The current era of PSE in Canada essentially took shape at the end of the Chretien Era. There has been a little bit of evolution in institutional forms (this is the era in which “polytechnics” arrive and applied research becomes a thing at the college level, and several colleges were converted into universities) but really no change in system architecture.

There are certainly budget changes – rapidly increasing in the period to about 2009, and then levelling off with international student fees replacing government grants thereafter – but they have been slow and incremental. Oil-rich provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland) opened the spigots to universities when times were good and then sometimes cut back abruptly when times were bad, but change was for the most part incremental. The system, in a sense, seems to have become too big to revolutionize.

The paradox of this period lies in the way the teaching and research missions interacted. In some respects, teaching became more important because this was a period of huge growth in enrollments. Between 1999 and 2010, FTE enrollment at Canadian universities increased by 50%, partly due to natural growth and partly due to the conversion of seven colleges in BC and Alberta to university status. This was one of the fastest growth rates of tertiary enrolment anywhere in the OECD, and to a considerable extent it was funded through increases in government expenditure.

The sharp increases in student fees that marked the previous era more or less disappeared, to be replaced by a slow but steady drift of between 1-2% after inflation. In other words, tuition fee increases moderated at exactly the time that the system proved high fees were not a barrier to access.

But at the same time, when the system should have been focused on accommodating this new growth, much of the system decided to continue the quest for research-intensity. Encouraged by growth in spending in Ottawa, it was awfully tempting to plow some of those extra student dollars from expansion into more buildings for research, lower teaching loads to accommodate more research (thus creating a need for more sessional teachers and more non-academic staff to pick up work faculty no longer chose to do), and – above all – raise faculty salaries so they were competitive with those in America (the rocketing increase in the value of the dollar around 2006 helped enormously, too). So, to a large extent that’s what everyone did. What we therefore got – and what we still have today – was a system that largely treated the expansion of access as a means to an end for greater research intensity. The fact that the two missions were essentially being funded by two separate levels of government that did not talk to one another did not help matters.

This might have worked, had the crash of 2008 not come along and had the money kept flowing. Post-secondary education was mostly unaffected for the first couple of years, because Canadian governments operated on Keynesian principles and kept spending into the recession that followed. And, of course, the Harper government decided to rescue the construction industry with a huge infrastructure program which for appearance’s sake they decided to locate on college and university campuses (the Trudeau government would dust off exactly the same plans in 2016), which created a temporary illusion of prosperity.

But as the decade ticked by, what Canadian universities received from provincial governments shrunk just a little bit each year in real terms. And the settlements that faculty associations kept winning grew just a little bit each year. And the end of mandatory retirement meant the average age (and therefore wages) of the faculty grew just a little bit each year. It was a long, slow, relentless squeeze.  Not enough to create a crisis, but enough to make things uncomfortable, and at a few small universities which happened to experience a bad class recruitment or two (e.g. Acadia) it came pretty close to pushing them to the wall.

Had domestic fees been allowed to rise to compensate, institutions probably would have gone that route. But they couldn’t, so it was exactly at this time that Canadian universities discovered what Australian ones had known for over a decade: you can get international students to pay for stuff your home government and home students won’t! And so began the relentless rise in international student numbers, and it’s suffice to say we’ve more or less just replaced lost government funding with international student dollars and carried on as if nothing had changed.

The other funding challenge was more directly research-related: in conjunction with the run-up in research funding, a lot of universities ramped up their doctoral programs and started hiring more scientists. When the funding escalator stopped, suddenly there were a lot more people competing for funds that were no longer growing. Result: a lot of people with disappointed hopes of academic careers, and significantly decreased success rates on grant competitions (made worse in the medical sciences by CIHR’s bizarre decision to hand out fewer, larger awards). This led to a lot of unhappy scientists who were not in the least mollified by the fact that the Government throughout this period did keep investing fairly heavily in “Big Science” projects like TRIUMF, NEPTUNE, Canada First Research Excellence Grants, etc.

And so that’s about where we sit today. The architecture of the system is almost unchanged from fifteen years ago (BC and Alberta excepted, around the edges). What has changed are the details around research funding, the nature of the funding streams, and to some extent the culture of institutions, which almost regardless of size have taken on more characteristics of American flagship research institutions.


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

Reproduced with Permission

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