Winners and Losers in the Future of Canada’s Universities

Canadians should be justly proud of their public universities.  A good student with a baccalaureate degree from any of them will thrive in the world’s best graduate schools.  However, while some institutions are well positioned to maintain such standards, others will be able to do so only with significant and substantial changes to their missions, mandates and modes of operation.

The pressures for change are relentless.  Universal access has changed universities from ivory towers to highly visible institutions accountable to a broad range of stakeholders.  Fast-evolving technologies challenge the way we think and communicate and force us to reconsider long-standing models of teaching and learning.  Demographic changes have shifted government funding from education to health care, bringing lower government grants and increased demands for accountability.

In the face of these pressures, some institutions are better positioned to respond:

  • High reputation, medical-doctoral institutions. Those consistently ranked highly in reputational surveys with consequent ability to attract the best students, thus perpetuating their success and reputations (e.g. uToronto, UBC, McGill).
  • Small, residential teaching institutions. QuestU, uBishop’s, and others that rank highly on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE)
  • Focused institutions with a particular cachet. Those with unique approaches to teaching and learning (Royal Roads, QuestU) or with strong distinctive reputations (uWaterloo, UoGuelph, Ryerson).
  • Others positioned for success. Those located in major metropolitan areas (uCalgary, Concordia, Ryerson, SFU, YorkU)

Leaders of these universities will still have to be major change agents, building on academic strengths, but their tasks will be less onerous than those steering less advantaged institutions, some of which are already facing declining enrolments and/or unsustainable gaps between revenues and expenditures.  Many are stretched too thinly, trying to offer programs otherwise unavailable to regional students. Their worst option?  The status quo.

University leaders, spurred by government funding formulas valuing accessibility over quality, have focused too narrowly on institutional growth to cope with shrinking budgets.


University leaders, spurred by government funding formulas valuing accessibility over quality, have focused too narrowly on institutional growth to cope with shrinking budgets.  While this may have worked temporarily, the long-term consequences can be devastating, undermining institutional profiles and reputations—critical concerns in a competitive environment.  Presidents need to emphasize quality, taking steps like the following:

  1. Identify and focus on the university’s major academic strengths.  Stop trying to serve every local need.  Close or reduce low enrolment programs and encourage students to travel across the country for the best programs.  Students already do this for medicine, law or veterinary school;  why not for music, physics, or anthropology?  In the process, Canada would benefit from resulting increases in student mobility, giving our future leaders a better sense of national identity.
  2. Continue lobbying government leaders to value and fund quality as much as accessibility.
  3. Strengthen the university’s ties to its home region, rendering it locally indispensable.  Foster research connected to local needs and locate programs and services directly in the community to encourage stronger municipal support.
  4. Continue to build loyal institutional support groups (alumni, donors, local business and political leaders).
  5. Recognize the value of collaboration with other institutions, national and international, and work closely with colleges and technical institutes to strengthen regional postsecondary offerings and mobility.
  6. Take account of new technologies and changes in student learning patterns, take advantage of the benefits of open educational resources, and integrate blended learning techniques throughout the institution.

There is growing recognition of the need to improve educational quality. Continuous government cuts are forcing the issue and provincial ministries are demanding increasing accountability through “letters of expectation” (Alberta, BC) and strategic mandate agreements (Ontario).  But the lead must come from inside the institution – from president, board, and senate. Glib branding initiatives or tacit involvement in government-led differentiation exercises are inadequate responses, too superficial and slow to ensure ongoing success. 

One important caution: the university will not be improved by over-reaction to new technologies and changing student interests or by replacing full-time faculty with part-timers. The institution has prevailed for so long because it is the one place in our society that fosters the search for truth through open dialogue, thoughtful deliberation and informed dissent. If this academic culture is lost, the university is no longer a distinct and essential institution in our society and its future will be in jeopardy.

The Canadian tendency of having only one or two institutions serving a given geographic area protects most from imminent closure.  But there is no room for complacency.  There will be winners and losers in an increasingly competitive future.  Ensuring success for a given institution will take bold and courageous leadership in defining and realizing a mandate that is truly distinctive and worth preserving.

Ross Paul is the former President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Windsor. Previously, he served as President of Laurentian University and as Vice-President Academic and Acting President at Athabasca University.

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