the decency to be a decade old.
I've got no idea what this is going to be, but I'm sure that its mission statement is a lot more synergistic and learning-and-skills-development-oriented than some stupid grassy field.

Besides, the Nurses used to play Home Economics in a touch football  grudge match called the "Tea-Bowl" here every year. Some things are best erased. 
I won't trouble you with the tedious details of the next stages of my walk. They're digging up the north plaza below the (soon-to-be-Old) Student Union Building, the one on which a past generation of student politicians once dreamed would be filled with protesting masses, to be harangued on the subject of, oh, I don't know, tuition fee increases, from the balconies of the Student Administration Council offices on the third floor of that weird old Arthur Erickson building. 

As a result, would-be users of Learning Centres had to pick their course, guided by flagpeople, fairly carefully across a muddy construction road, over the pristine access ramp to the parkade that was erected on the site of some former parking and the original Hillel House, and down past

...This is the part where I saw the sign advertising "Campus Tours," and cracked up. When I recovered, I walked on, just a few more paces, to a very familiar place.

Once, when you could walk from the huge block of humanities lecture halls that is the Buchanan Building straight to the north entrances of the Gage Towers, and your only concern was to skirt around Brock Hall, your path took you past these basement windows in the side of the building. For at least 15 years, from 1986 to 2001 or so, the windows pictured featured a yellowing sign, reading, "Quiet, Exam in Progress." This is because makeup exams used to be sat in that room in January and August, so that people wouldn't miss their graduation because they flunked out of Physics 420, just to pick a random example. Stupid eigenfunctions.

That simple explanation does not mean that I did not imagine, every time I passed this way over the years, that it was the same exam, and that someone in there was sitting it, page after page, year after year, to someday emerge into the world with  unimaginably advanced credentials in Learning. 

The sign is down now, and Brock Hall
has grown about twice as deep, with a brigh, shiny new Student Services Administration building wing behind the original. Which would seem much more reasonable to me if it were not for the fact that the only time I ever went into Brock Hall as an undergraduate, examination season apart, was to visit the Ham Radio Club,in its last, lonely days of existence, hanging about in the north wing of a clearly undertenanted building. 

Whatever. The new Hillel House is pretty big and shiny, too, and it's not as though Vancouver's Jewish population is very large. Welcoming students is an important thing to do, and it's nice that the facade of the old Brock House survives. It's a campus thing.

It's the Important Building from Every Cheap TV Show ever!

That's the "Irving K. Barber Learning Centre," with the facade of the old UBC Main Library sticking out from the front, because on account of it's historic and stuff.

By the way, if you're wondering what all the sneer quotes are about, given the relative restraint of the mission statement, here's the floor plan of the Barber Centre:

The University tore down the old main stacks, relegated the collection to an automated storage silo, and, because space was limited sent many old journal runs  to an impenetrable off-site fortress. Tearing down the less-than-earthquake structure erected higgledy-piggeldy in the last century to house an expanding collection is understandable and prudent. Using the space for something other than books in this online age is defensible. But using that space for bookable meeting.studying spaces? 

What the hell? This is what a thousand acre campus looks like:

And the Buchanan complex, Music, Fine Arts, Math, Geography, law school, Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work are all behind(ish) me!

Blocks and blocks of lecture halls, faculty offices, and lab spaces out to obscurity. Or to Forestry and Civil Engineering, same diff. 

Two more to end this rant: I mentioned, earlier, the soon-to-be-old Student Union Building:

Here it is from the north side. 

Here, next to it, is the soon-to-be-New Student Union Building

A weird and ungainly building, like the old SUB, which I am not going to criticise too harshly, as being pretty much the rule for campus buildings. What I am going to take issue with is the fact that, first, it is much larger than the old SUB. 

To be fair, student needs have grown so much more complicated than in my day

 but it does not replace the old SUB, which will retain some of its functions, and, for the remainder, be available to the university for, oh, I don't know, classrooms or something. And I, I can't even.

Look at this: British Columbia has an official demographer. This is Warren Munroe's projection of the population of Canada. 

The red curve is the high count, otherwise known as the "Zero Population Growth propaganda" line. It has never, ever come true in the history of Canadian population growth. Even I, neo-natalist that I am, am willing to assign the purple "low count" the same propaganda bin. Which is a relief, given that it seems to be showing that the Canadian population, even with maintained high immigration rates, is going to start falling, in absolute terms, about the time that I retire. 

Ooh! Ooh! Here's another one, from Monroe's cranky argument against the current trend to wholesale elementary school closings:

It's not an ideal projection, and I would be seriously tempted to have a go at fixing it were I not trying to get this done by bedtime,but the huge dip in elementary-school age students, and subsequent rapid growth, is based on
Snipped from a StatsCan site. Is that treason or lese majeste? I forget.
That's kind of "big picture," so here's something a bit more microscopic, also from Statscan.

The tiny, tiny uptick in births per thousand between 2002 (10.5) and 2009 (11.1) justifies Munroe's peaks and valleys, above. Uhm the last total there is for Canada as a whole, the next three are for the territories, and then you go province by province from west to east. B.C.'s birthrate per thousand in 2011 was 9.6. Hey, at least we're doing better than Hong Kong!

These, of course, are facts that happen way of in space or something, and which will never affect any actual people on Earth, which is why we don't have to worry about them, ever. 

Oh, dear. What did I accidentally drop there? Could it be the report on UBC student enrollment from the foundation to 2008, snipped from 1980, showing that, after a sharp peak at the turn of the century, numbers had fallen to only 30% higher than my original enrolling class? Why, I believe it is. Of course, 2008 is ancient history. What's enrollment at the old Alma Mater now? Well, the report is very long, and the headline count includes the Kelowna campus, but here's the take away number: 49,896. That includes 9,372 international students, in case you were wondering, and 3,872 doctoral students, which sounds totally reasonable. Interestingly, the foreign student cohort was 13% of 44,000 students enrolled in 2006, and 19% of the current 49,000. They probably like mountain views and merlot, I'm thinking.

Meanwhile, applications from British Columbia students only rose from 9077 in 2006 to 9,839 in 2013/14. (7.8%), while the population of the province rose from 4.113 million to 4.4 million in 2014 (7.0%). If you are wondering how this little demographic miracle was achieved, yes, the answer is, indeed "declining admission standards." The official site is pretty vague, but the grade cut off for English 12 is 70%. 


Finally, because the Senate of UBC is required to peer into its crystal balls and tell the future, we have this:

With, I am sure, no massaging of the numbers whatsoever (none!), the Senate discovers that the future decline in enrollment baked into Warren Monroe's cake is gentle, so very gentle and minor. The one unfortunate thing about that is that the difference between actual enrollment and funded enrollment is small. It's going to be a little difficult to justify tuition increases, but it's not like that's hard. Who doesn't have "$4,900 to $7,800" kicking around? Cheap at ten times the price for the Harvard of the northwestern Pacific Slope!

It has been suggested, by the usual irresponsible demagogues, that UBC might be padding out its tuition bill somehow. I'm not sure how that could be, though, unless the university is digging holes in the ground and pouring money into them.

Oh. Oh. I get it. The buildings. All those new classrooms for a declining student population count! That is pretty irrationaly wasteful, when you think about it. But why would anyone want to create excuses for raising university tuition fees? What would be the point of deliberately making them as high as possible?

That's my province: potlach to potlach in a century and a half.

* Mission statement: "The Irving K Barber Learning Centre is part of the UBC Library and supports the University’s academic and community engagement missions through space, services, and programming, as well as by fostering and supporting opportunities for engagement with communities across British Columbia." They also keep books there, to keep the antiquarians happy.

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