Higher Education Strategy Associates

A Slice of Canadian Higher Education History

There are a few gems scattered through Statistics Canada’s archives. Digging around their site the other day, I came across a fantastic trove of documents published by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics (as StatsCan used to be called) called Higher Education in Canada. The earliest number in this series dates from 1938, and is available here. I urge you to read the whole thing, because it’s a hoot. But let me just focus in on a couple of points in this document worth pondering.

The first point of interest is the enrolment statistics (see page 65 of the PDF, 63 of the document). It won’t of course surprise anyone to know that enrolment at universities was a lot smaller in 1937-38 than it is today (33,600 undergraduates then, 970,000 or so now), or that colleges were non-existent back then. What is a bit striking is the large number of students being taught in universities who were “pre-matriculation” (i.e. high school students). Nearly one-third of all students in universities in 1937-38 had this “pre-matric” status. Now, two-thirds of these were in Quebec, where the “colleges classiques” tended to blur the line between secondary and post-secondary (and, in their new guise as CEGEPs, still kind of do). But outside of British Columbia, all universities had at least some pre-matric, which would have made these institutions quite different from modern ones.

The second point of interest is the section on entrance requirements at various universities (page 12-13 of the PDF, p. 10-11 of the document). With the exception of UNB, every Canadian university east of the Ottawa River required Latin or Greek in order to enter university, as did Queens, Western and McMaster. Elsewhere, Latin was an alternative to Mathematics (U of T), or an alternative to a modern language (usually French or German). What’s interesting here is not so much the decline in salience of classical languages, but the decline in salience of any foreign language. In 1938, it was impossible to gain admission to a Canadian university without first matriculating in a second language, and at a majority of them a third language was required as well. I hear a lot of blah blah about internationalization on Canadian campuses, but 80 years on there are no Canadian universities which require graduates to learn a second language, let alone set this as a condition of entry. An area, clearly, where we have gone backwards.

The third and final bit to enjoy is the section on tuition fees (page 13), which I reproduce here:


*$1 in 1937-38 = $13.95 in 2016
**$1 in 1928-29 = $16.26 in 2016

Be a bit careful in comparing across years here: because of deflation, $100 in 1928 was worth $85 in 1937 and so institutions which kept prices stable in fact saw a rise in income in real terms. There are a bunch of interesting stories here, including the fact that institutions had very different pricing strategies in the depression. Some (e.g. McGill, Saskatchewan, Acadia) increased tuition while others (mostly Catholic institutions like the Quebec seminaries and St. Dunstan’s) either held the line or reduced costs. Also mildly amusing is the fact that McGill’s tuition for in-province students is almost unchanged since 1937-38 (one can imagine the slogan: “McGill – we’ve been this cheap since the Rape of Nanking!”).

The more interesting point here is that if you go back to the 1920s, not all Canadian universities were receiving stable and recurrent operating grants from provincial governments (of note: nowhere in this digest of university statistics is government funding even mentioned). Nationally, in 1935, all universities combined received $5.4 million from provincial governments – and U of T accounted for about a quarter of that. For every dollar in fees universities received from students, they received $1.22 from government. So when you see that universities were for the most part charging around $125 per students in 1937-38, what that means is that total operating funding per student was maybe $275, or a shade under $4500 per student in today’s dollars. That’s about one-fifth of today’s operating income per student.

While most of that extra per-student income has gone towards making institutions more capital-intensive (scientific facilities in general were pretty scarce in the 1930s), there’s no question that the financial position of academics had improved. If you take a quick gander at page 15, which shows the distribution of professorial salaries, you’ll see that average annual salaries for associate profs was just below $3500, while those for full professors was probably in the $4200 range. Even after for inflation, that means academic salaries were less than half what they are today. Indeed, one of the reasons tenure was so valued back then was that job security made up for the not-stellar pay. Times change.

In any case, explore this document on your own: many hours (well, minutes anyway) of fun to be had here.

This entry was posted in Canada, Data, Funding and Finances, History Lesson, Universities and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Slice of Canadian Higher Education History

  1. Bill Lee says:

    Senior matric was at UBC until the late 1950s

    School ended at grade 10, (go to work!), some schools provided 11, 12 and 13. The latter was Senior matric.
    There were private, for profit schools, such as ShurPass in Vancouver school that provided it for those that wanted.
    See Dr. Ray Parkinson’s memoirs and others (page 3 of https://www.library.ubc.ca/woodward/memoroom/collection/oralhistory/pdf/ray_parkinson.pdf ) for ShurPass histories.

    Page 6 of https://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/history/ubc_21st_anniversary.pdf
    provides a view of Senior Matric at UBC in the early 1930s

    Page 21 of the infamous Macdonald report (that instantly created many 2-year colleges in BC, and SFU )
    give numbers from the 1950s to the 1960s. Table 5 on page 42 gives the numbers before Grade 13 was abolished.

    With senior matric you went into second year university (as in Quebec now), otherwise you started in first year.
    There were mass calisthenics of 1000 students a time in the central field at UBC for these students in ye olde dayes.

  2. Sean Lawrence says:

    I don’t doubt that faculty salaries have doubled, and I’m grateful that you’ve calculated the inflation, but faculty salaries account for only 1/3 of operating expenses at today’s universities. A doubling of them from 1940s levels would only account for a sixth of today’s budgets.

    How is it, then, that universities now need operating funds five times what they did in the 1940s? Does this show that the humanistic education you describe in the first few paragraphs is enormously cheaper than what most universities do now, though classes are larger now? One would expect economies of scale to have brought costs down.

    • Alex Usher says:

      Good point. 1) Universities didn’t do a lot of Science back then. Space needs and capital equipment costs etc per students are hence a heck of a lot higher. 2) profs did a lot of pastoral care of students. That stopped in the 60s/70s, and gradually you have increased expenditures on students services (mostly staff salaries), 3) universities get asked to fulfill a lot more functions than they do nowadays (both vis a vis students and the community and in some cases around reporting to govt/public) – all of which increase costs.

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