The period roughly from 1959 to the oil crisis of 1973-74 is rightly thought of as a Golden Age for higher education in Canada, much as it is in the United States. Universities ballooned in size and gradually became more research-intensive. A new class of institutions, community colleges, were added to the system. Provinces finally got around to thinking systemically about higher education, and electorates were broadly tolerant about spending any amount of money to expand and improve the system.

Five provinces underwent some major system-level changes during this decade: Quebec, Ontario, plus the three western provinces. In some respects, these reform processes were parallel, but in one very big respect they diverged considerably, thus leaving Quebec as a stand-out from the rest of the country.

What united most of these provinces during this period was the major expansion of college-level education. In Ontario, Education Minister Bill Davis created the CAATs to ensure the province had a steady supply of people with technical skills. Quebec created its CEGEPs as a way to get rid of its colleges classiques and to create a pathway from secondary education (which ended in grade 11) to university.

Alberta and BC both created college systems based on the American model – that is, with a dual role of providing technical/vocational skills and as a means of providing university transfer courses to reduce pressure for creating universities in the more far-flung areas of the provinces. These were three very different models of colleges, but they all spoke to an emerging view that universities alone would not be able to produce all the various types of graduates the new economy would require.

It was on the university side of things that the processes diverged. Out west, 1962 saw the publication of Higher Education in British Columbia: A Plan for the Future, the practical upshot of which was the end of UBC’s monopoly on degree granting in the province. Victoria College, which had been a UBC affiliate for nearly fifty years, became the University of Victoria in 1963 and Simon Fraser University was commissioned the same year (though it did not open until 1965).

Next door, the University of Alberta, which was hitherto conceived as a single provincial institution, lost its monopoly when the University of Calgary was carved out and given independent status in 1966 (it had previously been a campus of the provincial university); the University of Lethbridge was created a year later.

And finally, in Saskatchewan the decision was made to sever Regina College’s links with the University of Saskatchewan and become the University of Regina. Thus, in the west, for various reasons over the space of a decade, the decision was firmly taken to leave the path of a single integrated university, though in Alberta and British Columbia the existence of provincial councils on admissions and transfer do continue to provide some of the mobility provisions one would expect from a system.

Quebec, on the other hand, went the other direction entirely. Although it chose to mostly leave the province’s existing universities alone, it decided to build almost a dozen new institutions and put them all under a single management structure. And so, you have Université du Quebec in Montreal, as well as in Trois-Rivieres, Rimouski, Chicoutimi, Abitibi-Temiscaminque, Ouataouis. There are also specialist institutions like ENAP, INRS, Télé-Université and the École de technologie superieure.

In other provinces too, universities proliferated: Moncton and Mount St. Vincent in the Atlantic date from this period, as does the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba and York, Laurier, Brock, Trent, Lakehead, Laurentian, and Guelph in Ontario.  But institutional numbers shrank as well as grew: smaller denominational colleges went out of fashion, with both UPEI and Concordia being fashioned out of similar mergers of two separate colleges, one Protestant and one Catholic (this doesn’t sound super-controversial now, but at the time half of PEI lost their damn minds).

What was truly amazing about this period was how much money provincial governments were willing to throw at projects – often in no particularly systematized way. Not only did provinces manage to accommodate over a tripling in enrolment during this period, they also managed to increase per-student budgets by about 85%, though they were still some ways off today’s figure of about $34,000 per student.

By any later standard, money was essentially growing on trees. But as governments began to realize their own limits to growth in the early 1970s (partly due to public resistance to taxation and partly due to the sharp slump in growth resulting from the oil crisis) they finally began to put rules in place to restrict institutional growth. Most notably, all of the big provinces (and a couple of the smaller ones as well) adopted enrolment-based funding formulas.

Suddenly, the days of university Presidents waltzing into ministerial offices with a list of requests were over (this seems normal today: at the time, it was an enormous shock). Provinces also began building up enough expertise to properly monitor and regulate the system as well: the Ontario Council on University Affairs was formed in 1974, while further east the three Maritime provinces banded together to create a joint regulator known as the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Council, which still exists today, albeit in a more limited form than what was intended 45 years ago.

In the midst of all this activity, Ottawa largely withdrew its interest in the system. The justification Prime Minister St. Laurent had advanced (and Trudeau in Cité Libre had ridiculed) in defence of federal transfers in the early 1950s – “higher  education is important, provinces aren’t doing anything, we the federal government have money, so let’s get spending!” – was manifestly no longer true. And so while the federal government remained involved (albeit at a low level) in funding university research and in providing students with aid through the Canada Student Loans Program, it wound up its weird system of transferring-money-to-universities-via-Universities-Canada scheme and turned it into a cash-and-tax-points transfer to provinces that was more acceptable to Quebec; suffice to say that the change was correctly understood as the feds backing off in an area where provinces were belatedly taking up their responsibilities.

In sum, by 1974 Canada had more or less reached the form of the higher education system we have today. Nearly all the universities in existence today had been created, though some at the time were community colleges or other non-university institutions. The basic provincial regulatory instruments and ministries had been created. The federal-provincial loan system had by this point largely come into existence (1964), as had tax relief for education (1960) and Registered Education Savings Programs (1971).  Except for the research funding eco-system, it was all pretty much what we have today.

The problem was: how were we supposed to pay for it all? Figuring that out was the task of the next two decades.


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

Reproduced with Permission

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