The Future Direction of University and College Education in Canada

Download Word Version




Prepared by

Dr. J.T. (Tom) Snell

(Revised October 15, 2008)




Since the inception of universities in North America nearly 400 years ago and colleges some sixty years ago, our post-secondary institutions have been given a significant amount of autonomy and allowed to set much of their own agenda related to their role and relationship with industry and society.  However, some notable sources express concerns regarding our universities.

In their most recent book, No Place to Learn, Pocklington and Tupper express serious concern regarding the state of university education in North America and especially Canada.  They state that “Canadian universities no longer provide effective, high-quality undergraduate education”.1  They further state that “much teaching in Canadian universities ranges from mediocre to abysmal”.  They feel that as the universities’ roles proliferate, they grow more remote from broader society.  They also grow more unwieldy in their organization and policy making, and are difficult to hold accountable.  Pocklington and Tupper further contend that our universities wrongly and seriously devalue undergraduate education.  For example, classes are too large, they are frequently taught by graduate students rather than professors and they are often delivered in ridiculously impersonal and uninspiring manners.  Research is now more clearly a higher priority at our universities than is teaching.

Clark Kerr, a former Chancellor of the University of California’s Berkeley campus, observed that the university is no longer a simple community for scholars and students to search for a deeper understanding of nature and humankind.2  Since World War II it has grown into a series of specialized factions, discipline and research activities.  He refers to it as the “multiversity” and contends that universities now house independent research centers that have little or no relationship to teaching.

Canadian universities have long contended that teaching and research both improve when the professor is engaged in both activities (referred to as mutual enrichment).  However, this assertion was seriously questioned in 1991 by the Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education, referred to as the Smith Report.3

Smith’s views were supported by Larry Milligan who concluded, “the empirical educational outcomes literature shows that university research intensity does not produce discernible student learning growth.  This is likely due to the simple fact that research and teaching are not, in reality, linked in any meaningful way within our institutions”.4

Murray Sperber stated that a “faculty-student non aggression pact” has developed even at the best universities.5  This unwritten pact states that students won’t complain about bad teaching (unless it is horrible) if faculty give students decent marks (unless they do a horrible job).

Although no Canadian university has yet publicly admitted it, there is open acknowledgement about the sorry state of undergraduate education at American universities.  As an example, the Boyer Commission, a blue ribbon panel appointed by the major American research universities, states “we believe that the state of undergraduate education at research universities is such a crisis, an issue of such magnitude and volatility that universities must galvanize themselves to respond”.6

It seems that with the passage of each decade, our post-secondary institutions are spending more time addressing their internal needs and less time addressing the greater needs of industry and society.

Education is now the second largest expenditure in most provincial budgets and is growing much faster than is necessary.  It is recommended that the Minister responsible for post-secondary education appoint a committee to look into every aspect of the post-secondary system and assess its value, purpose, role and responsibility in our society of today and in the future.

This document briefly presents many recommendations for change that will enable our comparatively “good” post-secondary education system of today to become a more effective and “great” post-secondary system of tomorrow.  MaybeCanadacan set its sights on excellence and become a recognized world leader in higher education as well as research in the future.

The changes recommended in this document range from simple to comprehensive.  They are made under a variety of headings including:  government, educational institutions, learners, faculty, funding, and research.

The overall intent of these recommendations is to improve the quality of education available to adult learners in Canadian universities and colleges and to ensure the system is more accountable to learners, society, and taxpayers.

Each heading is followed by a list of recommended changes.  Each item is presented in a brief manner.  Each item could be elaborated on, as to its rationale as well as the effect it will have on learners, society, industry, taxpayers and the government.  However, the intent of this document is to briefly present a vision of the future of post-secondary education in Canada.


Each province should restructure the current post-secondary system and establish a single provincial institution with multiple public university, college, and technical institute sites.  This will reduce administrative costs and ensure students of course transfer between institutions.

  • The government should establish one Provincial Board and one President of higher education in the province.
  • The Provincial Board should be directed to work with other provinces to establish national, and if possible, international program and course standards.
  • The provincial institution should establish province wide programs of study and related provincial courses.
  • Provincial exams should be established for all first, second, third and fourth year courses.
  • Each institutional site should be required to become ISO 9000 certified to increase quality.
  • The provincial institution should set provincial standards on the quality of classroom and distance education instruction.
  • The government should establish the mission and objectives of the public institution.  The primary mission should include providing high quality graduates as measured by industry and/or professional standards and provincial exams versus faculty subjectivity.
  • The priority of the post-secondary institution should be on student learning, as opposed to lecturing and research.

Educational Institutions

  • Two year programs should have the option to change their designation from “Diploma” programs to “Associate Degree” programs.
  • The first and primary role of each university and college site should be to become highly effective “Learning Centers of Excellence”.
  • Faculty should only be employed if they demonstrate commitment to education and also demonstrate their ability to help students learn.
  • Faculty should be evaluated, praised, and promoted on their effectiveness as educators, not researchers.
  • Universities should focus primarily on undergraduate degrees.  They should also deliver graduate and post-graduate programs.
  • University Colleges should focus primarily on certificates, diplomas, and some undergraduate degrees.
  • Three year undergraduate degrees should be clearly communicated to students as an option at all universities and approved university colleges.
  • Institutions should report publicly on student attrition rates in their annual academic calendars.
  • Institutions should report on graduation rates in their academic calendars.
  • A report on the employment rate of graduates (in their field of training) should be included annually in all academic calendars.
  • Capital costs and operating costs per program and per student should be clearly reported in public institution academic calendars.
  • Class size should not exceed fifty students with an average of 30 or less students per course.
  • Private institutions should be recognized for the value they bring to the post-secondary system and their ability to offer comparable educational programs at similar or less cost than public institutions.
  • Public and private institutions should operate according to the same standards of quality, program approval, and reporting of graduate outcomes.
  • According to current course delivery methods many educational facilities are considered fully utilized.  However, most students are currently required to attend only two, 13-week semesters per year.  This means that for the other 26 weeks of the year facilities and faculty are underutilized.  Better utilization of facilities and faculty is needed.
  • Most facilities are better utilized in the mornings and tend to be underutilized in the mid to late afternoons, evenings and weekends.
  • Private industry and professional associations that clearly represent industry should play key roles related to program development, course content and student graduation requirements.
  • Every program should include a cooperative/work experience/practicum credit course.


  • Before going on to post-secondary education, learners should be strongly encouraged to work at least two years after high school.  This time will allow them to further mature, experience the world of work, more thoroughly investigate various career and professional occupations, and as a result apply to an educational program that is more suited to their interests, abilities and skills.
  • High school marks should not be the primary determinate in selecting a learner for a program.  Suitability and potential for success in a future occupation should be the primary measure of selecting a student.  High school marks should be used as the second most important determiner.
  • Learners should be expected to punctually attend every class and there should be consequences for being absent.


  • Each province should set 20 hours of instruction per week as the minimum requirement for university faculty. University faculty should instruct at least 46 weeks of the year and not 26 weeks.
  • Faculty should be hired because they demonstrate the highest degree of competency in the subject matter as well as for their ability to create an effective learning environment for students.
  • Competency should not be assumed because an individual has a certain number of degrees.
  • Faculty should be required to demonstrate on an ongoing basis that they possess relevant and current knowledge and skills in courses they are assigned to teach.
  • Faculty should be required to demonstrate on an ongoing basis that they possess relevant and current teaching techniques and skills.
  • Faculty should be paid and promoted based on their effectiveness in helping students learn in the classroom.
  • Classroom effectiveness should include student evaluation of faculty.
  • Faculty should not have tenure (guaranteed life-long employment) although they should have the right to express their opinions.
  • An effective faculty member may also be an effective researcher.  However, it should not be assumed that to be effective at one automatically means you are effective at both.
  • Faculty should not be hired by institutions to engage in formal research.
  • As models for their students, faculty should be punctual and should also be expected to attend each class.  Faculty should also leave attending conferences to periods outside assigned instructional hours or instructional periods.
  • Faculty should sincerely display interest and enthusiasm in their teaching responsibilities and relationship with students.
  • Faculty should display respect and courtesy to students and other members of the post-secondary community.
  • Faculty should help students learn about concepts, theories, and problem-solving, not simply teach facts and share research findings.
  • Faculty should have relevant, and current industrial experience in courses they are assigned to teach.
  • The percentage of full-time faculty should be reduced to no more than ten percent.  Full-time faculty should be replaced by part-time faculty with extensive experience in industry.
  • Faculty should be expected not only to teach theory but also the application of theory.
  • Faculty should not lecture for more than 25 percent of class time.  The remainder of class time should be devoted to facilitation activities such as case studies, small group discussion, simulations, demonstrations, role playing, presentations, etc.
  • Faculty should measure, assess, and/or evaluate the students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills during each class and provide this feedback to students at least by the next class.


  • The government should stop paying institutions capital and operating grants.
  • A per student grant payment should only be made to a public or private institution when a student enrolls in an approved program.
  • Programs that do not meet required provincial standards should be warned, and if adequate improvement is not demonstrated, they should lose their approved status.
  • A voucher system should be established to support students in financial need.  The voucher should cover tuition and living costs for up to two years of post-secondary education.  Both approved public and private institutions should be allowed to enroll voucher students.  Students should go through a rigorous process to qualify for an educational voucher.


  • The government should establish a Provincial Research Institution with one president and multiple sites.
  • These sites should operate as “Research Centers of Excellence”.  They would be administered and operated separately from universities and university colleges.
  • The government should designate what specializations each Research Center of Excellence will specialize in.
  • The government should set standards of quality in research.  Quantity should not be used to measure effectiveness.
  • Researchers should be hired who excel in required areas of research.  They should only be required to engage in research and not teaching.
  • The government should design a system of research grant approval that will ensure research funds are applied to areas that primarily meet national and provincial economic and societal needs.
  • The government should design a system of meeting research outcomes that will effectively measure quality results, not quantity.
  • The government should require that Research Centers of Excellence reward and promote researchers based on the quality of their results as well as economic and/or societal values.
  • Part of the research grant should be withheld until the results can demonstrate effectiveness.

Private Universities and Colleges

  • Public and private institutions should be required to achieve the same outcome and face the same consequences for ineffective results.
  • Governments should understand that private institutions like public institutions can deliver high quality public education but at a lower cost per student.
  • The quality of education will increase and the cost of education will go down when the government creates a truly competitive market place in education and moves away from essentially a monopoly system.



Pocklington, Tom and Tupper, Allan, No Place to Learn – Why Universities Aren’t Working.  UBC Press, Vancouver, BC, 2002.

Kerr, Clark, The Uses of the University, 3rd Edition.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1982.

Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education, Report.  Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, Ottawa, 1991.

Milligan, Larry, Basic Findings from the Research Literature.  Workshop 6:  The Linkages Between Teaching and Research, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada Symposium, Winnipeg, November 1993.

Sperber, Murray,  Beer and Circus:  How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education.  Henry Holt, New York, 2000.

Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, Reinventing Undergraduate Education:  A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities.  Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton, NJ, 1997.