“Whom does the university serve – the students, their families, the faculty?” asks Ken Coates, the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of Campus Confidential, which explores how the system’s failure to manage a growing student population has eroded the quality and value of a degree. “As long as they are publicly funded institutions, shouldn’t we be focused on how we serve society as a whole?”
Fretting about higher education was not always a matter of public urgency. When the first university opened in Bologna, Italy, in 1088, all of the students were rich young men. For centuries, higher learning in the Western world was an enterprise for the elite, set off from the rest of society, and taught mostly by monks to train lawyers and physicians and, eventually, scientists.
That began to change in the 20th century, but even by 1930 in Canada, only 2.8 per cent of the population attended the country’s 28 universities. The revolution came after the Second World War, when the government rewarded veterans with tuition and universities became publicly funded. The doors opened to women and members of minorities, and the number of universities grew rapidly. From 1955 to 1975, the number of Canadians attending university increased from 73,000 to 370,000 (an additional 220,000 were in college).
Expanding university education was linked to economic growth, but even then, politicians and scholars were raising familiar concerns about the place of university in society, and the impact of rising attendance on the intellectual pursuit of knowledge.
In a speech at the University of British Columbia in 1965, a year after his minority Liberal government created the Canada Student Loan program, then-prime minister Lester B. Pearson emphasized the importance of making university accessible to all qualified students, predicting it would eventually be a natural step after high school – though he also proposed it would be free.
Referring to “revolutionary changes bound to take place,” he asked: “Will the emphasis on wise and unhurried teaching and research be replaced by the demand and the dimensions of a knowledge economy?”
In the 10 years after the loan program was introduced, the number of Canadians enrolled in university doubled. The new schools opened in more cities, where they became part of the local economy and culture, and, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, ground zeroes for the civil-rights, free-speech and feminist movements. The new burgeoning crowds of middle-class students – the “massification” of higher education – would alter the fabric of Canadian society, from professionalization to media literacy to parenting styles.
But the way knowledge was imparted did not evolve to keep pace. “Let’s say it was the year 1850, just to take a number,” says Alan Shepard, the newly appointed president of Montreal’s Concordia University and an advocate of postsecondary reform. “You would have gone to lectures. You would have perhaps written papers. You would have sat for final exams.” And that is still how it works, for the most part, today.
“There’s this paradox,” Dr. Shepard says, “where the knowledge itself has been advancing at a pretty rapid clip – what’s known, how much is known in all domains, is faster, bigger, bolder – and yet at the same time the mechanisms by which we convey that knowledge, those haven’t changed very fast at all.”
When classes were small, the lecture-hall model worked relatively well. But in the 1980s, two trends coincided to upend tradition: more students, and fewer public dollars. The entire country was swept up in the promise of a university-educated generation; in 1985, then-Ontario premier David Peterson stood in Toronto’s SkyDome for a television commercial, and vowed to fill the stadium’s 55,000 seats with postsecondary students.
Since then, in Ontario alone, there has been a 55 per cent increase in the number of students enrolled at university – a trend replicated in every province in the country. From 28 in 1930, there are now nearly 100 universities and degree-granting colleges in the country (plus about 400 community colleges).
The commitment to a public university system, with a space for anyone who wants to go, became the “vision” of every political party, which argued that university graduates would make Canada internationally competitive. But paying for it, especially when the economy was struggling, was a bigger challenge: According to the Canadian Federation of Students, in the 1960s and 1970s, 90 per cent of the cost of postsecondary education was covered by the government; by 2000, the taxpayer’s share was 57 per cent, with the difference being made up in tuition alone.