In his excellent book about the American higher education system A Perfect Mess, David Labaree makes the following point about how the American university system came to be so hyper-competitive.
Its origins were remarkably humble: a loose assortment of parochial nineteenth-century liberal arts colleges, which emerged in the pursuit of sectarian expansion and civic boosterism more than scholarly distinction. These colleges had no academic credibility, no reliable source of students, and no steady funding. Yet these weaknesses of the American system in the nineteenth century turned out to be strengths in the twentieth. In the absence of strong funding and central control, individual colleges had to learn how to survive and thrive in a highly competitive market, in which they needed to rely on student tuition and alumni donations and had to develop a mode of governance that would position them to pursue any opportunity and cultivate any source of patronage. As a result, American colleges developed into an emergent system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer sensitive, self-supporting, and radically decentralized.
But here’s the thing: that was true in Canada, too. So why did we turn out different?
If you look back at the history of Canadian universities, nearly all of it until the twentieth century was almost entirely sectarian. Laval, St. FX and Saint Mary’s were Catholic, as were a whole bunch of other collèges classiques in Quebec and New Brunswick. King’s in Halifax, Trinity, Bishop’s and UNB were all Anglican. Dal and Queen’s were Presbyterian. Victoria (the one in Toronto) and Mount Allison were Methodist. Acadia and McMaster were Baptist. McGill was something of an outlier in that it was relatively open to all Protestants.
University of Toronto was originally an attempt – which didn’t really take until the 20th century – to try and put a non-denominational cap over top of a whole bunch of denominational colleges (Victoria, St. Mike’s, etc). The first genuinely successful attempt to do this was the University of Manitoba in the 1870s – that is, not until after Confederation. The idea of non-denominational colleges didn’t really get going until after that, with the foundation of provincial universities in the three westernmost provinces. In Ontario, until the 1960s, you had Catholic Windsor (Assumption University), Baptist Hamilton (McMaster) and Catholic Ottawa. Even in 1970 it was insanely controversial for a provincial government in Charlottetown to merge Prince of Wales (Protestant) and St Dunstan’s (Catholic) universities because even by Maritimes standards, it was too ludicrous to have two universities in a place as small as Prince Edward Island.
Here’s the thing: these institutions were not competing for students, they were competing for souls. There was no thought about collaboration, not even vague thoughts of systems or “provincial planning”. The only province that tried this – Quebec – mostly used the provincial system as a way of dealing rationally with regional expansion. It never made any serious attempt to get the other existing universities to join the UQ system (though it remained perplexed for decades about how Bishop’s intended to remain a degree granting university rather than a CEGEP, which is what everyone in the public service thought it should be.) They were simply too old and too independent to be marched into any kind of system.
Yet, despite very similar origins, the Canadian system ended up more homogenous than the American one. Why the difference? In a word: money.
When Americans got around to setting up state systems of higher education, they did so by creating wholly new institutions. Canada did that in the west, where there wasn’t much in the way of pre-existing sectarian colleges. But in the east, where the landscape was littered with them, the system was homogenized by colleges allowing themselves to all be put on the public payroll. They took government money and accepted government rules. Harvard, Yale and the rest of the US private system never considered a similar deal. And the reason they never did is because it was never in their financial interest to do so. They had more students, more donors and more scientific research income (something Americans got into in a serious way a good 25 years before Canada did)
If Canada had had a denser population (or at least one willing to pay higher tuition fees), or had more a richer or more generous set of philanthropists who cared about higher education, maybe we would have turned out like the US. But we didn’t. To put it bluntly, Canadians of the 1950s didn’t value independent institutions that highly, and didn’t believe it was worth fighting or paying for. And, in fairness, neither did Canadian university leaders. Though there were voices in the 50s who worried about the pernicious effects of government funding on institutional autonomy (using very similar language to those who today worry about the effects of corporate funding on universities), presidents and principals were for the most part only too happy to accept public funds because it was seen as easy money. Would they have done the same had they known of the long-term trade-offs? It’s an interesting question.
Anyways, from roughly the same historical base as the US, Canada got a university culture that was more isomorphic, but equally competitive and obstreperous. But neither Canada nor America’s path was inevitable. It was the contrasting political economies of education in the immediate post-war period which cast the system differences in stone.