Debate over promise of three new campuses for Ontario

Debates about the need for more university charters in Ontario were heard this month at a symposium hosted by the University of Toronto. It followed the latest throne speech in which the provincial government promised to create 60,000 new spaces for students by building three new undergraduate campuses.

Ontario has strict regulations that limit the number of degree-granting institutions throughout the province since offering a degree requires a government charter, few of which have been bestowed in recent years. This may change however if the November promise by the provincial government is realised.

The 7 February symposium brought together various stakeholders including institutional presidents, quality assurance personnel and higher education scholars to respond to the government’s promise.

The panellists presented a diverse range of opinions on whether new campuses were needed, if current institutional capacity was sufficient and how present fiscal austerity would influence campus creation.

The event coincided with the release of Canada’s 2011 census data, which identified Ontario as Canada’s largest province with a population of 12.8 million, up 5.7% since 2006.

The bulk of Ontario’s population growth comes from immigration and has consistently increased the provincial demand for higher education. However this growth, along with most higher education institutions, is clustered in the south, leaving many northern communities without higher education access, a criticism raised in the day’s discussions.

The strongest diversity of opinions emerged when stakeholders discussed the purpose of more undergraduate spaces.

Several speakers including York University’s George Fallis focused on the demands of the labour market, suggesting that the government should not create new spaces unless the job market required it.

Countering this argument, Tricia Seifert and Tony Chambers, from the University of Toronto’s Higher Education Group, suggested that any growth in institutions should be student-centred not market-driven.

The audience applauded their stance that the Ontario government needed to increase equitable access by providing spaces for underrepresented students – particularly aboriginal, francophone and disabled – and this should be the primary motivator for more student spaces.

Furthering the view that new institutions should be student-centred was a call for exclusive teaching-focused universities.

Call for new teaching-focused universities

Ontario’s current university model promotes comprehensive institutions, all of which prioritise research. However, growing class sizes, lecture-based pedagogy and the low weight teaching is given in tenure evaluations have eroded teaching quality in the comprehensive universities.

Student-centred researchers are adamant that improved higher education pedagogy would best be realised if the mandates of new institutions centred on student instruction.

Critics question the viability of this vision, however, as the strong research-focus of the current provincial institutions might quickly lead to academic drift, with institutions feeling pressured to conduct research to improve their standing. Furthermore, critics suggested that academics might find teaching-universities less professionally prestigious, leading to a void in faculty.

Canada’s large immigrant population is a driving factor in opening more student spaces, but may also prove a key resource in the establishment of exclusive teaching institutions in Ontario. Several large waves of immigration have been from South and East Asia, populations that place a strong value on higher education and increase provincial demand.

At the same time, Canada’s professional immigrant policies have drawn hundreds of PhDs into the country with little chance of working in the highly competitive research universities. Exclusively teaching-oriented universities would increase both access for immigrant students and employment opportunities for foreign academics.

The college charter option

Teaching universities are only one of two solutions that might be viable for Ontario’s degree demand in the near future. The other is granting charters to several of Ontario’s technical colleges to expand their programming and grant degrees.

Ontario’s post-secondary system is starkly hierarchical with colleges as technical, diploma-granting institutes and universities holding the sole ability to offer degree programmes. Little transfer is currently available to move students between the two institutional types.

The colleges are very vocal in discussions about new charters, claiming they already meet several of the ideal criteria for new institutions, being an economic, student-centred option. The colleges are teaching-oriented, have little overhead for expensive research initiatives and are located in both the urban and rural areas of Ontario.

Whether teaching universities or college-administered degree programmes, more institutional differentiation seems to be certain in Ontario’s future.

As student demand for university education continues to increase, a range of institutional types are needed to ensure access to degree programming. Ultimately, the economic capacity of Ontario may be the strongest determinant of how government implements affordable, accessible and diverse higher education.

* Watch a video of the 7 February 2012 symposium, “Three New Campuses for Ontario”, here.

* Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International Development Centre, OISE, at the University of Toronto in Canada. Email: