Universities in Canada (Canadian Universities) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Universities in Canada (Canadian Universities)

Universities are post-secondary institutions invested with degree-granting power.
Dalhousie University
Dalhousie was founded in 1818 based on the standards of Edinburgh University (photo by Sherman Hines/Masterfile).
King's College in Fredericton, NB, like many early universities was set in an idealized rural setting. It is now part of the University of New Brunswick (courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Library).


Universities are post-secondary institutions invested with degree-granting power. Canada's earliest universities had strong religious affiliations and were generally modelled on European institutions. The three King's Colleges (est at Windsor, NS, 1789; York [Toronto], 1827; and Fredericton, NB, 1828) were efforts to bring the ideals of the older English universities to Canada. They were residential, tutorial and Anglican. The more democratic ideals of the Scottish universities were evident in varying degrees in DALHOUSIE UNIVERSITY (Halifax, 1818), QUEEN'S UNIVERSITY (Kingston, 1841) and MCGILL UNIVERSITY (Montréal, 1821).

The Methodist (Victoria College, Cobourg, Ont, 1841; MOUNT ALLISON UNIVERSITY, Sackville, NB, 1839) and Baptist (ACADIA UNIVERSITY, Wolfville, NS, 1838) institutions were designed to prepare men for the ministry and to supply education for lay members. Bishop's College, which later became BISHOP'S UNIVERSITY, was established by the Anglicans in 1843.

Roman Catholics maintained their own ethos at the English-language ST FRANCIS XAVIER, established at Antigonish, NS, in 1855. Laval was established in 1852 by the SÉMINAIRE DE QUÉBEC, a college founded by Bishop LAVAL in 1663. Laval established a branch in Montréal in 1876, which became UNIVERSITÉ DE MONTRÉAL in 1920.

At the time of Confederation, 1867, 17 degree-granting institutions existed in the founding provinces. Four had a nondenominational basis (Dalhousie, McGill, New Brunswick, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO); the remaining 13 were church related and controlled. Thirteen of the 17 had enrolments of about 100 students. One way of strengthening this multiplicity of small and financially insecure institutions was by consolidation.

In 1868 the Ontario government, by withdrawing financial support, pressured its denominational universities to consider co-operation with the public sector. The three church universities that federated with U of T (Victoria College and St Michael's College in 1890; Trinity College in 1904) maintained university status and autonomy in instruction and staffing, but agreed to restrict their offerings to the sensitive and less costly liberal arts subjects (eg, classics, philosophy, English literature, history, modern languages, mathematics, science and theology); responsibility for instruction in all other areas and for the granting of degrees (except in theology) rested with the public university. The federative model, adopted by other Canadian universities in the course of their development, represents a Canadian solution to the problem of reconciling religiosity and secularism, diversity and economic pragmatism.

The western provinces adopted a policy of controlled university development from the beginning. In Manitoba this took the form of combining 3 existing church colleges - St-Boniface (Roman Catholic), St John's (Anglican) and Manitoba College (Presbyterian) - under one umbrella. Eleven years after the founding of UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA (1877) a fourth college, Wesley College (Methodist), was affiliated.

In each of the other three western provinces a single, public provincial university was created (UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA, 1906, UNIVERSITY OF SASKATCHEWAN, 1907 and UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA, 1908). The three western provinces adopted as their model the American state university, with its emphasis on extension work and applied research.

The growth of public higher EDUCATION raised the issue of university protection against government interference (seeACADEMIC FREEDOM). The pattern of university-government relationships adopted throughout much of Canada was influenced by the provincial University of Toronto Act of 1906, which established a bicameral system of university government consisting of a senate (faculty), responsible for academic policy, and a board of governors (citizens) exercising exclusive control over financial policy and having formal authority in all other matters.

The role of the president, appointed by the board, was to provide a link between the two bodies and to furnish active institutional leadership. Other important developments in the early part of this century were the expansion of professional education beyond the traditional fields of theology, law and medicine and, to a more limited extent, the introduction of graduate training based on the German-inspired American model of specialized course work and the completion of a research thesis.

By 1939 the number of degree-granting universities in Canada had increased to 28, varying in size from U of T, with full-time enrolment of 7000, to those with fewer than 1000 students. There were 40 000 students, representing 5% of the population between ages 18 and 24. Most universities were regional institutions; only McGill and U of T had attained an international reputation for research. There was no systematic policy concerning higher education, and funding was established year by year. Except for the natural sciences, there was no federal or provincial grant agency providing regular support for graduate work and research. A few LEARNED SOCIETIES and academic journals had been established.

The Second World War marked the slow beginning of a new era in Canadian higher education. The war effort generated a high demand for scientific research and highly trained personnel (many of whom were imported into Canada) and this brought appreciation for the vital importance to the nation of the university sector. In the immediate postwar period the federal government began to provide some financial assistance to the universities to help them deal with the influx of veterans.

As a result of a veterans' rehabilitation program, 53 000 veterans entered university between 1944 and 1951. When the expected return to much lower student enrolments failed to occur, the federal government, following the advice of the Massey Commission, became involved in 1951 in the regular provision of financial support to higher education (seeROYAL COMMISSION ON NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE ARTS, LETTERS AND SCIENCES).

By the early 1950s the size of the university student population was twice that of 1940 and by 1963 another doubling had taken place. With much larger increases projected as a result of the BABY BOOM, provincial governments abandoned their initial strategy of trying to meet these increases by expanding existing institutions. The single-university policy in the West was changed as existing colleges of the provincial universities gained autonomy as universities: UNIVERSITY OF VICTORIA (1963), UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY (1966), UNIVERSITY OF WINNIPEG (1967) and UNIVERSITY OF REGINA (1974).

New university charters were granted to CARLETON UNIVERSITY (Ottawa, 1957), YORK UNIVERSITY (Toronto, 1959), UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO (1959), and TRENT UNIVERSITY (Peterborough, 1963). Full-time undergraduate enrolments tripled, and part-time undergraduate and full-time graduate enrolments experienced close to a sixfold increase. Some 23 261 additional full-time university teachers were recruited. Because Canadian graduate programs had just started to expand, many university instructors recruited during the 1960s and the 1970s had received their graduate training abroad, particularly in the United States and Britain. The costs of operating this expanded system increased even more dramatically.

The ambitious policy of university education initiated in the 1960s was not just a response to the pressure of numbers. It was motivated by the belief, borrowed from the United States and endorsed by economists, that higher education was a key to economic productivity and would yield higher rates of economic returns both for individuals and for society. Social justice provided the second rationale.

Improving EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY was seen as a major means of accommodating rising social aspirations and of enhancing the social prospects of disadvantaged social, cultural and regional groups. Financial aid programs, aimed at removing financial barriers to university education, were introduced at both the federal and provincial levels. The most radical reform in both the structure and geographical access to higher education was undertaken in Québec with the introduction (1967) of the CEGEP sector (Collège d'enseignement général et professionel), offering two years of academic studies as a prerequisite for university entrance and three year technical programs, and the establishment of the Université du Québec (1967) with multiple campuses in different regions. Other provinces saw the rapid emergence of the COMMUNITY COLLEGE sector of post secondary education.

While some expected undergraduate university enrolments to decline following the departure of the last of the baby boomers, participation continued to increase in the three decades after 1980. Indeed, it more than doubled. By 2010, nearly 1.2 million students were enrolled full-time in degree programs, consisting of 755 000 undergraduates and 143 400 graduate students. In addition 275 800 students were enrolled part-time. As in the past, students from low-income families, particular immigrant and ethnic groups, and, as new research showed, those whose parents lacked university education, were least likely to attend. Notably, First Nations' participation rates, while still well below the national average, were improving. The percentage of Aboriginals holding a university degree increased from 5.9 to 7.7 between 2001 and 2006. The comparable figures for non-Aboriginals were 20.1% and 23.4% respectively.

The sustained interest in post-secondary education through the first decade of the new millennium can be explained by shifts in the social and economic conditions of Canada. Women, who were now marrying and bearing children later in life than their parents' generation, enrolled in universities in unprecedented numbers. In 2010, 56% of full-time students were female and they were participating in an economy in which the "two-income" family had become the norm. The economy itself was more volatile than in the three decades following the Second World War, but in periods of both growth and recession, higher education appeared to return value. The new "knowledge economy," driven by innovation, service industries, and high technology offered reasonably rewarding opportunities for college and university graduates. But even during the recessions of the 1990s and the period following the international financial crisis of 2008, the demand for university spaces persisted. Amid greater competition in the labour market, students perceived the degree as a necessary, if insufficient, qualification for securing high status work.

To meet this demand, new universities emerged, periodically from scratch, and more frequently as offshoots of existing institutions. In BC, for instance, the University of Northern British Columbia was established in 1990, followed by Royal Roads University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University both in 1995, Thompson Rivers University (2005), University of British Columbia at Okanagan (2005), University of the Fraser Valley (2008), Capilano University (2008), and Vancouver Island University (2008) all of which were converted to their new status, largely as "teaching-intensive universities," from their previous designation as "university-colleges." EMILY CARR UNIVERSITY OF ART AND DESIGN also obtained university standing in 2008. Three private universities opened in the province: Quest University (2002), University Canada West (2004), and Farleigh Dickinson University (2007). The Technical University of British Columbia was opened in 1999 and closed in 2002, while the long established British Columbia Institute of Technology evolved into a polytechnic institution, offering its first (Bachelor of Technology) degree in 1995.

Alberta saw the establishment of The King's University College, a religious institution (1979), the conversion of Concordia University College (1987) into a private degree-granting religious institution, and the merging of the former AUGUSTANA UNIVERSITY COLLEGE (2004) with the University of Alberta. Mount Royal University, a former college, opened in Calgary in 2009. The FIRST NATIONS UNIVERSITY was created in Saskatchewan in 2003, and the Canadian Mennonite University in Manitoba in 2000.

In northern Ontario, two former affiliates of LAURENTIAN UNIVERSITY, NIPISSING UNIVERSITY (North Bay, 1992) and ALGOMA UNIVERSITY (Sault Ste. Marie, 2008) obtained independent university charters, as did two private Christian institutions, Redeemer University College (Ancaster, 1998) and Tyndale University College and Seminary (Toronto, 2003). New legislation in 2000 permitted private and non-Ontario based institutions to apply for university standing, leading to the establishment of Charles Sturt University (Burlington, 2005). With the exception of several New York universities, which established sites offering teacher education degrees, the inundation into Ontario of private institutions, anticipated by some, did not materialize. The province's first new publicly-funded university in some 40 years, The University of Ontario Institute of Technology, opened in Oshawa in 2002. Finally, the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto obtained university status in 2010. In Québec and Atlantic Canada, no new universities were created since the 1970s.

Constitutionally, higher education remains under provincial rather than federal jurisdiction, although in the late 1990s, Ottawa chose to spend a portion of surplus federal revenues on several new research initiatives. It established the Canada Foundation on Innovation designed to stimulate innovation, economic growth, and public-private partnerships, and it created the Canada Research Chairs program that funded 2000 new faculty research positions across the country. Interested primarily in enhancing Canada's capacity in biotechnology and health research, Ottawa transformed the Medical Research Council into the more robust CANADIAN INSTITUTES OF HEALTH RESEARCH. Apart from its support for research and student assistance (the federal government also created the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, since disbanded), Ottawa has played a minimal role in the field of higher education policy. Periodic calls for national planning strategies by agencies such as the Canadian Council on Learning have gone largely unheeded.

The governance structure of most Canadian universities is still based on a two-tier system, except in the case of Laval, U of T and ATHABASCA UNIVERSITY, where systems incorporating the powers of board and senate are in place. What has changed at most universities, however, is the composition of the two governing bodies.

Although faculty still hold the majority of seats on the academic faculty councils and senates, membership now generally include students, alumni and representatives of professional bodies. Similarly, faculty and students are usually represented on boards of governors. One important power of the board has been taken away: until the 1950s, TENURE at most universities was held at the pleasure of the board, but this faculty right has become more firmly entrenched, reinforced by formal collective agreements with faculty unions which covered nearly 80% of Canadian professors in 2004. Notably, a 2012 international study of "public" universities in 28 countries showed that Canadian faculty earned the highest salaries.

Since the 1980s universities have tried to accommodate increases in student enrolment while facing steady reductions in governmental financial support on a per student basis. Funding restraints were especially onerous in the wake of the 1995 federal budget, which reduced transfer payments to the provinces. Universities also felt the impact of provincial budget cuts after 2008, although they benefited from federal infrastructure spending, and were able to build new academic facilities, particularly in areas deemed by the government to be important for economic growth.

In light of such pressures, funding patterns have shifted in Canada. Between 1979 and 2009, the proportion of university operating revenues covered by public funds dropped from 84% to 58% while tuition-based revenues increased from 12% to 35%. The average full-time undergraduate annual tuition fee reached $5737 in 2008-09, although Québec students paid less than half that amount. Student debt emerged as a major issue for student organizations who cited Statistics Canada surveys showing that 17% of borrowers owed at least $25 000 in 1995 compared to 27% in 2005. By 2011, borrowers in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia owed, on average, more than $35 000, the highest student debt levels in Canada.

Economic instability, uncertain employment opportunities, higher fees, growing debts, large classes, and the widespread use of casual part-time (vs full-time tenure-track) faculty have led to episodes of unrest on Canadian campuses, including student protests and faculty strikes, some of considerable duration. The most explosive situation since the 1960s occurred in Québec in the spring of 2012, when student walkouts and demonstrations against proposed tuition fee hikes authorized by the provincial government, led to the suspension of the academic term in the majority of universities and colleges in the province.

From a managerial perspective, the relationship between higher education and government is also in flux. As centres of free and creative inquiry, universities claim the right to self-regulation in all academic matters and to non-interference by government. In recognition of this jealously guarded academic freedom, provinces created consultative intermediary agencies to provide advice on university financing and system planning. In recent years, the effectiveness of such arm's-length relationships between governments and universities has been questioned, leading to greater involvement of government in university affairs. Ontario's increasing use of "targeted" funding allocations to the university sector designed to achieve explicit policy outcomes, is but one example of this approach.

As part of this change, universities are now required to be more accountable for the allocation and expenditure of public funds. Such reporting mechanisms are not just a demand that universities act prudently in their use of public resources. They also reflect government's desire to have institutions pursue specified goals. These include program rationalization (including closing of programs) and interuniversity cooperation; demonstration of teaching quality; flexible program delivery; enhanced and effective use of technology; openness to the needs of non-traditional students; responsiveness to societal needs in terms of program development and research activities; and the establishment of more effective coordination and linkages between the community colleges and the universities.

The contemporary Canadian university is a multipurpose organization striving to achieve a number of objectives simultaneously: teaching - the provision of a "liberal education" or general education; training - the transmission of expert knowledge required for high-level jobs; research - the creation of knowledge through basic scientific research and scholarship; public service - the provision of practical knowledge and science to society; and equalization of opportunity - the extension of university education to all persons who could possibly benefit from it and the removal of participation barriers to increase the participation of underrepresented groups.

In pursuing these multiple missions, the Canadian system of higher education, unlike that in the United States, has developed little institutional differentiation. Typically, Canadian universities seek to cultivate a mix of undergraduate, graduate, and professional education, as well as a vibrant research culture, upon which higher institutional status and more abundant external resources often depend. While there is no formal system of stratification, there are growing pressures to move towards differentiation. British Columbia now has a "teaching intensive" institutional sector, and a group of "research intensive" universities from across the country, known as the U-15, that lobby collectively to increase their research profiles and resources. Notwithstanding these emerging distinctions, all publicly supported, and a growing number of privately funded, universities - 95 in total - co-exist within the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, self-described as the "national voice" of Canadian universities.

Thus Canadian universities have endured, grown, struggled and changed in a world riven by economic volatility, political unpredictability, and continuous knowledge explosions. They retain traditional ideals while seeking to demonstrate their social relevance. They embrace the culture of collegiality while being steeped in competition, both within and among institutions. They will undoubtedly carry on in the decades ahead, though the shape their role and character will take is an open question.

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