Yesterday I talked a little bit about how competition, not co-operation, is in Canadian universities’ DNA (east of Manitoba, at any rate). But that has never stopped governments from trying – usually fitfully and half-heartedly – from trying to create more co-ordination within the system. David Cameron, in his 1991 book More Than an Academic Question (still probably best single-volume history of Canadian higher education), analyzed these attempts in some detail. What’s interesting is how things have changed over time.
One obvious way to try to keep things co-ordinated was to limit the number of universities to one if at all possible. The western provinces all took this line for a number of decades, until the political pressure for each province’s second city to have its own independent school became unbearable. British Columbia managed this until 1963, Alberta until 1964, Manitoba until 1967 and Saskatchewan, heroically(?), until 1974. Could they have gone the route of a multi-campus state university, as in California or Wisconsin (or, a little bit later, Quebec)? Well, that’s effectively what Alberta and Saskatchewan were in the last years before Calgary and Regina were created. The problem in fact seems to have been that the provinces were too small: a multi-campus system might have worked, but a two-campus “system” with one institution as the mama bear and the other as the cub was just too insulting for the #2 city to bear. So independence it had to be.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, it was common for provinces to set up “advisory committees” or “commissions of inquiry” to help them steer the system. Provinces themselves rarely had bureaucracies to actually steer the system, so instead when they felt things needed to change, they would convene some kind of ad hoc committee or inquiry and ask it what to do. Sometimes these commissions led to significant change (the Parent report in Quebec and Deutsch report in New Brunswick are the obvious candidates here); most of the time they didn’t, because i) they were often independent and provided politically inconvenient advice which governments chose to ignore and ii) without an actual bureaucracy riding herd over the universities it was really hard to get enforcement or follow-up. You’d think the latter would have been obvious, but evidently not.
In fact, not only did governments not have much in the way of their own bureaucracies to deal with higher education, they actively created external bureaucracies to do so. You see, academics in English Canada were obsessed with the British model of higher education. Obsessed. Mainly for the same reasons Canadians act like anyone with a British accent must be 10-20 IQ points smarter than they are. And so the absolute de rigeur thing for every province to have was an intermediary body between government and institutions, in the style of the UK’s University Grants Commission (a forerunner of today’s Higher Education Funding Council for England and its Welsh and Scottish equivalents) to advise on a variety of matters, but most importantly n how to divvy up the higher education budget between institutions. This probably made sense in Ontario (where the Ontario Council on University Affairs was created in 1974) but almost no sense in places with only two universities, like Saskatchewan.
But these intermediary bodies in the end never pleased anyone. Universities got mad at them because they failed at getting enough money out of government (can universities ever get enough money out of government? I have doubts), and governments got mad at them because they couldn’t actually get the universities to co-operate and co-ordinate. Once governments realised they could administer funding formulas (or, more often, historical allocation formulas developed on the back of an envelope) just as well as an intermediary body, most of these bodies were abolished. The Council on Post-Secondary Education (COPSE) in Manitoba – a descendant of the province’s original grans committee – hung on until 2014, and the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Council still exists today, albeit shorn of a lot of the regional co-ordinating functions it originally had (thanks, Nova Scotia!). But elsewhere, these committees all bit the dust by the early 1990s and their functions were absorbed into government bureaucracies which are now quite substantial.
So nowadays Government rules universities directly. The result, on the whole, is not edifying. Government looks more “efficient” in the sense it has eliminated a “wasteful” external agency, but if you compare full-time employee numbers, these divisions are much larger now than they used to be but it’s not clear what they are achieving. The level of co-ordination has not perceptibly increased, but we do have a lot more pointless micro-management (a bad habit picked up by governments when managing community colleges, I think).
Obviously, this is partly on universities themselves, because of their tendency to employ passive-aggressive tactics in the face of any demand for co-ordination. There is probably still a grand bargain to be had: universities acting more collaboratively in return for lower levels of government interference. But that would go against decades or even centuries of type.