Higher Education in Ontario: The Need for Research Universities

By McMillan, Charles; Baxter, Eric | Canadian Public Administration, September 2011 | Go to article overview
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Higher Education in Ontario: The Need for Research Universities


McMillan, Charles, Baxter, Eric, Canadian Public Administration


Ontario remains the heartland of Canada's national economy--by size, industrial sectors, diversity of population and export capacity--so it is timely that a group of authors has focused on a leading driver, Ontario's higher-education sector. In Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario, four academics and consultants, with public policy experience--Ian Clark, Greg Moran, Michael Skolnik and David Trick address the future needs of Ontario's higher-education system, based on the legacy issues, policy choices, assumptions and investments of the 1960s (Clark et al. 2009). The theme of their book is the development of teaching universities to deal with the steadily rising number of undergraduate students and the need to have more full-time teachers to cope with the financial burdens of university funding. In seven well-documented and well-written chapters, they set out their fundamental conclusion, namely that the present approach to the expansion of baccalaureate education in Ontario is not sustainable and is in need of significant modification.

This article addresses policy issues presented in Academic Transformation, the basic arguments made for teaching universities, and the prescriptions offered. Teaching universities, where most faculty spend time in the classroom, are seen as a flawed prescription for the needs of Ontario and for the students who would attend these institutions. What Ontario needs is a bold plan to remove the barriers to incremental funding that is based on body counts and a proactive research policy that serves the knowledge needs of the Ontario economy. This article sets out a strategy and then offers prescriptions that differ substantially from the academic transformation plan of action in this book.

Ontario's current system of higher education

As industrial countries move to the knowledge economy--a trend that started in the 1960s with the rise of service industries--how countries educate their citizens and cultivate knowledge is a central strategic issue, as set out in prescient accounts by Peter Drucker (1968) and Daniel Bell (1973). Although Ontario compares favourably on an international basis with the number of citizens with a higher-education degree, a core question remains: is the present system, developed mainly because of demographic changes in the 1960s, adequate for the future? In that era, the Ontario government addressed these needs with its fourteen universities, seven institutes of technology, eleven teacher colleges, sixty hospital schools of nursing, and the Ontario College of Art. Undergraduate enrolment then was only 35,000 students.

Today, the Ontario "system" now accounts for 400,000 undergraduate students in universities and 200,000 in community colleges, a stunning achievement towards mass higher education now widespread in most OECD countries. Ontario has nineteen publicly supported universities and twenty-four community colleges. In metropolitan Toronto, undergraduate enrolment for the University of Toronto, York University and Ryerson

University is three times that of the entire province only two generations ago. For the most part, there are no strictly private universities (or hospitals) and no Ontario-based foreign campuses from the U.S. or abroad or even campuses of universities from other provinces. Former private denominational colleges have been incorporated into publicly supported universities.

Ontario's phenomenal growth in student enrolment, the number of institutions (including community colleges), public and private funding, and diverse locations is a result of a number of factors, some addressed in Academic Transformation (see Chapter 1). One issue stands out, the lack of a central plan or framework, a point expressed in a 1966 quote from John Spinks, the former president of the University of Saskatchewan, who studied the graduate programs for the Ontario university presidents: "[T]he most striking characteristic of higher--not only graduate--education in Ontario is the complete absence of a master plan, of an education policy, and of a coordinating authority for the provincially supported institutions" (cited in Ontario, Commission to Study the Development of Graduate Programmes in Ontario Universities 1966: 3).

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