A University as It Might Be

In the wake of the Ontario Government’s shock announcement of a 10% cut in university tuition, next week Brampton City Councillors will agree on terms of reference for a task force to come up with a new game plan for post-secondary education in the City.  The Brampton initiative is a direct response to the disappointment felt at all levels in the city when hopes for a branch campus of Ryerson University were dashed last October. The latest policy announcements from Queens Park simply add to the urgency for communities across the province to come up with new ways to harness university and college education for the public good. I believe that this is the moment for Brampton to launch a bold new experiment in university education that could act as a beacon for 21st-century university education for the rest of the country.

A University as it Might Be

In March 2017, the Province of Ontario announced a $90 million investment in a downtown university facility in Brampton to be led by Ryerson University and Sheridan College. The City of Brampton – the only top 10 city in Canada without a university – also budgeted $150M to support the initiative. Similar investments were proposed elsewhere in the province: $125M for a Markham satellite campus for York University and Seneca College, and $90M for something similar in Milton with Wilfred Laurier University and Conestoga College.    

On October 23rd 2018, and with the new provincial government facing a projected $15B budget deficit, Ontario Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton announced the cancellation of the proposed investments, citing the need “to restore trust and accountability in the province’s public finances,” and swiping at the former Liberal government for “misleading the public” on its spending commitments. In all cases, affected municipal and post-secondary institutions have vowed to carry on exploring options with a view to continuing the partnerships. (1)  

However, in response to the announced cuts, Brampton’s then Mayor-elect Patrick Brown advanced a broader argument, telling Global News “I believe Brampton deserves a full university, not just a small satellite campus. This is a step backwards towards what the city of Brampton deserves.”

And surely this is the point. The days are fast disappearing when post-secondary education provision in Canada – or indeed anywhere - can be viewed solely through the traditional funding lens of a ‘planned system’ that is increasingly under threat, as last week’s announcement by the Ontario government underscores.   

This article looks at Brampton as a potential case study for what could become an exciting new pilot for the sector in Ontario. The conclusions may have broader implications for the governance of the sector in Canada. 

Our Funding System is Broken

In his somewhat dystopian vision of the current state of universities in the English-speaking world The Toxic University, John Smyth lays the blame for much of what is wrong in our universities at the door of politicians, administrators and ‘rock star’ academics who in his view play along with current systems of promotion and rewards. (2) Doubtless the critiques of Smyth, Rob Watts (3) and many others are popular in some circles, and they may have validity in some countries, but they are not the main story in Canada.  

The fundamental problem here in Canada - and indeed elsewhere in the western world - is a model of university funding that i) systematically inflates tuition (and thereby student debt); ii) increasingly depends on international student recruitment; and iii) requires a growing underclass of insecure and exploited contract professors. 

It may be argued that the quality of the student experience and the credentials that emerge from top brand universities (4) may be sufficient to keep the inflationary tuition spiral going indefinitely.  But this is not going to work for the vast majority of universities in the English-speaking world, where technological change and private competition is actively encouraged by governments as a means of securing better value for money for their younger citizens and their families. It is one reason why most OECD countries protect their students from rising costs and declining quality by providing free tuition. I have argued in this forum that if we are serious about stable funding, social equity and future national competitiveness, this should also be the case in Canada.

The growing lack of resilience in the sector should be obvious, including here in Canada. Let us imagine (as did TVO and Alex Usher in August 2018) a scenario in which Ontario lost a significant proportion of the $5.68 billion in economic benefits deriving from the 150,000 international students presently studying in the province. A single misstep from our Foreign Affairs Minister or a single political decision in New Delhi or Beijing could wipe billions of dollars from the Ontario economy and indeed the budgets of the universities, colleges and schools in the province. Sixty-three per cent of the University of Toronto’s 14,000 international students are from just one country - China. Usher estimates that an exodus of Chinese students would remove 10% of the University of Waterloo’s $1B budget.

Canada’s universities may yet be spared the damaging reforms experienced by their Australian and UK counterparts, which have given rise to so much political backlash in those countries. And to date, we have avoided pressure for the emergence of a hyper-competitive US style model of higher education in this country.  But it would be unwise to assume that the factors which have sheltered us to date can be maintained into the future.   

In the face of such pressures and risks, what is a prudent provincial government to do to improve resilience and avoid possible future crises?  And what should a dynamic 21st-century municipality of 600,000 citizens do if it does not wish to become an economic and social backwater in coming decades?  

In Search of Sustainability

It is often asserted by the advocates of the status quo (i.e. indefinite funding of the current planned model) that universities have been around for centuries and will continue to adapt and evolve to fulfil their mandates to society. (5)    

Unfortunately, this perspective is based on two patent mistruths. The first is the idea that the decision-making dynamics of modern universities are designed primarily to serve society. As anyone who has attended a University Senate meeting can attest, they are not.  Even in governance and fiduciary terms, universities are required to serve their own institutional interests above all else, happily for them with some measure of institutional autonomy and with a largely captive audience of paying stakeholders: students, families and governments. (6)  

The second is that universities have some kind of common DNA. They do not. There are many variants of institutions of higher learning with very different genetic codes, from the monastic to the legal to the medical and those institutions that grew out of non-theistic scientific, technological, fine arts and humanities disciplines.  

If we wish to draw more relevant threads from history that might reliably inform our view of the future, we may discern some useful precedents and trends over the last one thousand years. 

First – the earliest universities in Europe were originally scholastic ‘guilds’ before they became bastions of religious, monarchial or state influence and protection. In some cases, it was the students who actually hired the tutors within a universitas magistrorum et scholarium - from which the term ‘university’ originally emerged.  Today students (or their sponsors) just pay without many illusions of direct accountability.   

Second – despite the growing trends of metric-driven public policy as a means to secure more ‘value for money’ for governments for their investments, there remains a powerful case for maintaining public universities as providers of public goods, deeply connected to the needs of society – including local civil society. This case has been made by authors across the political spectrum from Stefan Collini in Speaking of Universities to Bert van de Zwaan in Higher Education in 2040.

Third – many of today’s modern universities grew out of municipal and local industry ambition rather than out of independent scholarly endeavour. For example, more than thirty largely vocational polytechnics in the UK converted to university status in the early 1990s as part of the massive expansion of the sector seen across the English-speaking world in the latter half of the 20thcentury. (7) Many if not all had their roots in local government and local business interests and nearly all had the name of their cities in their titles. (8)

Fourth – universities have never been completely academically autonomous and have long been influenced by external bodies with respect to their programming, whether that is in Law, Medicine, Engineering or Business.  The idea that university Senate committees can override such influence in pursuit of some ideal of academic freedom or autonomy is spurious, as any threats of decertification by a professional body would be reputationally disastrous. (9)  Thus there is no reason why universities should not directly reflect the educational needs of their local communities as a matter of priority. 

Fifth – it has always been possible to deliver high quality, research-informed, inspirational, university-level education regardless of whether individual professors are directly involved in research or equivalent scholarly activities themselves. Around half of all teaching delivered in universities in English speaking countries is delivered by contract professors and practitioners who do not have to conduct scholarly research and who frequently do not have PhDs. This does not mean that they lack practical experience, academic expertise or teaching skills, and the growth of ‘teaching professor’ designations demonstrates this. Also, there is little evidence that students notice the difference in the classroom.  

Sixth – access to higher education through correspondence, distance learning and now online learning has long been a feature in the sector, with examinations and credentialing available at a fraction of the cost of traditional universities. See for example the Open University in the UK. Today, there is explosive growth in digital education (including through open access or free provision), micro-credentialing, overseas campus development, franchising of degrees through third party providers and the entry of private non-profit and for-profit providers. This means that universities of the future will look very different from the kind of institutions we see today, and their academic and technological partnerships will define their value propositions at least as much as their own academic programming.  

What Does All This Mean for a City Like Brampton?

The Economic Development Case

Starting with an ambition to house 1,000 students in 2022, it was originally envisaged that Brampton’s Ryerson-led facility would have grown to a steady state of around 5,000 students. According to the inbrampton.com website“an economic impact study of a 5,000 student postsecondary facility in Brampton…….[would have] an ongoing economic impact of $220 million annually, or 1,510 jobs, based on a medium-term enrolment of 5,000 students.”  These estimates are entirely consistent with other economic impact studies conducted on small stand-alone universities elsewhere in Canada. 

However, whilst these numbers may appear attractive, the question must be posed whether they represent the limit of Brampton’s ambition to leverage investments in post-secondary education in the city. Typically, cities with populations similar to Brampton’s house universities the size of McMaster University (30,000 students) and the University of Waterloo (37,000 students). We may also pose the question whether in keeping the university population artificially low in Brampton, the former government’s approach was more consistent with managing the size of the sector as a whole, to the detriment of residents of Brampton, the majority of whose families would continue to pay for travel and accommodation in universities in other parts of the province. Presumably, this was part of Patrick Brown’s reasoning.

So in an era of significant future technological disruption and the emergence of direct competition from private providers of higher education, the overarching ‘next steps’ question for civic leaders in Brampton now is: “what would an independent university of Brampton look like if it could be built in coming years to create maximum value for residents of Brampton, employers (present and future) in Brampton, and the economy of Brampton?” 

Building the University of the Future in Brampton

We should now assume that whichever future government is in power in Ontario, the days of top-down management of a ‘planned system’ of higher education providers are numbered. We should also assume that flat (or negative) funding of the sector by government will lead to severe problems for individual universities (depending on location and brand) which may not easily be solved by simply increasing domestic tuition and/or international enrolment.  

If we then take into account the advent of technological and private provider-driven competition, the inevitability of fundamental sector reform (managed or unmanaged) in Ontario becomes clear. 

Given these forces, it may not make sense to assume that just one institution can provide the basis for the growth of a large independent university in Brampton in coming decades, even one as entrepreneurial and dynamic as Ryerson University. This happened in the past (eg. with York University being spun out of the University of Toronto nearly sixty years ago). But that was during a period of massive expansion of higher education in Canada and globally. It could not happen today. Indeed, it is unthinkable that the arrangement proposed by the previous government could possibly have led to such a development in a flat, zero sum funding environment. 

Nonetheless, we are now in an era of increasing emphasis on closing the gap between ‘town and gown’, where retaining intellectual and human capital is understood to be the main driver of the prosperity of municipalities, and where urbanisation trends further concentrate resources at the city level. So if Brampton wishes to maximise the benefits of a university being based in the City, it must now consider how it can build a case for an institution of 30-40,000 students in coming decades, driven by the needs of the City, its families and its business community

A ‘university of the future’ in Brampton would probably not look like a traditional modern university.  Instead, it might focus on being a leader in providing programming for the industries and jobs needed for a future ‘green’, low-carbon, and socially inclusive economy, as well as STEAM and other subjects that provide the vital critical thinking skills that graduates need.  The university of the future might be a role model for entrepreneurial and design thinking, as well as social innovation in community, health and social service provision and education. It might focus on technology-enhanced delivery and more flexible pathways for learners in work on a lifelong learning basis, and might therefore minimise the costs and constraints of ‘bricks and mortar’ facilities.   

The University of Brampton would certainly need a lower overhead structure in order to alleviate upward pressures on tuition and help contain costs for the province.  It should therefore be free to deliver programs in partnership with other institutions, public and private. The new university would undoubtedly place significant emphasis on experiential learning to build a vibrant local economy rather than simply feeding the economies of cities elsewhere in Ontario. It could be a fairer and more inclusive employer, and it may have truly cooperative governance involving students, academics and civic leaders. Most important, the University of Brampton would be allowed to compete for students across Canada and the world on the same basis as other Ontario universities, ideally with per capita student support flowing from provincial – and hopefully one day Federal – tax dollars. 

Some of these ideas are now being actively discussed within the academy.  For example, in their 2016 book, Creating a New Public University and Reviving Democracy, Morten Levin and Davydd Greenwood describe the management theories that would empower such an enlightened  institution. And Cathy Davidson’s 2017 book The New Education: How to Revolutionize theUniversity to Prepare Students for a World in Flux provides a compelling pedagogical and social case for reform of the university sector, citing many powerful and inspirational experiments in university education in the US and elsewhere. 

The social and economic case for a new University in Brampton is unassailable. It is a city with a 73.3% population of visible minorities who deserve as much opportunity as any similarly sized community in Canada. Brampton can no longer be treated like a second-class city. Brampton also has a very young and growing population which merits serious educational investment if the potential of its people is to be maximised.  According to inbrampton.com:“Brampton is the second fastest growing city in Canada, with approximately 14,000 new residents per year, over 89 languages spoken by 209 different cultures, and a median age of 34.7 - the lowest in Canada.”  With such a young and highly diverse population - estimated to reach nearly 900,000 by 2041 and requiring a 60% increase in employment - how can this city possibly not have a university? 

The question now is whether the provincial, municipal and federal political forces can be aligned to allow such a vision to flourish and whether money will be allowed to follow students with no strings attached – a pre-requisite for ensuring genuine equality of choice for students and their families. If this experiment can go forward, it will be a game-changer for the City of Brampton and the families of students who will attend the institution in the decades to come. It could also provide a beacon for managed reform of the sector in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada, rebalancing the interests of students, professors and their sponsors in a 21st-century version of a universitas magistrorum et scholarium. In this case, the institution would be sponsored by legitimate civic, academic, student and civil society forces rather than the whims of clerics and monarchs.


  1. See for example the statement of Mayor of Markham Frank Scarpitti in response to the cancellation of provincial funding.

  2. Rather helpfully, Smyth provides a review and synthesis of more than a hundred works describing one or more of the following phenomena in modern universities: i) “damage, despair, violence, and sense of loss”; ii) “the rising tide of the marketised, corporate, managed, entrepreneurial, adaptive administrative, or neoliberal university”; iii)“rampant confusion and loss of way”; and iv) “attempts at reclamation, reinvention, reimagination, and recovery from this ill-conceived experiment”.   

  3. See Public Universities, Managerialism and the Value of Higher Education

  4. Typically these are members of the U15 in Canada, the Ivy League in the US, the Russell Group in the UK and Go8 institutions in Australia.

  5. Speaking to a conference in Miami in 2014, Rebecca Hughes of the British Council summed up this perspective beautifully when she noted: “Of 33 institutions that survive to our times from the 16th century, 29 are universities. How have universities managed to be so long-lasting? It’s simple: universities survive because societies need them. That’s their survival trick, the piece of DNA in their constitutions that makes them the longest-lived human institutions. They change with the times, but they remain unwavering in their core purpose of providing intellectual leadership and serving their local and international communities”.

  6. A remarkable defence of the status quo rights of incumbent institutions was offered by the President of Trent University in response to the Ontario cuts in an opinion article in the Global and Mail.

  7. UK university enrolments have increased sixfold since 1990.   

  8. The former Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University London) is one such example.   

  9. Dalhousie University’s failure to satisfy accreditation standards for its Medical School in 2009 led to an enormous expenditure of effort and resources to recover the situation.

David Wheeler is co-founder of the Academy for Sustainable Innovation. He has served as President of Cape Breton University, Dean of Management at Dalhousie University, and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) and Executive Dean of Business at the University of Plymouth (UK).

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