During the war years, post-secondary education was essentially on hold. But immediately afterwards, in the period from 1945-1960, there were some major developments. The first was dealing with a major surge in enrolments due to returning veterans. In 1944-45, full-time enrolment was 38,516, slightly below where it was in 1938.  Two years later, swollen by several cohorts of military veterans taking advantage of a post-war benefits program, it was 76,237.

By 1950 those numbers were starting to fall again – the system would not approach 80,000 again until 1958. But even if one ignores the temporary post-war surge, the system still doubled in size in fifteen years, which was no small matter.

In the 1950s, Canada had an interesting form of federalist imbalance. Because of the war, Ottawa had acquired a large, talented, and ambitious public service, but the provinces had not. At this point they were still largely in a minimalist government mode, not even necessarily capable (Saskatchewan apart, perhaps) of thinking strategically about social policy areas like health and education. This would change in a big way during the following decade, but this lack of policy capacity at the provincial level really shaped and, in some ways, retarded the growth of higher education in Canada.

As a result, provinces generally tried to accommodate growth in student numbers with the institutions they already had. Where necessary (for instance, in the three westernmost provinces), they might build up a satellite campus (e.g. Victoria, Calgary, Regina) to the point where they started to look like new independent campuses, but they remained part of their overall provincial systems.

Only three new universities – Carleton, Sherbrooke, and Waterloo – were established, and the third of these was essentially an accident. Waterloo started out as an extension of Western’s Engineering faculty but decided to strike out on its own after Western repeatedly turned down some crazy newfangled idea called “co-op” on the grounds that it wasn’t something serious universities did. Not one of Western’s better moments.

Meanwhile, Ottawa kept looking for ways to influence the system. In 1951, the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (the Massey Commission) proposed federal assistance to universities. In 1956, the National Conference of Canadian Universities (NCCU) – the forerunner of today’s Universities Canada – held a conference on universities entitled “Canada’s crisis” to gin up federal support for institutions.

The Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Prospects in 1958 (Gordon Commission) added fuel to the fire by publishing estimates of the likely capital and operating costs of educating the baby boom, which was rapidly heading towards adolescence, though – wisely – it did not specify whether these funds should come Ottawa or the provinces.

A less-often remarked upon aspect of the Gordon Commission was its views on scientific research, which at the time in Canada was much more focused on the National Research Council and in line ministries than it is today. It noted that Canadian university research was at a very low state compared to the United States, pointing to the relative absence of decent postgraduate programs as evidence.

This is an important point to remember: apart from U of T and McGill, few Canadian universities could really be called research-intensive until the 1970s. Partly in consequence, in 1960 universities’ expenditures per student were about a third what they are today, even after inflation. These were very different institutions.

To some extent, the push for federal involvement was successful. The Massey Commission prompted the feds to set up a trust fund (managed by the NCCU) to send operating grants to universities and set the annual transfer at 50 cents per citizen in 1951 and doubled it at NCCU’s conference in 1956.

They also got into the business of funding university capital expansion by giving the Canada Council $100 million and telling them to go spend it on universities. Institutions were mostly grateful (though also somewhat wary of becoming too dependent on government money, seeing it as a potential threat to academic freedom) though in Quebec the effort was all for naught. Premier Duplessis told Quebec universities if they accepted any federal money, he’d clip their provincial grant by an equivalent amount.

This strategy was strongly endorsed by Pierre Trudeau in his essay Federal Grants to Universities, which really needs to be read by everyone who mistakenly thinks Trudeau was a centralist on social policy. But all of this was mere prelude. As the 1960s opened, provinces were about to catch on to the higher education thing.


Published on October 4, 2018 by Alex Usher; Higher Education Strategy Associates

Reproduced with Permission

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