Snapshot: Enrollment in Canadian PSE

     1920 – 22,791 students. 16% female. 43% Arts and Science, 14% medicine, 13% Engineering

     1940 – 37,225 students, 24% female, 47% arts/science, 12% engineering, 8% medicine

The history of Canadian post-secondary education has two particularly notable things going on with respect to the first four decades of the twentieth century. The first is that western Canada got universities. And the second is that Eastern universities entered into contracts with the state.

East of Winnipeg, very few new universities were created in this period. Newfoundland (not yet part of Canada) created Memorial University after WWI, and Mount Saint Vincent and Saint Thomas got charters in the 1930s, but that’s about it. In Quebec, Laval’s Montreal campus became l’Université de Montréal. Western effectively became the University of Southwestern Ontario by absorbing Waterloo College and Assumption University in Windsor (both of which would return to independence in the 1950s). McMaster moved out of what is now the Royal Conservatory on Bloor Street in Toronto and into its current Hamilton campus.

West of Winnipeg was a whole different story. McMaster (and the Baptist church) opened a campus in Brandon, which eventually merged into the University of Manitoba in 1939. McGill opened campuses in Vancouver and Victoria; the former became UBC in 1915 and took over the latter as a satellite campus.

Alberta and Saskatchewan opened universities upon their creation as provinces in 1905. In all three western provinces, the notion was to create single publicly-funded institutions, created (or at least governed in UBC’s case) by provincial legislation. This meant from the start that they were quite clearly instruments of state power, designed to deliver various elements of state policy.

This was good in some senses because they started their institutional lives free from competitive pressures, allowing them to focus on their public mission. But the dependence on provincial funding was bad news during the wars (when governments had other preoccupations) and the Depression, which hit the Prairie provinces quite hard. Their growth through to the Second World War was stunted as a result because they had no history of trying to make a go through student fees and donations.

But think for a moment how different this was compared to eastern Canada. There, universities were created by religious communities that received public funding much later, usually in return for becoming non-denominational (or, at least, less overtly denominational). They grew up competing – for souls as well as dollars – with one another.

Public financial support was slow in coming. Only in Ontario was there something like a similar commitment, and this only for U of T after 1906, eighty or so years after it was created. Later, Western and Queen’s were let into the funding party as “regional” universities, though not before Western had started getting grants from the municipal government, a novelty which is honored today by Western being the only university in Canada where the local Mayor sits ex-officio on the Board of Governors.

The basic DNA of universities in the three western provinces is thus entirely different than those in Ontario and East, which is still reflected today in the much greater willingness of provincial governments there (particularly in Alberta and British Columbia) to meddle in and micro-manage public institutions. This basic east/west divide is why it’s really hard to generalize about post-secondary governance in Canada.

By the 1920s, most provinces were providing funding to their universities, although not in a particularly generous fashion and even these limited funds would be cut back quite substantially during the Depression. Between the wars, the University of Toronto was getting about a million and a half dollars per year from the government of Ontario. Records on funding are spotty, but my back of the envelope calculations suggest this was between a third and a half of all Canadian provincial expenditures on higher education (it’s about 6% today, if you’re wondering).

The feds? They set up the National Research Council during this period, though it wouldn’t become a major funder of universities for quite a while. The Royal Military College was created, and very briefly during World War I there was something called the “Khaki University”, which was a kind of continuing education effort (not entirely at the post-secondary level – basic literacy was a focus as well) carried out behind the lines in France and co-managed by the YMCA. At the very end of this period, the Rowell-Sirois Commission (designed to look at fiscal federalism) raised the possibility of the federal government co-funding programs in the area of training. Eventually, this notion would spawn the modern system of federal transfers, but in this period the only innovation was the Dominion-Provincial Student Aid Program of 1939, in which the feds agreed to fund 50% of any provincial scholarship program.

Maybe the most curious aspect of the interwar period was the massive amounts of aid Canadian universities received from big American foundations. The Carnegie Foundation, which had begun supporting professors’ pensions in the US prior to World War I (the concept of the credit hour was invented mainly as a unit of account, so Carnegie would know how much work each professor had done and pay out accordingly), extended this scheme to Canadian universities as well after 1920.

In fact, between 1920 and 1940, the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations spent nearly $8 million on Canadian universities. If you convert that into modern dollars, it works out to about $115 million, which is big but not outrageous. But to gauge its impact at the time, it is more properly compared to what institutions were then receiving from government: if you think of that sum as “five and a half times the University of Toronto’s annual provincial grant” (which is what it was), it’s about $3.8 billion.

Most of the impact of that money is invisible to us today, except in Halifax. There, Carnegie put quite a bit of money into studying the provincial system (producing the Learned and Sills report of 1921), concluding it was largely non-viable as is – too many colleges, not enough money – and offered financial incentives for the various universities to join together into a single, viable institution (i.e. some kind of mega-Dalhousie). If these were all secular institutions, the proposal might have had a prayer, but since they weren’t, this was literally asking all the universities’ boards to sup with the devil. King’s was the only one to take up the offer, and it semi-merged with Dalhousie, a status it continues to hold today.

And yes, really and truly, Nova Scotia has been dealing with the small university problem for a century and still hasn’t made much in the way of headway. I would quote Marx’s line about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce, but this story has been played out so many times over the last nine decades, “farce” doesn’t really do it justice.


Published on September 21, 2018 by Alex Usher; Higher Education Strategy Associates

Reproduced with Permission

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