The Chretien era – roughly 1994 to 2003 – deserves to be remembered as a time of tremendous change in Canadian post-secondary education. Or, as an enormous, stomach-churning, roller-coaster, and mighty odd that a federal politician defined an era in a field of what is essentially provincial.

The first defining moment was the fabled 1995 Budget (for those too young to remember it, read the best journalistic account of this era, Double Vision by Ed Greenspon and Anthony Wilson-Smith to understand a bit more about why Canadians over 45 are still very leery of deficits).

Before it, Canada was teetering on the brink of insolvency; three years later we had the first of a decade’s worth of balanced budgets. Now, a lot of that turnaround had to do with us riding the coattails of a massive boom south of the border, but it also came from an enormous fiscal contraction, much of which was achieved by consolidating the two major federal social transfers (one for welfare, and one for health/education) into a single “Canada Health and Social Transfer” and reducing its cash value by several billion.

This had knock-on effects for provinces: nearly all of them were going through some form of budget adjustment anyway, but this extra series of income cuts hit them for a loop. All of them cut funding to institutions, with cuts sometimes exceeding ten percent. In most provinces (Quebec and British Columbia were the exceptions) tuition rose to at least partially compensate, but it still wasn’t enough.

At some universities, only every second light-bulb got replaced. At least one major research university economized by eliminating lab courses for first- and second-year undergraduate Science students. Between 1992 and 1998, the aggregate size of the professoriate shrank by fifteen percent. Hiring freezes – on the academic side at least – were in often in place for five years or so, decimating a generation of scholars. And with pay freezes and a plunging Canadian dollar, there was an exodus of talent. For the first time since the war, student numbers stopped growing: no money, no new spaces.

And as tuition climbed by 7-8% a year or so, student aid was gutted. In 1994 the Government of Canada increased loan limits on Canada Student Loans but changed its award formula so that provinces were on the hook for more clients. Provinces, which had hitherto mostly given out grants to complement federal loans, switched to loans themselves (albeit sometimes with associated loan forgiveness programs). Student debt rose quickly, roughly doubling over the decade. Research? The 1995 Budget delivered double-digit cuts to all three granting councils. By the end of Chretien’s third year in office, it was basically perfect desolation in higher education.

And then, as the money came back, everything changed. In 1997, the government forked out $800 million to create the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and would transfer about $1 billion more before the Chretien era was out.

In 1998 the Government of Canada produced the “Canadian Opportunities Strategy”: $2.5 billion for the Canada Millennium Scholarships Foundation (which, with some careful nurturing and a favourable bond market, became $3.6 billion in grants paid out over a decade), Canada Education Savings Grants (now worth almost $1 billion per year) and enhanced grants in the Canada Student Loans Program. Tax credits for education increased from $60/month to $400/month in stages from 1996 to 1998. The granting council budgets were restored, Canada Research Chairs (CRCs) became a thing, the federal government finally started partially covering the indirect costs of research. Though the provinces were still mad about the cut in transfer payments, the federal government had basically repaired the damage on student aid and research and then some.

And around 2000, the improving economy meant provincial budgets started to turn around. Tuition fee increases abated (led by a new freeze in Manitoba and a roll-back in Newfoundland). Institutions gradually saw some of their budgets restored. But the sudden flood of money from both the federal and provincial governments had some unanticipated results.

Institutions took the new provincial money and for the most part jammed it straight into professors’ salaries to make up for previous pay freezes and to counter the lure of American universities (by 2002, the dollar was about 63 cents). The exception was Ontario where billions were also spent on buildings to accommodate the “double cohort” which was a by-product of finally ending the old seven-year secondary system. Meanwhile, the federal money – especially the CRCs – were creating all sorts of incentives for institutions to become more research intensive.

Literally no one inside the institutions opposed research intensity because increased research output was where the entire structure of disciplinary rewards lay. And so, without much public discussion, institutions lowered teaching loads and increased rewards for research. Not everyone engaged in more research, of course, but the widespread existence of unionization meant that the financial rewards of greater research intensity were widely spread. The full effects of this didn’t become apparent until later in the decade, but from having a decimated system in 1997, Canada by 2003 was on its way to being one of the most expensive higher education systems in the world.

There are two other notable changes in this decade. The first is the beginning of a movement to create a liminal zone between colleges and universities. The University Colleges in British Columbia began granting degrees under their own steam. Certain Ontario colleges got the right to offer degrees after 2000, and the move to create “polytechnics” was on.

The second was the emergence in universities of a much more defined bureaucratic elite. Most universities finished this period with a lot more vice-presidents and associate vice-presidents than when they started. IT expenditures necessarily expanded, as did staff devoted to fundraising and government relations. Student services and research services never saw the kinds of staff reductions that academic staff did. By 2000 or so, academics made up a much smaller percentage of staff than they did in 1990. Though many people claim this is an on-going thing, in fact this period is when the major shift towards an “administrative university” happened; changes since that time have been negligible.

The Chretien government wasn’t solely responsible for all this, but it was definitely a co-conspirator in nearly all of it. But the 1995 budget certainly intensified the cuts universities and colleges faced in the mid-1990s, and the post 1997 budgets fundamentally transformed the federal role in both student assistance and research. The latter, particularly, aided and abetted the trend within universities to try to make themselves more research-intensive on the model of US state flagship institutions. The change in institutional direction was profound. We are still living with its after-effects.


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

Reproduced with Permission

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