Skip to main content
canadian university report - canada 150

Grace Annie Lockhart, in 1875, became the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in the entire British Empire.

Today's universities and the students who attend them would be unrecognizable to their 1867 counterparts.

Universities in Canada predate the nation's formation in 1867. Indeed, there were 17 institutions at the time of Confederation, with Quebec City's Université Laval as the oldest secondary institution, formed in 1663.

"The vast majority were religiously run, they were denominational institutions," used to educate the country's religious leaders, says Paul Axelrod, a professor of education at York University in Toronto. He explains that most universities acted as funnels for the nation's religious leaders with only four institutions boasting a non-denominational allegiance. "One of their main goals was to produce clergymen for their particular denomination."

And Canada's universities existed only east of Manitoba in 1867, with the majority in the Atlantic provinces. There was little public funding available, so, as a result of the religious affiliation, the churches often provided the money.

The demographics on campus were very different in the mid to late 1800s, with one very distinct difference from today: no women. Women currently make up about 60 per cent of university graduates, but at the time of Confederation, women were not allowed in postsecondary classrooms. Not until the late 19th century were they allowed in, and even then, most women were not allowed in the library or some lecture halls.

"That changed in the 1880s when, in English Canada, the barriers for women started coming down," says Dr. Axelrod. "But in 1867, higher education was a male prerogative."

The majority of the country was still rural in 1867, but universities tended to draw on the more urban population – a small population at the time. It was an endeavour mainly taken on by Canada's wealthier families, as it was not only the cost of tuition, it was also the loss of income coming into the family that needed to be assessed.

Dr. Axelrod explains that, with costs of $160-$170 per academic year at some schools, "To send a child off to university and not have them work, that was a foregone cost, and so you had to have income to be able to do that."

At the same time, the country's landscape was changing. So was the university landscape, as one book was gaining notoriety worldwide.

Charles Darwin's On the Origin Of Species was first published in 1859 and marked a significant turning point in the academic teachings in postsecondary institutions around the world, and Canada was no different.

"Darwin created an intellectual crisis for universities here and everywhere," explains Dr. Axelrod, adding that this was a significant transition period. "The question became: How much credence should we give to science that isn't linked to the theological understanding of the world?" It is a campus none of us would recognize today, but it is part of the history of how Canada's universities came to be. Today's universities are, for the most part, secular, with an education system that is firmly grounded in the scientific. As well, the faces on undergraduate campuses now include not only women but also Indigenous people, those from many different cultural backgrounds, people with disabilities and openly gay and transgender people.

And, of course, it costs more than $160 to go to university.

Financial: $160 for tuition in 1867

Before the Second World War, very little public funding was provided to Canada's universities. Instead, private donations and tuition fees were the basis for funding. And because the majority of the school's academic programs were denominational, much of the funding came from churches.

If you were one of the 39 students enrolled at Université Laval in 1867, you would pay $160 in tuition. Tuition, room and board (which included $6 for a year's supply of evening tea) at the University of King's College was $171 in 1867. (While Statistics Canada data on inflation do not go back as far as 1867, $160 in today's dollars would likely be several thousand dollars. For comparison, $160 in 1914 in today's dollars would be $3,464.)

Fees and loans today Today's fees are on the rise, averaging $6,373 for a full-time undergraduate program, up 2.8 per cent over all in 2016-17, according to Statistics Canada.

Unlike in the 1860s, students today have access to student loans.

Tuition is a heavy load for today's students, not to mention the cost of housing, food, entertainment, books and other costs.

There are some options, however, to help relieve some of the financial burden, including the Canada Student Loans Program, which provides non-repayable Canada Student Grants and Canada Student Loans up to 60 per cent of a student's financial needs.

Participating provinces or territories cover the remaining need and assess a borrower's eligibility for federal financial assistance on behalf of the Canada Student Loans Program. Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut do not participate in the Canada Student Loans Program as they have their own financial assistance programs.

The last two federal budgets have introduced new regulations to the Canada Student Loans Program, which include:

University graduates are not required to pay back their Canada Student Loan until they are earning a minimum of $25,000 a year. Monthly payments are limited to no more than 20 per cent of the borrower's family income and no borrower has a repayment period of more than 15 years.

Students will be expected to contribute between $1,500 and $3,000 per academic year, based on their family income and size.

Canada Student Grants are also provided through the federal government and are non-repayable funding for students from low-income families ($3,000 per year) and middle-income families ($1,200 per year), students with permanent disabilities, students with dependents, and parttime students from low-income families.

Family members can contribute to a registered education savings plan (RESP), which is a combination of personal contributions and free money from the government. The catch is that these RESPs need to be started years in advance.

Personal bank loans or lines of credit are another popular way to help pay the way in university. But be aware that, unlike Canada Student Loans, loan payments are often not deferred until graduation and need to be repaid during a student's time in university. Parents and guardians may be asked to co-sign for these types of loans.

SOURCES: Canadian Federation of Students; HRSDC; Federal budget 2016 and 2017; CRA RESP information

Demographics: The first female and first black graduates

There were about 1,500 university students enrolled in the years leading up to Confederation, and only five universities had enrolments of more than 100 students.

Grace Annie Lockhart, in 1875, became the first woman to earn a bachelor's degree in the entire British Empire. She graduated from what became Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., with a bachelor of science degree (BSc).

There is no data from 1867 about Indigenous university students, but it is assumed there were none at that time. It is impossible to collect the data prior to 1950, as Indigenous people who wished to attend university were forced to give up their status in order to pursue postsecondary education.

Robert Sutherland was Canada's first university graduate of colour and North American's first known black lawyer. He first attended Queen's University in 1849 and graduated in 1852.

SOURCES: Queen's University, Canadian Encyclopedia, An Introduction to Higher Education in Canada by Glen A. Jones

Decorum: No inns or taverns, and call your prof 'Sir'

If you were a student in 1867 at University of King's College – now in Halifax and originally founded in Windsor, N.S. – you would be banned from entering the local pub. And that is just the beginning of the restrictions in place to avoid the look of immodesty and impropriety.

The school's statutes stated: "No Undergraduate shall resort to any inn, tavern, or public house, except for some special cause, to be approved by the President, or shall spend his time in the streets of the town... The introduction of spirituous liquors into the College is absolutely prohibited."

Students in university were expected to address their professors and lecturers with titles, like "Sir."

Today, these rules are all but gone. However, some professors are reclaiming some of these more traditional behaviours by attaching etiquette outlines to their syllabus, citing a more recent decline in grammatically correct e-mails and informal behaviour toward lecturers as the root cause, which can continue into the workplace.

Modern-day etiquette tips include:

  • Appropriate e-mail addresses for use in university correspondence. If your e-mail appears unprofessional (think party_animal_97), don't use it. It leaves a lasting impression, and not a good one.
  • Don't send sloppy, slang-filled e-mails.
  • Your professor's name is not Andrew or Beth until he or she says so. Like the students of 1867, who addressed their professors by formal titles, the same should apply unless otherwise stated.
  • Look to the syllabus for expectations, as many professors use these as outlines for both course work and professional expectations.

SOURCES: "Many Students Really Do Not Yet Know How to Behave!": The Syllabus as a Tool for Socialization, Gayle Sulik and Jennifer Keys "U can't talk to your professor like this" The New York Times

Historical tidbits:

• The first telephone on a university campus in Canada was at Queen's university where Alexander Graham Bell's father was a lecturer. A successful experiment with the telephone was made at the termination of Prof. Bell's lectures before the Christmas vacation. The wire connected a room in Principal Grant's residence with the classical classroom. Prof. Bell's rendering of the "Cavalry Charge at Balaklava" sounded beautifully through the telephone. SOURCE: Queen's Journal

• In 1877, the University of Toronto allowed women to write its admissions exams, but women were still not allowed to attend lectures until 1884 – and even at that time there were no women's washrooms on campus. SOURCE: U of T Magazine

• The typical classes at a university in 1867 would be some variation of the following courses: Classics; Mathematics; Natural Science or Physical Sciences; Modern Languages; Logic; Ethics; Theology; Philosophy. SOURCE: University of Toronto Archivist; University of King's College Archivist; York University's Paul Axelrod

• At the University of King's College, the students' fathers' occupations included schoolmaster, barrister, judge, merchant, clergyman, registrar of deeds, farmer and trader, and secretary of insurance. SOURCE: Source: University of King's College Matricula from 1867, as provided by Jennifer Adams, university archivist

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct