Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Federalism and University Governance in Canada

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Federalism and University Governance in Canada

Article excerpt


Owing to the importance and expense of universities' activities and contributions to society, there is increasing interest in and concern about how they are governed, externally and internally (Austin and Jones 2016).

Universities' external governance varies greatly amongst systems--and, in some systems, from institution to institution--and between unitary and federal states. Canada is typical of long-standing federations both in that the provinces are responsible for higher education and in that higher education has historically been an area of tension between the two levels of government (Watts 1992).

Canadian higher education has been described as "a loosely integrated network of ten provincial systems" (Tupper 2013: 352) and Canada is on the decentralized end of the spectrum of federations (Watts 1992; Jones and Noumi 2018). Nevertheless, Ottawa has, like its national counterparts in other federations, taken steps to harness universities' capacities in order to increase economic competitiveness and innovation (Watts 1992; Marginson and Carnoy 2018), notably through financing of university research. In addition, tbe federal government plays key roles in student assistance, immigration, financing of education for First Nations students, and other realms. Its role in higher education has been described as "soft federalism" (Watts 1992: 18)--as involving the exercise of influence, rather than authority (Jones and Noumi 2018).

What impact have federal initiatives had at the institutional level, including on universities' governance, administration, and activities? How, if at all, have they affected institutional autonomy? This article draws upon the findings of a comparative case study of the governance of six major universities in five provinces and existing literature in an attempt to answer these questions and to address what role, if any, the federal government plays in the external governance of universities in Canada; how this compares with the provinces' roles; and what this means for the external governance of universities and institutional autonomy.

Conceptual framework

This article and the comparative case study upon which it draws were informed by the work of Pierre Bourdieu, who conceived of society as consisting of fields--hierarchically structured networks of social relations in which individuals and organizations compete for capital and for position. Fields differ in the types of capital at play within them, the main types being economic, social and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1986). Bourdieu distinguished between fields of restricted cultural production, in which cultural capital has primacy and autonomous producers create cultural goods for other producers, and fields of large scale production, in which economic capital dominates, production meets pre-existing needs, and producers are subordinate to those who control the means of production (Bourdieu 1993).

For universities, acquiring and building cultural capital--in the form of highly qualified faculty members, students, staff, equipment, infrastructure, and so on--is key. It is cultural capital that enables universities to generate knowledge and that determines the relative positions of their faculties and departments in disciplinary and professional fields. But cultural capital is very costly. A key challenge for universities is that if, in their need to generate revenue, they become captive either to the state or to the market, they risk decreasing or destroying their capacity to generate knowledge.

Bourdieu conceived of universities as relatively autonomous from both the state and the economy, but his concept of relative autonomy lacked precision and did not explain the pre-conditions, dimensions and limits of university autonomy and how it might change (Swartz 1997: 208). We hope our comparative case study of the governance of major Canadian universities will help address that gap. …

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