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Wish I had a dollar for every speech intoned by corporate leaders and politicians alike about the human capital needs of the so-called "learning society " or the "knowledge economy." Cradle to grave learning is the key to a healthier, safer, more just and prosperous future for all of us. That's what we're told. And it's all true. Even in Ontario, with a Premier who has been so committed to education, achieving a seamless continuum of effective learning implied by the learning society vision, remains elusive.

Premier McGuinty's leadership has generated remarkable results including worldwide praise for our competitive results in numeracy and literacy plus increasing high-school graduation rates from 68 per cent to over 83 per cent in seven years.

And his early learning initiative aims to reduce the unacceptable rate of 28 per cent of kids who are seriously vulnerable when they enter first grade and in turn, raise those high-school graduation rates even higher.

But when it comes to postsecondary education, Ontario has been muddling through without a clear vision for years. Marked by one-off ideas informed more by facile and ego-driven lobbying than a learner and learning-centered vision, postsecondary education in Ontario seems to be more of a non-system than ever, arguably the "ad hoc-ness monster" of Canadian higher education.

How come students still do not have access to a fair and consistent way of receiving credit for what they already know? Students are unable to have easy and pervasive access to programs that take advantage of an individualized mix of both college and university resources. For too many students, transferring from one postsecondary institution to another feels like a surreal game of snakes and ladders, with more snakes and few ladders. While Ontario's higher education offerings are many, navigating beyond – and sometimes within – the institutions, is not fun and not fair when it comes to the costs of time and money.

As well, we still have far too much ineffective and out of date teaching going on, in particular, in universities. Class size is not the issue. Ineffective pedagogy is. Great teachers can turn a lecture-size gathering of 300 into an active and interactive problem-solving learning environment. Poor teachers can be spotted lecturing to 20 students in a seminar for two hours.

Lately, I've been thinking about the most visionary contribution to Ontario postsecondary education in "recent" memory. For those with really good memories, it occurred on May 21, 1965 when former premier, then education minister, William G. Davis introduced the concept of our colleges of applied arts and technology intended to provide labour market ready training. The baby boomer population was exploding and included those who would benefit from a more inductive, inclusive and applied approach to learning.

Intended to be equal but different from universities, Mr. Davis expected these new and dynamic institutions to be instruments of social and economic progress for their communities. His was a vision of full participation for all members of our society with better health outcomes and prosperity as a result. Mr. Davis understood the importance of social equity. And the colleges have more than delivered on his vision! As well, Mr. Davis presided over an expansion of the university sector.

Mr. Davis included in his legislation the notion that colleges and universities would establish a joint committee to explore, over time, how the two different kinds of institutions would co-operate to imagine how students might be able to mix and match the resources of each. The universities ignored this idea, and the colleges altogether, until a few decades ago when some of the leaders in local colleges and universities started developing joint programs – a few years in a college, a few in a university and voilà, a diploma and a degree, for example.

As a result of these early one-off programs, we have had many more one-offs. But we have no systematic province-wide plan to ensure that students can make use of resources from both types of institutions and get full credit for what they already know – and to be able to do this without having to become highly-skilled wheelers and dealers.

The colleges, many with world-class programs equal to degree level expectations, have had no alternative but to lobby for the right to offer their own degrees. Most of the university presidents fought against this notion ... unsuccessfully.

Colleges enable social and economic equity. They are less costly for students than universities and far more accommodating regarding the diversity of need. So while having colleges offer degrees on a limited basis is a good idea, it is critical that they do not leave their social equity mandate in the dust, by chasing university-like status. Putting all of the policy eggs in the highest level training basket ignores the expectations of a productive workplace where, for example, for every one university-educated engineer, we need for argument's sake, 10 technologists and 50 technicians trained in our colleges.

As I listen in to the postsecondary narrative currently at play, I am certain that we do not need new universities. We do not need to discuss old ideas like learn now and pay later – known as income-contingent repayment – because the research has already shown why it doesn't work at the current tuition levels. We don't need to fiddle with the length of programs sold as a big idea. Too much wine is being poured into old bottles.

This is a time to focus on how to change what takes place within our current institutions and between and among them rather than constructing new big boxes, or moving the old ones around and changing the labels. We need to focus on increasing easier and higher quality pathways and diversity of opportunity for students by innovating with the existing institutions. Simply put, learners of all ages should have better access to all of the resources of all of the current institutions in Ontario (and well-beyond) in a timely and cost-effective manner.

The galloping elitism that marks the current narrative threatens to leave too many students behind by wandering too far from the original mandate of the colleges and by wasting too much time and effort ignoring more important things like the quality of undergraduate pedagogy in our universities.

Charles Pascal is professor of higher education and human development, OISE/University of Toronto, former deputy minister responsible for elementary, secondary and postsecondary education, a former college president and former Director of the Ontario Universities Program for Instructional Development. He was the Premier's Special Advisor on Early Learning.