It's lunchtime at the University of Calgary, and good luck finding a place to sit.
The line at the Tim Hortons in the MacEwan Student Centre stretches clear across the food court and students are waiting for a slice of pizza even before the counter opens. The long corridors that link many of the university's buildings have been outfitted with desks and benches. All are full.
While Alberta pumps billions into building projects and research initiatives at university and college campuses, student leaders say some basic needs such as student services, residences and undergraduate instruction have been overlooked.
"The quality of the student experience has suffered. Things are not as good as they used to be," said Michael Janz, president of the student union at the University of Alberta. Mr. Janz, a history and political science major, said the focus on research has come at the expense of undergraduate instruction and the emphasis on medicine, science and engineering means faculties in the humanities and social sciences are being overlooked.
"We need engineers, but we need teachers and civil servants and lawyers, too," he said.
In Calgary, where students are competing with a flood of recently arrived workers for apartment space, student leader Julie Bogle said demand for on-campus housing is huge.
Last summer there were 715 returning students on the waiting list. Just 7.4 per cent of all full-time students get a spot on campus.
The province has one of the highest tuition levels in the country.
Ann Tierney, U of C's vice-provost, students, said the university is aware of the issues, especially housing. The real crunch has come, she said, from the shifting preferences of returning students, who increasingly regard a room on campus as a better option than the city's tight rental market.
A new 100-bed residence is under construction and a proposal for an additional 500 beds is in the works. Unlike other capital projects, universities must finance new residences themselves so are fearful of overbuilding to answer a short-term need.
The desks and seats along the corridors are new, the result of "quality money" spent based on student proposals, one of which called for more student space.
Doug Horner, the provincial Minister of Advanced Education and Technology, is sympathetic to the students' concerns and has met with them to talk about options. "I want to see creative responses to student housing," he said. "There is nothing wrong with talking with developers - we are actively pursuing that."
At the University of Alberta, Mr. Janz is frustrated that change is not coming faster. "Alberta should have the best system in the country, given our prosperity. It is so short-sighted of us not to invest in postsecondary now."