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The Evolution of the University

Themes and Trends from Medieval Europe to Modern-day Canada

Cary Ferguson

Universities arose in Europe in the Middle Ages, and have since become one of the most stable,
enduring institutions in the Western world. Over time, universities evolved to meet different
social needs in many different contexts. In Ontario, the university’s ability to adapt to changing
social values has been hampered by provincial funding mechanisms and discussions on
accountability. Where once the university and society had a dialogue to negotiate with one
another, discussions of universities in Ontario now almost exclusively focus on funding and
accountability. This paper argues that in order to revitalize our post-secondary education
system, we must resume this dialogue.
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Introduction .................................................................................................................................... 3
Part I - A Brief History of the University.......................................................................................... 4
The Beginnings ............................................................................................................................ 4
The Medieval University.............................................................................................................. 5
The Rise of Colleges and the Undergraduate.............................................................................. 7
The Renaissance: Humanism and the Spirit of Inquiry ............................................................... 8
The Reformation: Stagnation and Separation .......................................................................... 10
The Enlightenment .................................................................................................................... 12
The Nineteenth Century: Educational Change in Europe ......................................................... 17
The Spread of the German Model ............................................................................................ 22
The German Model in the United States .................................................................................. 23
Conclusions................................................................................................................................ 25
Part II - A Brief History of the University in Ontario ..................................................................... 29
Pre-Confederation and Ontario’s first universities ................................................................... 30
The 1960s to 1980s: Funding, funding, funding........................................................................ 37
The 1990s to present ................................................................................................................ 42
Conclusions................................................................................................................................ 44
Part III – Overall Conclusions ........................................................................................................ 46
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The university is in crisis: decades of funding cuts have left universities bankrupt;

egotistical professors are more concerned with research and their own career advancement

than with teaching; and worst of all, undergraduates are no longer being taught so much as

they are being shoved through the academic equivalent of a sweatshop. Books like “Ivory

Tower Blues” and “No Place to Learn” suggest that today’s undergraduate students are getting

drastically short-changed by an education system that is more concerned with research than

with teaching. Journalists in popular newspapers report that “many university students are

floundering” as they are unprepared for the rigours of a university education (Wente 2009).

Universities, it seems, are a dysfunctional mess, no longer doing the job that the once did

educating the leaders of tomorrow. Aside from their dire predictions for the future of higher

education in Ontario, all these claims have something in common: they rest upon a particular

conception of what a university should be. It is from this idea that they make their claims about

the abysmal quality of education that today’s undergraduates experience.

This paper examines the history of the university in Ontario in an attempt to understand

how we arrived at the system we have today. It traces a single thread from emergence of the

university in Medieval Europe, through the development of the university in Europe, the United

States, and Canada, to the issues faced by modern Ontario universities.

Part I of this paper highlights major trends and developments in the university’s

structure, pedagogy, and relationship with authority (be that authority the Church, the king, or

the state). Part II examines how the Ontario universities developed as a continuation of the

ideas from Part I, looking specifically at how the fact that Ontario’s universities are publicly
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funded by the province affected their development. Finally, Part III combines the histories

found in Parts I & II to argue that the university has evolved in response to social needs and

values, and that to reinvigorate our university education system we need to begin discussing

our society’s relationship with our universities, rather than their relationship with any one


Part I - A Brief History of the University

The Beginnings

Higher education is not a uniquely Western phenomenon. Many different civilizations

worldwide have had institutionalized forms of higher learning: from the ancient Egyptians to

the Chinese, any culture sufficiently developed to have a leisure class has had some form of

“academics.” But the university is a uniquely Western development.

We may start a history of Western institutions of higher learning in ancient Greece. Its

academies, lyceums, and gymnasia developed a system of higher education that laid the

groundwork for much of Western civilization (Rudy 13). These were not institutions that we

would have recognized as universities: they did not employ formal teaching staff, offer specific

courses of study, or grant certificates such as diplomas or degrees (Rudy 14). The first such

institutions would not arise in Europe until the late 11th century, with the founding of the

University of Bologna in 1088, formally recognized by Emperor Frederick I in 1158 (Gillett 69).

The university as we know it grew out of cathedrals in urban centres. Urbanized, “secular”

clergy ministered to schools in the great cathedrals of Europe, with individual master and

lecturers beginning to appear towards the late 11th century CE (Rudy 15). The increasing
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demand for people to fill highly skilled positions requiring intellectual ability (such as lawyers,

physicians, administrators, and ecclesiastics) put pressure on these so-called “cathedral

schools” to expand beyond their means. As more and more students gathered to hear their

lessons, some form of institution organization became necessary.

The Medieval University

The development of a recognized, formal institution led to several changes in the way

medieval universities were run. Instruction was chiefly in the liberal arts: the trivium of

grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and

music (Haskins 27). The faculties at medieval universities came to be generally organized into

four subdivisions: arts, law, medicine, and theology. Although some masters had originally

offered their services free of charge, a dearth of funding from the church and the proliferation

of institutions of higher learning across Europe forced medieval universities to start charging set

fees for instruction (Rudy 29). The increasingly formal institutionalization of universities also led

to them specialize in certain disciplines. For instance, if a student wanted to study law or

medicine, he was best to go to Bologna, Ravenna, or Pavia. If a student wanted to study more

than one subject he had to attend many different universities, and probably leave the country

as well. This gave the universities of the Middle Ages an international flair (Gillett 71).

Medieval universities were heavily focused upon teaching. At its beginnings, a

baccalaureate degree was earned after several years of academic apprenticeship under a

master, only one of many stages in a student’s education (Haskins 34). It was not until later on

that a baccalaureate degree was awarded for completing a set course of study (Gillett 72). After
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completing his baccalaureate, a student became a “journeyman” scholar, and was allowed to

continue his studies towards a master of arts degree. Young candidates for the master of arts

degree were expected to lecture, and to assist regular masters “by giving extraordinary lectures

to help beginning students, or substituting for professors who were away on ecclesiastical or

political missions” (Rudy 32). This practise was called doecendo discere, or “learning to teach by

teaching” (Rudy 32). After four to seven more years of study, the master of arts candidate was

allowed to present and defend his thesis. If he was successful, he would be approved as a

teacher and award a Master of Arts degree. This qualified the student to teach, and often he

began right away (Gillett 72).

In addition to being required for teaching, a master’s degree was also a prerequisite for

further study. In order to study any of the “higher faculties” such as law, theology, or medicine,

one had to first be accepted as a Master of Arts (Haskins 34). Much of the medieval training in

these “higher faculties” was professional – medieval universities even included a course of

study in ars dictaminis, or the art of letter-writing (Rudy 32). This was the medieval equivalent

of the business degree. From their beginning, universities served a utilitarian purpose: civil law

was the most popular field of study, with canon law and medicine close seconds (Rudy 31).

Many students disliked theology, by far the most academic of the subjects available to study,

finding it too theoretical (Rudy 30). From their inception, universities have played a role in

filling the needs of society for highly trained, highly skilled professionals.

Medieval methods of instruction did not differ greatly from the universities of today.

Lectures given in Latin were the common form of instruction (Gillett 71). This was a result of

two factors: firstly, most of the classic texts studied were written in Latin. Secondly, medieval
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universities were highly international institutions; Latin was a common language between

peoples of diverse backgrounds (Rudy 32). Formal disputations between students and masters,

and amongst students themselves, were common methods of instruction (Gillett 71). These

disputations gave the medieval university a lively, dynamic atmosphere (Rudy 33). They were

also of practical use: since many of the men attending university would go on to “dispute in law

courts, in feudal assemblies, and in ecclesiastical convocations” disputations helped them

practise their skills in argumentation (Rudy 34).

While different from modern institutions in several important respects (e.g. the

emphasis placed on research), it is easy to see connection between the Medieval university and

the modern one. Most notably, the requirement of a baccalaureate as preparation for further

professional instruction and the style of instruction can be found in today’s universities. But

they differ in a very significant respect: the original focus of medieval universities was teaching

and being taught.

The Rise of Colleges and the Undergraduate

Colleges began as charitable foundations that served as hostels for poor students (Rudy

34). Because of the amount of time it took to complete a master’s degree, arts students were

usually significantly younger than their counterparts studying law, medicine, or theology. At

their earliest stages, colleges functioned like modern day residences. The colleges were both a

form of protection and control: university officials were afraid that arts students would be

exploited by townspeople, but were also scared that they would be more prone to rioting and

general rowdiness than the older, more mature students of law, theology, and medicine (Rudy
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35). Colleges provided a balance between the needs of the students, the university, and the


While colleges offered a safe haven to arts students, they also provided an opportunity

for scholastic advancement. Colleges would offer supplemental or review lectures taught either

by regular professors, or by students studying towards their master of arts. These lectures were

given independent of the actual university: at the time, colleges and universities had no formal

relationship. These “extraordinary” lectures were given free of charge, and were provided to

complement the students’ formal studies (Rudy 35).

As the popularity of colleges and these supplementary lectures spread, they eventually

came to be the sole providers of the liberal arts at some universities, especially in Britain (Rudy

35). Despite their popularity, colleges on the European continent were eventually absorbed by

the universities whose students they supported. The opposite occurred in England, and by the

sixteenth century English colleges had practically become autonomous institutions of higher

learning, providing an almost complete curriculum (Rudy 36). Colleges, and the collegiate

system of education, would go on to become the hallmark of British higher education until the

early twentieth century, when the German model of university education became the dominant

model in post-secondary education.

The Renaissance: Humanism and the Spirit of Inquiry

The university saw relatively few changes from its beginnings in the 11th century until

the Renaissance and the rise of humanism. The philosophy of “l’art pour l’art” that defined the

Renaissance was not easily translated to a university setting, as the university’s primary
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function was to train students to be lawyers, doctors, and future state administrators (Rudy 46).

Slowly the university curriculum evolved to include some newer, humanist courses, such as the

study of Greek literature, Platonic philosophy, poetry, rhetoric, and history (Rudy 47). Gillett

summarizes the impact of the Renaissance on European universities as follows:

The Renaissance was a period of intellectual, artistic, and literary

resurgence. ... It involved a rereading of the classics in their
original versions and introduction of Greek and Latin as the
languages of scholarship. It brought a zestful search for new forms
in art and literature and an awakened spirit of scientific inquiry. It
emphasized the intellectual, moral, social, and physical
development of the individual. ... It proposed an educational goal
of self-fulfilment in terms of the “compleat man” (97)

The Renaissance reshaped what people understood the purpose of a university to be, but these

new ideas were not incorporated into the university’s structure itself. While the Renaissance

saw major values reshaped in light of a humanistic understanding of the world, very little was

done to include these changes in university curricula. University pedagogy remained mostly

unaffected, and the societal function of universities was still the same as it was during the

Middle Ages.

Science was mostly absent from Renaissance universities, as the great scientists of the

age were either doing work in private or, in Italy, as part of scientific academies, such as the

Accademia della Crusca in Florence. These Italian academies grew out of wealthy courts of

Italian city-states, where well-educated individuals would gather to discuss various scholarly

issues (Pedersen 481).

Although the Renaissance brought no major structural changes to the university, it

refocused the spirit of inquiry present therein from being intensely focused on vocational

training to more scholarly and academic pursuits. The rediscovery of many classic works
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challenged the belief of previous centuries that medieval encyclopaedias contained all

knowledge, and, more generally, a questioning spirit was favoured over one of outright

acceptance (Gillett 84). It is this questioning spirit that would inform the development of

science as an academic discipline over the next few centuries.

The Reformation: Stagnation and Separation

The Reformation saw drastic reductions in student enrolment at many universities. Over

the course of ten years, the enrolment at some universities dropped to as low as five percent of

their previous yield. This drop can be attributed to several factors: firstly, universities were still

closely tied to the church for funding, and many local authorities “confiscated ecclesiastical

endowments that had been used for financial support of clerics at universities” (Rudy 62). Bitter

theological disputes between faculty members pushed away many potential students, and with

the priesthood discredited, many parents had no desire to send their sons away for an

expensive theological education (Rudy 62).

Universities, still tied to the church for financial support, split into two groups: Catholic

institutions and Protestant institutions. Protestant institutions were more open to studies in the

natural sciences, while Catholic institutions tended to favour a more traditional curriculum

(Rudy 75). Often, students from one locality would be prohibited from studying at an institution

on the other side of the “denominational curtain”, both by their parents and the institution

itself (Rudy 65). Those living in monastic houses suddenly founded themselves without housing,

and those who were funded by church scholarships were left hapless (Rudy 71). Funding

became a frequent source of anxiety for universities as well as students. In Protestant

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jurisdictions, Church lands had been confiscated. This included university lands. Although some

of this wealth from these lands was reallocated to the universities, this did not happen often.

Additionally, a number of teaching posts disappeared that had been funded by the Church.

These issues, combined with a general decrease in enrolments, left many universities

wondering how they would survive (Rudy 70).

These setbacks were only temporary, as greater numbers of students flooded back into

universities once Reformation society realized that clergy for the new reformed faiths had to be

educated (Rudy 63). New universities began appearing all across Europe as the burgeoning

middle class began to realize that a university education was an excellent means of preparing

their children for careers in politics or business (Spitz 51).

Despite the negative aspects that the Reformation seemed to have upon Europe’s

universities, there were some changes that would end up being for the better. There was a

push to demand more preparatory education before students were admitted to university

(Spitz 58). The study of language and other humanist subjects was pushed back into this

preparatory education, and the result was that universities developed their faculties of arts to

be more on par with the “higher faculties” of law, theology, and medicine, rather than as a

foundation for their study. The study of the arts became dedicated primarily to the study of

philosophy (Spitz 58).

Two pioneers of new scientific thought emerged from the Reformation period. In

England, Sir Francis Bacon pioneered a new inductive method of reasoning for discovering truth

in the natural world. Bacon’s method required that those searching for truth free themselves of

so-called “idols” that would distract them, such as prejudices, biases, and assumptions about
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the world in which they lived. After removing the idols from one’s mind, Bacon advised

students of nature to record what they observed, then to formulate a general principle based

on this data and test it experimentally (Gillett 130). Bacon’s aim in this endeavour was to

develop practical knowledge that would benefit society (Gillett 131).

The other great innovator of the era was René Descartes. Descartes advocated a system

whereby truth was only found through scepticism; all that was not distinctly clear was rejected.

Descartes had considerable effect on many philosophers that would come after him, including

Hegel, Kant, and Spinoza. He rejected all humanistic studies, advocating strongly for the study

of the natural sciences. This effectively produced the first strong divide between the arts and

the sciences in academia (Smith).

The Reformation was a difficult time for European universities. Over a period of ten

years, many saw drastic reductions in both students and funding. Student and faculty mobility

was greatly impeded as religious and political ideologies divided many universities and

countries. Despite these setbacks, European universities survived. The Reformation may

provide the best example of the robustness of the European university, which as we shall see

later, is one of its most important characteristics. Finally, the ideas of Sir Francis Bacon and

René Descartes were seminal to developments to come later in the evolution of universities:

the privileging of the sciences over the arts in both popular and academic thought.

The Enlightenment

The trend towards scientific rationalism was not readily adopted by European

universities in the early seventeenth century. Great advances were being made in educational
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theory by the likes of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Kant; likewise, scientific thought was being

pushed into new territory by Locke and Newton (Gillett 157). While the political, economic and

scientific developments of many states were intertwined, only a handful of universities

meaningfully adopted the intellectual changes of the age into their curricula. Putting these

ideas into practice took significantly longer, as most universities of the time were not open to

new ideas (Gillett 157).

Younger institutions less set in their ways, such as the University of Halle and the

University of Göttingen in Germany, were the most receptive to new ideas, and the fastest to

incorporate them into their curricula (Rudy 78). Halle’s curriculum stressed the importance of

studying modern languages, jurisprudence, and science while placing less emphasis on ancient

languages and literature, as was the custom of the time (Paulsen 122). Professors lectured in

the vernacular rather than in Latin, and instructors emphasized the importance above all else of

the practical application of scientific knowledge (Rudy 91). Halle’s educational formula turned

out to be a combination of “gentleman’s education” and systematic preparation for a career in

public administration (McClelland 34). Extremely popular with Germany’s wealthy upper class,

Göttingen filled a social need for more practical, forward-thinking institutions that accurately

reflected the values of the time.

Universities in highly urbanized countries were also more welcoming towards new social

and intellectual ideas, as they were already used to a plurality of viewpoints existing in one area

(Rudy 78). Following in the footsteps of Halle was the University of Göttingen, offering courses

in history, modern literature, science, medicine, chemistry, metallurgy and agriculture (Rudy

96). The university was equipped with state of the art scientific facilities, such as “laboratories,
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an astronomical observatory, an anatomical theatre, a botanical garden, a museum of

antiquities, and a university hospital” (Rudy 96). The University of Göttingen also housed a

spectacular library, which housed sixty thousand books and one hundred thousand pamphlets,

making it the most comprehensive library in Europe at the time (Crombie and Hoskin 143).

Because of the superior resources available at Göttingen, students did much more independent

study and professors performed much more original research than did their peers at other

European universities. The style of learning employed at Göttingen foreshadowed the

educational model that would become the dominant of university education worldwide in the

late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth century: that of the research university.

But Halle and Göttingen were exceptions among the European universities in the

seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Older, more entrenched institutions, such as Paris and

Oxford, were more conservative, unwilling to change curricula that had, by then, been well-

established for centuries. Some French universities went so far as to ban new books that they

considered subversive, such as Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and Rousseau’s Emile (Rudy

83). Although such practices seem unreasonable in hindsight, this cautious attitude towards

radical new ideas was one of the mechanisms universities had to defend themselves against

social and political upheavals that could damage their established order.

Few scientific discoveries were made at European universities during the seventeenth

century, and even fewer of the revolutionary industrial techniques that would define the

coming century were pioneered there (Rudy 78). Scientists and scholars looking to explore the

newest, most radical ideas had to look outside the universities for intellectual stimulation. As

they did during the Renaissance, those interested in pursuing science turned towards scientific
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societies and academies. After 1700, many such societies existed across Europe, often funded

by local monarchs or the state government. These societies functioned as parallel institutions to

the universities, publishing scholarly journals, organizing lectures, and awarding prizes (funding)

to promising young scholars (Rudy 79).

For all their advances, these societies had very little interaction with the universities

themselves. The Académie des Science in Paris had little to no connection to the University of

Paris (one of the oldest in Europe), or any French university whatsoever (Toynbee 530). Great

scientists such as Newton, Cotes, Halley and Bradley all were members of the Royal Society.

Although they were all professors at either Cambridge or Oxford, they received no support

from university administrators and their research had little impact upon what was taught.

Although these men were active members of the Royal Society, they did so on their own

account, not through any of the universities (Rudy 80).

Throughout Europe, a university education was a privilege of the elites, as very few

ordinary people had the opportunity or financial acumen to receive a formal education. After

the Reformation universities grew even more selective, closing their doors to those whose

religions were not officially sanctioned by the institution. Other institutions arose to fill the

social need. In 1661, for instance, Oxford and Cambridge no longer admitted “Nonconformists,”

or those who dissented from the Church of England (Rudy 81). A number of academies were

founded by non-Anglicans looking to provide university level education to their children,

despite the inability of these institutions to grant university degrees (Rudy 81).

These Nonconformist academies were practically-oriented, and as such deviated

radically from the accepted course of study at most English universities. They taught many
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modern subjects, such as geography, modern history, modern languages, and the natural

sciences (Preserved Smith, 152). Academies located in industrial towns tried to fit their courses

to the needs of the community, presaging the union between science, industry, and education

that was to come. At the height of their popularity and quality, graduates of these

Nonconformist academies had a better chance of getting jobs within the British government

than graduates from the best universities in England (Rudy 82).

Ultimately these institutions were not to survive, as they employed too few teachers to

teach such a broad curriculum (“Education”). While the Nonconformist academies were unable

to force curriculum changes to European universities, they did anticipate some of the changes

that European universities would undergo in the early nineteenth century. But change was

afoot, as minor changes in universities across Europe laid the foundation for much bigger

developments that would occur in over the course of the next century. As Rudy puts it,

“Universities were beginning to broaden their concepts of a

proper curriculum and to diversify course offerings. They were
cautiously coping with the scientific revolution. Most important of
all, they were beginning to modify the essential concept of their
mission. In an age of the national state, science, and the
Enlightenment, universities were no longer solely concerned with
the preservation and transmission of accepted knowledge; they
were becoming involved in the discovery and advancement of new
knowledge as well” (98-99).

This passage highlights several key trends in European universities that would have a vital

influence over the next few centuries. Universities were opening up their curricula to offer a

broader variety of more practically oriented courses of study. As a result of changes in social

values, universities were becoming more open to scientific research.

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The Nineteenth Century: Educational Change in Europe

After the Enlightenment, European universities had differentiated themselves enough

that to do a proper history requires a national, rather than continental, scope of thought. Still,

there are several themes that emerge across all of Europe. The state and the university became

further intertwined during the eighteenth century, as there was a greater need for university-

trained personnel to run the state’s affairs. Fields where the state was heavily involved, such as

public health, education, and any nationalized industry demanded “a multitude of officials and

inspectors” (Anderson 136). The French government quickly implemented a number of

programs to train new civil servants (Rudy 101).

The French Revolution had a profound effect on France’s universities. The traditional

view of the university as an institution “encompassing the whole range of human knowledge”

was abolished, replaced by “a group of utilitarian professional schools and separate liberal arts

faculties” (Rudy 101). France’s twenty-four universities were abolished, and were replaced with

by these special schools (Ruegg 3). Most of these new institutions never got farther than the

planning stage, and so France was left bereft of her universities until Napoleon Bonaparte was

able to transform these ideas into functioning institutions (Gershoy 172). The new French

model was radically different from the old. Post-Revolution French universities were subject to

“severe, often military, discipline,” and were “strictly organized and controlled by an

enlightened despotism that governed to the last detail the curriculum” (Ruëgg 4). France’s

universities were a closed system, sealed off from internal criticism or external innovation.

In additional to practical concerns such as the style of instruction, educational theory

was transforming as well. Observation, experimentation and reason were the primary tools
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used to arrive at truth, rather than the pre-Reformation staples of faith, revelation and

tradition. Rationalism and romanticism emerged as the dominant schools of thought in

European universities (Gillett 140). The popularity of rationalism was spurred on by the

discoveries and methods pioneered by Sir Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes during the

Reformation. The universe came to be seen as being ordered according to natural laws, and

reason was the chief intellectual value of the age (Gillett 139).

It was from this enthusiasm for science that a new model of university pedagogy would

spring. German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt radically reconceived what the mission of a

university should be when, in 1810, he persuaded the King of Prussia to found a university in

Berlin based on the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher (Ruëgg 5). Schleiermacher thought that

universities should not exist purely to pass on practical knowledge (such as the case was under

the French model), but rather that they should teach the student the process of discovering

scientific knowledge (Ruëgg 5). The purpose of the university according to Schleiermacher was,

To awaken the idea of scholarship in noble-minded youths already

equipped with knowledge of many kinds, to help them to a
mastery of it in the particular field of knowledge to which they
wish to devote themselves, so that it becomes second nature for
them to view everything from the perspective of scholarship, and
to see every individual thing not in isolation, but in its closest
scholarly connections, relating it constantly to the unity and
entirety of knowledge, so that in all their thought they learn to
become aware of the principles of scholarship, and thus
themselves acquire the ability to carry out research, to make
discoveries, and to present these, gradually working things out in
themselves. (Ruegg 48)

The liberalism on which the German model of university education was founded allowed it to

quickly adapt its curriculum to new intellectual and social developments much better than its

main rival, the French model. Professors under the German model were free to teach and to
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research what they wanted; in the French model, professors were limited to the prescribed


This spirit of freedom characterized every aspect of the Humboldtian university.

Seminars and laboratories provided the most useful manner of study and the best content for

teaching (Ruegg 6). In his plan for the University of Berlin, Schleiermacher included seminars in

which, “the scientific spirit, awakened by philosophical teaching, would penetrate more deeply

into the particular, to research, combine, and create something of its own, and to confirm by

the correctness of its judgement the insight it has gained into nature and the coherence of all

knowledge” (Ruegg 14). It is important to note that Humboldt’s model was based on educating

students pursuing science; a fact lost on those would later spread his pedagogical model

throughout Europe and North America.

From a student’s perspective, the “freedom” envisioned by Humboldt made individual

study the core of his academic activity, and his own responsibility as well. This idea was the

basis of Humboldt’s university, as he wrote that “the university’s domain is what man can only

find through and within himself – insight into science. Freedom is necessary and solitude

helpful to this self-act in its own understanding, and the entire outer organization of the

university flows from these two points” (Ruegg 21). Humboldt saw attending lectures as a

secondary concern for students; what was essential to their education was that they lived “in

close connection with like-minded people of the same age, who are aware that in this same

place there are many thoroughly learned people, dedicated solely to the elevation and diffusion

of science” (Ruegg 21). This community would awaken a spirit of inquiry within the student,
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such that they would be inspired to develop their thinking and research things on their own

(Ruegg 21).

Students were free to design their own course of study. There were no classes with

compulsory attendance or midterm exams; the student was only tested at the end of his course

of study (Ruegg 22). Students were encouraged to attend private lectures on various topics with

a passing connecting to his studies, in the hopes that he might make a connection between his

field of study and another in a way that he had not been able to before. This idea was the basis

of Humboldt’s liberal model of self-instruction. Students would learn that knowledge did not

exist in isolation, and would connect their learning in a way that they would not have been able

to in a traditional classroom setting, which would ultimately lead to better students and better


The professor took on a whole new role in the Humboldtian model. He was no longer a

human textbook, but a model for the student to follow, “so that he might scientifically grasp an

object in order to arrive at new, rationally scrutinized knowledge” (Ruegg 21). He was still

obliged to offer lectures and courses so that students wishing to observe how he had arrived at

a piece of scientific knowledge could do so, but research was the primary objective for the

Humboldtian professor. The path to becoming a professor was long and difficult. After having

earned their doctorates, aspiring scholars had to submit themselves to the Habilitation, an

examination in the form of a public lecture whose topic was chosen by the university’s faculty

(Roberts and Shils 173). A scientific study, separate from the aspirant’s doctoral dissertation

(and often less demanding) was also required to demonstrate his research abilities (Klinge 137).
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If he passed the Habilitation, the aspirant was awarded the title of Privatdozent, or

private lecturer (Klinge 137), which was roughly equivalent in status to a modern sessional

lecturer. Privatdozent were unsalaried, only paid through the capitation fees of those who

attended his lectures; as such, they often had to provide for themselves via means independent

of their academic careers (Roberts and Shils 173). If the Privatdozent succeeded in the realms of

both teaching and research (which, under the Humboldtian conception of a university, were

really the same thing), he was granted an extraordinary professorship. This entitled him to

teach in a limited field. After attaining extraordinary professorship, the aspirant could become a

full professor, which made him responsible for teaching his full field of study (Klinge 138). With

his position well-established, research was the full professor’s focus, and was an integral part of

his work (Bockstaele 512). Full professors were often hired from other universities rather than a

university’s own body of extraordinary professors, and would frequently move from one

university to another, negotiating higher salaries as they went (Klinge 141). Universities usually

only had one full professor for each subject, and the professor was expected to be able to teach

the entirety of his discipline. A full professorship had many benefits, including directing the

research of one’s department (Roberts and Shils 173).

The nineteenth century was a time of immense social and political change in Europe.

Universities were undergoing their own changes as well. Dissatisfaction with the old systems

and methods of instruction gave way to two new pedagogical systems: one based on tight

control over every aspect of a university’s operation, and the other based on freedom. In the

end the German model, based on freedom, became the dominant mode of university

organization in the world.

Ferguson 22

The Spread of the German Model

Much of the credit for the spread of the German model of university education must be

given to the enthusiasm for scientific research that seized Europe over the course of the

nineteenth century. Humboldt’s model spread gained popularity in Europe as scientists in

German universities made important advances in the fields of natural science and medicine,

which in turn contributed to Germany’s economic development. While researchers in other

countries were making discoveries as well, they were doing so in private our outside of the

university (Ben-David 108-138). The German model brought scientific research inside the

university, allowing it “be a professional, bureaucratically regulated activity,” as research was

an important component of academic success for both students and professors alike. Other

universities began to adopt the German model as they saw how it “pushed research to the

innermost core” of the university and the successes driven by a focus on research (Ruegg 15).

The German model spread throughout Europe in three ways. New institutions of higher

learning were being founded all across Europe, and many of these were based on the German

model, such as the University of Oslo in 1811 and the University of Geneva in 1878 (Charle 66-

70). Alternatively, university administrators could be forced to reorganize their universities due

to external pressures, such as when Austrian students forced their government (who controlled

the universities) to adopt the German model of instruction (Charle 51). Finally, internal

pressures could incite change, as was the case at Cambridge and Oxford. Scholars returning

from trips to Germany gradually introduced the scientific spirit to their home universities, and

tried to direct their colleagues away from the liberal arts and towards research (Ruegg 12).
Ferguson 23

Even the French – in opposition to whose universities Humboldt had developed his system –

came to adopt the model. In 1868 the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes was created “to allow

students to become familiar with scientific research as they could in Germany,” using seminars

and laboratories to teach research methods (Ruegg 13). The German university model was a

powerful tool for scientific development and thus economic development as well, making

adopting it all the more appealing to states and governments.

The German Model in the United States

By the end of the nineteenth century, the German model was the dominant model of

university organization in Europe, and had also spread to North America. Although they were

founded on the British model, American universities came to embrace Humboldt’s ideas

through several home-grown innovations. American students returning home from studies in

Germany wanted to perform research, but had no formal institutions where they could do so.

American universities had been founded on the British model of university instruction, with the

college system and a broad, liberal arts education as their base. By the nineteenth century

these institutions were already entrenched in American society; it would have been impossible

to simply change them to German style universities. Instead, Humboldt’s ideas came to the

United States in the form of graduate schools (Roberts and Shils 168).

Proponents of graduate schools “wanted to establish in the United States universities

which would do what the German universities had done as sites of research and of the training

which was required to do research”, arguing that such schools were imperative for “the well-

being of American society and for the dignity of the United States in the world” (Roberts and
Ferguson 24

Shils 167-169). Faculty at traditional colleges such as Yale were resistant to the kind of changes

being proposed, and so new universities were founded to circumvent their concerns (Roberts

and Shils 171). The establishment of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 marked the first North

American university to be based upon the German model (Gillett 238). Clark University and the

University of Chicago soon followed, with teachers at all three universities appointed on the

understanding that research was as important as teaching – an understanding that they were

quite amenable to, given that many had studied in Germany (Shils and Robert 170).

While the importance placed on research carried over not all aspects of the German

university were imported into the United States. Almost as important as the features of the

German model that were brought to the United States were those that were not. The process

of Habilitation and the status of Privatdozent were noticeably absent from American

universities at the turn of the twentieth century, most likely because being a Privatdozent

required financial means independent of one’s academic career, and most American academics

came from the lower-middle class (Roberts and Shils 173). Despite obviously favouring the

upper classes, Privatdozent was an excellent means of determining the professors who were

unfit and those who were truly dedicated to their profession. Although it was by no means easy

to become a professor in the nineteenth century United States, the particularly gruelling

combination of Habilitation and Privatdozent removed some of the failsafes for finding those

who were best at both teaching and researching (Robert and Shils 172).
Ferguson 25


The university is one of the most long-standing European institutions. The development

of universities over the past eight hundred years has been slow. For much of their history,

universities preserved and transmitted knowledge without seeking to create it. The scientific

revolution and the new spirit of inquiry that came with it brought about a profound change in

the way that people perceived the value of academic knowledge. No longer was it purely the

domain of professors in their ivory towers: the science that was being discovered (and taught)

at Europe’s universities could be put to practical use. Industry could benefit from a relationship

with the academic world not merely because it could produce high quality graduates who made

excellent employees, but also because its ideas could harnessed for the betterment of

humankind. The German model for university education, based on the ideas of Schleiermacher

and Humboldt, epitomized this change of focus. Their reconception of how a university should

operate radically changed the fact of university education, and left a permanent imprint upon

universities worldwide.

Humboldt’s and Schleiermacher’s ideas may seem utopian now. They are idealistic. They

are grand. They seem to be the source of the modern myth of a university education being

about learning for learning’s sake. But one must bear in mind that – at one time – these ideas

were more than just that; they were a reality. There was a certain social and political context

where these ideas worked and worked well. But those ideas existed in a very different time and

place from the places where the Humboldt’s ideas were imported.

The German model of higher education was based on certain assumptions that no

longer hold true. Firstly, the explosion of university students in the twentieth century exposed
Ferguson 26

the German model’s weaknesses as a system of mass education. During the twentieth century,

the demographic landscape of university students changed radically. A much greater

percentage of the population suddenly had access to a university education as social and

financial barriers disintegrated. Socially, it became acceptable for women to attend university,

although this did not prove to be as big a problem as the increasingly affordable cost of a

university education.

Lowering the financial barriers exposed some of the weaknesses of the university

system, showing how ill-equipped universities based on the Humboldtian model were to handle

the changes that were to come. Mass education was not a consideration of a system designed

with one full professor per subject in mind. This was because mass education was not a

possibility until the late nineteenth century. For much of the history of universities, only the

wealthy or well-connected could afford to send their children to university, but suddenly

students of nearly any background could afford to go. For students in the lower and middle

classes, a university education was a great way to improve one’s station in life. Unlike their

wealthier counterparts, students in the lower and middle classes could not afford to learn

purely for learning’s sake: they had to get a job afterwards. There was no inheritance or family

wealth to fall back on if, for whatever reason, things did not work out as they had planned. This

is not to say that none of the wealthy were expected to find employment after graduating, but

that they had options if they choose not to. Students of the lower middle class could not afford

such luxuries (Charle 57).

Although universities had often adapted their courses of study to meet the employment

needs of local communities, trying to adapt to the employment needs of students brought an
Ferguson 27

entirely new dimension to the equation. Charle articulates the problems faced by universities,

as these new students “who were less likely to come from the educated middle class ... took a

pragmatic view. Studying in order eventually to earn their living, they had little sympathy for

Humboldt’s educational ideals and sought instead training for a particular career. This often led

to misunderstandings with the professors, who were becoming ever more specialized in their

particular fields” (Charle 58). While Humboldtian educational ideals were based on awakening

an intellectual curiosity and the spirit of inquiry within the student, the new students of the late

nineteenth century were more concerned with the pragmatic applications of their education.

Secondly, Humboldt and Schleiermacher’s ideas were meant to be applied to scientific

education and research, not to the humanities. Humboldt and Schleiermacher were not

concerned with the humanities – indeed, the vision for Humboldt’s university was as a place for

scientific learning and research (Ruegg 16). The principles and ideas that they had intended as a

way of bolstering interest in scientific research were misinterpreted as being applicable to all

disciplines. As graduate schools grew in popularity, graduate schools in the humanities began to

form based on Humboldt’s methods and ideas. These ideas eventually trickled down into

undergraduate pedagogical methods as well.

Thirdly, the Humboldtian model was premised on the assumption that teachers would

be able to teach and to research. The idea that the best researchers make the best teachers

was present, yes – but this idea was a corollary of the Humboldt’s system, and not one of its

premises. Humboldt thought that students should learn about the process, not just the content,

of science, and that the best way for them to do so was by learning from those who knew the

process best (i.e. researchers). But this did not excuse bad teaching. Humboldt’s system
Ferguson 28

necessitated demonstrating one’s teaching abilities long before one was even able to begin

professional research. The omission of Habilitation and Privatdozent for admission to teaching

in American graduate schools was a grave error on the part of the Americans, whose graduate

school influenced the development of universities worldwide. The lack of Habilitation was

particularly damaging, as it guaranteed that the potential professor was both a good teacher

and a good researcher.

These problems were all evident by the early twentieth century. But they should not

have been surprising. The German model arose in a certain social and political context. When it

was translated into system with different social and political assumption the system began to

break down and lose some of its original lustre

Several themes emerge from all this history and analysis. The first is that universities

cannot exist independent of society. The “ivory tower” is a myth. Since their inception,

universities have responded to social needs. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance this merely

meant giving young men the education that they needed to succeed in various professional

roles. In later centuries it would also include partnering with industry to develop scientific

initiatives for commercial use. Although universities were incubated from many forms of social

upheaval – as seen during the Reformation – they are not immune to it, as the changes they

underwent after the French Revolution clearly show.

But despite seemingly radical changes in the nineteenth century, the university has

changed very little over the course of its history. When it has, it has done so in response to

social needs and values. This robustness, combined with the degree to which it has spread

around the world, suggests that it is quite good at doing what it evolved to do: namely, to
Ferguson 29

preserve and transmit knowledge. The idea that universities should also play an active role in

the discovery of knowledge is a fairly new development. For the majority of their history,

universities have served social needs, passing on the knowledge and values of the societies in

which they operated. And indeed, they still do. It is with these ideas in mind that we turn to the

history of Ontario’s universities.

Part II - A Brief History of the University in Ontario

Discussing the emergence of higher education in Canada is a tricky thing to do. The

broad evolutionary lines of the institutions are not as clear as they are when discussing the

universities of Europe, or even the United States. In Europe, university systems had hundreds of

years to evolve and often did so independent of the state, incubated against all but the most

radical political and social upheaval. A history of the ideas informing Canada’s higher education

sector is complicated by the relationship between Canada’s universities and its governments.

Education in Canada is a provincial responsibility. The Constitution Act of 1867 leaves little

doubt about this, stating in Section 95 that “in and for each Province the Legislature may

exclusively make Laws in relation to Education” (Cameron 9). Although the federal government

occasionally got involved through student and research grants, tending to the province’s post-

secondary education sector was left largely in the hands of the provincial government.

Unlike their European ancestors Canadian universities’ development was very closely

tied to how much money their provincial government was willing to give them, a process that

was at first renegotiated on a yearly basis. Responding to social needs was a matter of political

negotiation between the people, the university and the state. This section chronicles the
Ferguson 30

development of Ontario’s universities from the perspective of their relationship with the

government (both provincial and federal), with an aim to and to understand how Ontario’s

university system became what it is today.

Pre-Confederation and Ontario’s first universities

In a way, Canada can thank the American Revolution for its earliest universities. Large

numbers of people loyal to the British crown were migrating north into Canada, and they

wanted to establish a link to the British Empire and their heritage. The oldest university in

Canada, the University of King’s College in Windsor, Nova Scotia, was incorporated in 1809

(Gillett 183). In 1927 a charter was granted to King’s College, York (Toronto) in Ontario. Both

institutions were modelled on the Oxford college system. The lecture was the main form of

instruction, and courses focused on the liberal arts (Jones 137).

King’s College (both at Toronto and Windsor) was closely associated with the Church of

England, which quickly created a political problem as it was funded with public resources (Jones

138). All faculty at King’s College (both at Windsor and York, and in 1828, Frederiction) were

required to be Anglican, which was met with strong opposition from Protestants, who

complained that the government was playing favourites (Shils and Roberts 175). In 1849, King’s

College York was relieved of its denominational affiliation and was renamed University College,

a part of the newly chartered University of Toronto (Gillett 195). In an attempt to quell

denominational infighting, provincial leaders declared that public support would only be

provided to secular (i.e. non-denominational) institutions (Jones 138). Despite their best efforts,

denominational schools began to emerge in most large towns, and experienced the most
Ferguson 31

growth of any post-secondary institutions during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Queen’s University was chartered in 1841 as a Presbyterian college; in 1858 Assumption College

was incorporated as Catholic institution; 1861 saw the College of Ottawa emerge (formerly the

College of Bytown), another Catholic institution; The Western University of London Ontario

(later the University of Western Ontario) was founded in 1878 by Bishop Isaac Hellmuth of the

Anglican diocese Hellmuth; and McMaster University, a Baptist university, became provincially

chartered in 1887 (Harris 27-37; 221-224). But while denominational support helped these

institutions grow in their early years, they quickly gave up any religious affiliation in order to

have access to public funding as private financial resources became scarce.

The Western University of London dropped its association with the Church of England in

1908, and began receiving public funding in 1910. Queen’s University in Kingston, formerly a

Presbyterian school, secularized in 1912, and started receiving funding in that year. The

University of Toronto had been receiving provincial funding since its creation in the 1850s, and

by 1910 contained four arts colleges: University College (formerly King’s), Victoria College,

Trinity College, and St. Michael’s (Harris 223). The University of Toronto received the lion’s

share of provincial funding, but as Queen’s and Western secularized the provincial government

recognized that Queen’s and Western were “providing a special service for the eastern and

southwestern districts of Ontario” and that these universities “should receive regular and

substantial assistance” (Harris 223).

The relationship between the provincial government and the university was studied in a

1906 royal commission. The Flavelle Commission, whose findings informed university funding

practices for the next century and onwards, was the result of accusations that the provincial
Ferguson 32

government was interfering in the operation of the University of Toronto. The Commission

studied American and British arrangements between the state and the university, and

concluded that Ontario’s universities must be separated from “the direct superintendence of

political powers” in order to operate successfully (Jones 139). It recommended that the direct

supervision of the university should be given to a board of governors, whose members would

be appointed by the government. Further to this idea, it proposed that the University of

Toronto Senate be kept to tend to academic affairs. Together, the board of governors and the

Senate would be responsible for the operation of the university, without any direct interference

from the government. This mode of university governance, termed “bicameralism,” was hardly

revolutionary, as several Canadian universities had already experimented with similar models

(Cameron 1991). But the Flavelle Commission was the first official document that clearly

articulated the structure and foundation for bicameralism (Jones 139-140). While Ontario’s

universities were to remain publicly funded institutions, they were to be privately run.

There was little interaction between the universities and the province until 1920, when

provincial funding for universities was the subject of a Royal Commission to determine how

much the province should be subsidizing the University of Toronto, Queen’s University, and

Western University (since, in 1921, these were still the only non-denominational institutions of

higher learning in the province). The commission had to recommend “a permanent plan of

public aid to said universities as shall bear a just and reasonable relation to the amount of the

legislative grants to primary and secondary education” (Harris 361). The commission

recommended substantial grants be immediately provided to all three universities, and that

substantial future provincial funding be allocated for their development. Such grants would
Ferguson 33

allow Queen’s and Western to provide services needed beyond what the University of Toronto

– which was considered the provincial university – could reasonably be expected to provide.

The commissioners were particularly concerned with the University of Toronto, which they

thought should provide “a strong centre of well-organized post-graduate work” (Harris 362).

They proposed an annual grant for the University of Toronto in the form of 50% of the

province’s succession duties, averaged over three years (Harris 362).

The government did not accept this recommendation, choosing instead to provide an

operating grant to the University of approximately $1.5 million per year for the next 20 years.

This amount was significantly lower than the amount the university would have received from

the succession duty formula, which in part explains the failure of the University of Toronto to

produce strong graduate faculties in the early twentieth century. The government did,

however, accept the commission’s recommendations for Queen’s and Western, providing both

with grants for capital development. Between 1920 and 1940, the province provided its three

secular universities with over $16 million in grants (Harris 362).

Despite large changes in funding for operational costs, enrolments remained relatively

the same. Toronto saw its full-time student population grow from 4 000 to 5 000 from 1920 to

1940, the biggest growth by far. Queen’s enrolment did not grow substantially in the same time

period, seeing full-time students grow in number from 1 500 to 1 700. Western’s enrolments

grew considerably, from 323 to 1 323, but this increase had more to do with the addition of

three affiliated institutions: Assumption College, Waterloo College, and Brescia College (Harris

362-363). Graduate student enrolment at all Queen’s, Western University, and the University of
Ferguson 34

Toronto was fairly low, as research was not yet a central concern of Canadian universities

before the First World War (Gingras 301 in Axelrod and Reid).

Ontario’s universities saw undergraduate enrolment increase sharply after the Second

World War. While Depression-era economics had necessitated that higher education be a

relatively low priority for provincial funding, the explosion of veterans finding their way onto

university campuses demanded quick action, both from the universities and from the

government. Universities borrowed whatever they could to meet the demand. Although

education was constitutionally mandated as the jurisdiction of the provinces, the federal

government contributed to the retraining of veterans, both materially by lending facilities for

universities’ use, and financially by funding veterans’ education through the Department of

Veteran Affairs (Cameron and Royce). The federal government provided a $150 grant to

universities for each veteran enrolled, a program which laid the groundwork for future federal

funding of universities across Canada through the use of student grants (Harris 458).

Graduate studies slowly gained popularity in Canada, and more universities opened

graduate schools. In 1920, graduate students accounted for 1.8% of total student enrolment in

Canadian universities; in 1930, 4.1%; and in 1940, 4.3% (Harris 428). Most of the growth during

the 1920s can be attributed to the National Research Council, which provided grants to

graduate students engaged in scientific research. Established in 1916 as part of the war effort,

the NRC was developed by the federal government to help stimulate industrial research and

development (Harris 324). In 1920-21 it awarded 23 bursaries and fellowships; the next year,

42; and in 1930-1931 it awarded 53. The NRC created a positive feedback loop: as interest in
Ferguson 35

scientific research among students grew, so too did funding, which encouraged more students

to pursue graduate work in the sciences (Harris 428).

Despite the increasing demand for higher education, university funding remained a low

priority for the Ontario government. Public spending was focused on infrastructure

development, rather than higher learning (Axelrod 14). As Ontario’s industrial base expanded

and diversified, its labour needs shifted. Although Ontario’s universities provided excellent

professional training, they were poorly equipped to supply the training that industry required.

The government began to invest in technical schools and vocational training programs to help

meet the province’s needs (Jones 142). The Lakehead Technical Institute was created in 1946

and the Ryerson Institute of Technology in 1948 as a way of meeting the demand for new types

of skilled labour (Cameron and Royce). Both institutions presaged the development of Ontario’s

system of colleges of applied arts and technology would emerge in the 1960s to fill Ontario’s

need for skill labour. Despite this fact, both Lakehead and Ryerson would later become

provincially chartered, degree-granting institutions to meet demand for university education in

their respective areas.

By 1951 university enrolment was up 75% from pre-World War II levels, with nearly sixty

thousand students enrolled in various institutions across Canada (Harris 457). Although part of

this number constituted veterans returning home from the Second World War, by the early

1950s they accounted for only 4.1% of the student population, down from 44.6% in 1946, and

28.8% in 1948 (Harris 457). It was evident that enrolment levels would remain high and that the

province needed an office responsible for higher education policy and development. A part-

time consultant was appointed to the Minister of Education, but by 1956 this response was no
Ferguson 36

longer sufficient. The Premier appointed a committee to evaluate the needs of the province’s

universities and recommend future funding policy (Jones 142). This was replaced by the

University Committee in 1958, but this was unsatisfactory: none of the committee members

saw higher education as an important part of their work. University leaders were upset that

they were unrepresented on the committee, as they were concerned that it might lead to

reduced levels of funding (Jones 143).

For most of their history, Ontario’s universities had been left to their own devices.

Although they were heavily subsidized by the provincial government, they were considered

autonomous institutions, and in general there was little interaction between Ontario’s

universities and the provincial government beyond annual requests for operating support from

institutions that were eligible to receiving funding (Jones 141). But a number of changes were

underway that would soon change the government’s attitude towards post-secondary

education. University research had played a crucial role in the war effort, and as veterans

transitioned from military service to university and finally into the workforce, the public’s

perception of the role of universities began to change (Jones 141). Ontarians – and thus the

Ontario government – were gradually coming to see post-secondary education as an important

tool for economic and social development.

Change was underway within Ontario’s universities as well as without. McMaster

University, formerly affiliated with the Baptists, secularized to become eligible for government

funding, and in 1947 received its first grant (Jones 142). Carleton College became a provincially

recognized degree-granting institution with the passage of the 1952 Carleton College Act in the

Ontario legislature, and became an official university in 1957 with the Carleton University Act.
Ferguson 37

Both of these changes presaged the coming expansion that was about to hit Ontario’s higher

education sector, as demand for higher education in Ontario was about to increase


The 1960s to 1980s: Funding, funding, funding

By the 1960s most Ontario universities followed the same pattern for most of their

undergraduate programs. Harris describes the general format as: “a first ... year which was

largely prescribed; a second year in which English and a language taken in the first year were

prescribed and in which the student was required to take a course in the social sciences; and

two upper years in which the only requirement was to major or concentrate in either one or

two subjects” (502). Although universities would vary in their levels of prescription in the first

year and the exact courses prescribed, all of Ontario’s universities followed this format by the

end of the 1960s.

With the provincial government recognizing the ability of universities to drive economic

growth, expansion was the in the air for Ontario’s post-secondary education sector in the

1960s, and accessibility to PSE for all Ontarians became a tenet of the provincial government’s

plan for the province’s public universities. But faced with increasingly large enrolments at its

universities, demographic projections indicating a large rise in the number of eligible students,

and increasing public pressure to expand its higher education infrastructure, the Ontario

government had to answer the question of how it would cope with all the changes necessary to

making accessibility a reality. Accessibility entailed not only making a university education

affordable to the average Ontarian, but also making it available. The small number of publicly
Ferguson 38

funded (and thus truly affordable for the middle-class) universities limited the number of seats

available (Jones 143).

Rather than opening a large number of new, comprehensive universities, the provincial

government facilitated the secularization of denominational institutions. With much of the

fixed capital needed to run a university already in place, it was more economical for the

government to provide these institutions with funding than to build many new universities. The

years between 1960 and 1973 saw the conversion of University of Windsor, the University of

Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, Laurentian University, the University of Guelph, Lakehead

University, and the University of Ottawa from privately funded denominational schools into

secularized institutions that received the bulk of their operational support from government

grants (Cameron and Royce). Only three completely new universities emerged, with Brock

University, Trent University, and York University all founded in the 1960s.

Expansion was not without its problems. The increasing number of universities in

Ontario required some way of fairly determining provincial contributions to each. Previously,

universities would submit their requests for funds directly to the Premier, which contained

statements of their projects needs or deficits. Universities would occasionally send a delegate

to meet with the Premier, but contact was mostly through the mail. The Premier of Ontario

often doubled as the Minister of Education, which meant that these meetings could be

conducted quickly and quietly. This system was reasonable when there were only three publicly

funded universities in Ontario, as the Premier could easily allocate funds to universities: if there

was a surplus after other provincial needs had been met, then the universities’ costs were

covered. If the province was unable to meet the universities’ requests, then they were forced to
Ferguson 39

run a deficit and apply again in later years (Axelrod 79). As the number of publicly funded

institutions grew in Ontario, a more complex system was required to equitably determine

funding levels for each. To respond to the problem of how to fairly fund all the public

universities now operating in the province, a formula was developed to determine needs and

allocate funds.

This formula was based upon a calculation of enrolment, which was weighted by

program to account for differences in the costs of administering various courses of study. The

formula served to both establish what percentage of the government’s post-secondary

education budget an institution would receive and also to determine how much the

government spend on higher education. Over time the formula evolved to include a moving-

average calculation based on past enrolments and the provision that the government would

use the formula only as a mechanism for helping determine how much funding would be

available for the system, rather than using it to decide exactly how much to give each year

(Jones 144). Several principles had formed the basis of the funding reforms of the 1960s, which

informed the government’s policy decisions thereafter.

The first – and oldest – principle was that the provincial government would only provide

financial support to secular, non-denominational institutions. Over the years this policy evolved

from being a mechanism for determining financial support into a policy regulating which

institutions had the authority to grant degrees. Since the provincial government had a “public

monopoly” over which institutions could grant degrees, it could use this principle to slow the

expansion of the PSE sector by regulating the number of new universities, and limiting the

ability of out-of-province institutions to offer degree programs in Ontario (Skolnik 73). This
Ferguson 40

functional practicality became law in 1983 under the Degree Granting Act. By only funding

secular institutions, the provincial government created a financial inequality between

denominational and non-denominational institutions, for all intents and purposes forcing

institutions that wished to be competitive within Ontario to secularize. As the government had

the power to confer degree-granting status upon institutions, it could effectively regulate the

expansion of the post-secondary education sector in Ontario.

Second was the principle of maintaining institutional autonomy. The Flavelle

Commission had established this idea in 1906 as an important factor in the success of the

province’s universities, and it was carried forward in the funding formulas of the 1960s. This

principle presented a problem for the provincial government, which was concerned about the

lack of rational planning within the sector, but its attempts to change the power structures

within the system were unsuccessful (Jones 148).

Third was the principle of institutional equality. Like the first principle, this one

extended back fairly deep into the history of Ontario’s universities. That the funding formula

should be blind to political considerations was a fundamental tenet of the 1960s reforms, and

an assumption of all funding decisions thereafter. Funding formulas became the main way for

the provincial government to decide how to allocate funds (Jones 148).

The 1960s were also when the universities, recognizing that they would have better luck

lobbying the government as a collective rather than on their own, began to organize

themselves. The Council of Ontario Universities (COU), a committee of the presidents of all the

provincially funded universities began meeting regularly in 1962. The COU collected data on

member universities to support its policy recommendations, and used their findings to lobby
Ferguson 41

the provincial government. The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations

(OCUFA) formed in 1963. Like the COU, OCUFA performed research to use in their lobbying

efforts. While the COU lobbied the provincial government from the perspective of system-wide

initiatives, OCUFA represented the needs of faculty in policy discussions (Jones 146).

The government moved quickly to form a bureaucracy to manage the new lobbying

pressures from the universities and to direct policy. In 1961 the Advisory Committee on

University Affairs replaced the University Committee, and in 1964 this committee merged was

into the newly formed Department of University Affairs as the Committee on University Affairs

(Jones 144). This committee was intended to be a neutral policy advisor rather than a direct

arm of the government. For the first time in Ontario’s history, there was a government ministry

dedicated to higher education, with full-time staff in areas such as policy development and

research (Jones 144).

Economic recession in the 1970s shifted the focus of policy from how best to expand

Ontario’s higher education sector to how to stabilize – or at the very least, reduce –

institutional costs. University applications fell for the first time in decades as the post-war baby-

boom passed through the educational system, leaving behind a smaller cohort of students and

universities with less income from tuition fees (Jones 147). University leaders were concerned

that this decrease in students would lead to a decrease in funding, which would be difficult to

accept after the expansion of the 1960s. This concern was compounded by frustration over the

feeling that no matter what policies administrators implemented, their funding was largely

determined by the provincial government since the funding formula included a calculation for

tuition fees. The COU lobbied the provincial government for increased support, but was mostly
Ferguson 42

refused. Fund-raising campaigns to solicit private donations were initiated by almost all

institutions, although these were met with limited success, and universities remained frustrated

with their financial situation (Jones 149).

The 1980s saw few changes in post-secondary structure or funding, which was perhaps

their most remarkable quality. The status quo remained for the relationship between the

provincial government and Ontario’s universities. But that was all about to change.

The 1990s to present

By the 1990s the provincial government had two main challenges in the university

sector: the first was how universities could meet the province’s accessibility goals in light of

reduced funding; the second, how to improve accountability in the universities (Cameron and

Royce). More students were attending university than ever before, as a university education

had come to be seen as a means to middle class security. A recession in the early 1990s

necessitated that every dollar of government spending be accounted for rigorously. The

provincial government ordered funding cuts to every component of the public sector, including

universities. Moreover, the provincial government mandated the way in which university

budget shortfalls would be handled, which many universities thought infringed on the

separation the Flavelle Commission had guaranteed them (Jones 154).

The 1995 election brought a change of government and a radical change of policy. The

new government had a mandate to cut public spending, and so provincial contributions to

university operating costs dropped from 68% to 50%. To make up for the loss, “regulated”

university tuition fees were allowed to increase by 55%, and by 2003 had increased by 69.9%
Ferguson 43

over 1995 levels. The student to faculty ratio at Ontario’s universities rose dramatically, as the

ranks of faculty shrank and student numbers swelled. In the place of faculty were sessional

lecturers, untenured, contracted instructors who were significantly cheaper for the university

to employ. More and more university operating costs came to be derived from tuition and

other student fees, with the total rising to over 40% in 2000. By 2003, a cumulative $2.3 billion

had been cut from university budgets, with students paying increased tuition to make up for

most of the lost funding (Doucet i).

In 2003, the Progressive Conservative government was replaced by a Liberal

government with a mandate for change. Fulfilling an election promise, the government

implemented a province-wide freeze on tuition fees in 2004, and commissioned former Ontario

Premier Bob Rae to write a review on the state of higher education in Ontario. Rae toured the

province, soliciting feedback from all stakeholders, and presented his findings in a report called,

Ontario: A Leader in Learning. Among other things, the report recommended that tuition fees

be completely deregulated, to maintain a high quality of post-secondary education in Ontario.

The McGuinty government rejected this idea, as the outcry from student groups at merely the

suggestion of deregulated tuition meant that it would have been political suicide to adopt such

a position. In 2005, the McGuinty government implemented its plan for higher education in

Ontario, entitled Reaching Higher, which provided a funding boost of $6.2 billion in cumulative

funding from 2005-2010, the largest investment in post-secondary education since the 1960s

(“Reaching Higher”). Reaching Higher pledged to improve the access, quality, affordability, and

accountability of higher education in Ontario.

Ferguson 44

On the recommendation of the Rae Review, and as part of the McGuinty government’s

Reaching Higher plan for higher education in Ontario, the Higher Education Quality Council of

Ontario (HEQCO) was created in 2005. Independent of the provincial government, HEQCO’s

mandate is “to provide leadership in creating a quality framework for the postsecondary

education sector; to monitor and report on accessibility to the government and Ontarians; to

encourage inter-institutional transfer; and to advise on system planning and interjurisdictional

competitiveness” (“About Us”). HEQCO is the first instance of the provincial government taking

an active step in the development of a large-scale plan for Ontario’s higher education system.


What can we take from this history? Firstly, there has been very little conscious

attention paid to overall system design in Ontario’s (and indeed Canada’s) higher education

sector. The dominant theme in Ontario’s higher education is that there has been no plan.

Different aspects of the system emerged in response to social or reflected a prevailing value,

much like European universities in the past. In that sense, Ontario has never had a higher

education “system” in the holistic sense, or a master plan. This is reflective of the nature of

universities, which existed for most of their history as small, independent institutions. The

Flavelle Commission understood the importance that autonomy played and granted Ontario

universities institutional autonomy, but not financial.

Until recently, most of the thought surrounding higher education in Ontario has

consisted of determining how the province would help fund institutions. This was mostly a

function of the autonomy that the universities enjoyed, which was built into funding structures
Ferguson 45

and never questioned. Unlike European universities, which evolved through the support of the

Church or through wealthy benefactors and had little interaction with the state until the

nineteenth century, Ontarian universities were encouraged to depend upon the provincial

government for the bulk of their operating budgets. While the Church and the provincial

government were both financially responsible for a number of different institutions, the

Ontario government was also accountable to taxpayers. As funding to universities dropped

because of recessions and economic hard times, this accountability shifted the discourse on

what society wanted from its universities to what society was getting from a universities.

Secondly, we can note how discourse on the evolution of universities shifts from talks

about their internal structure to discussions of their relationship with authority and funding

sources. Indeed, money has come to be the prevalent theme in discussions of the Ontario

university’s relationship with society. While certainly relevant in discussions of affordability and

quality, the question of university accountability dominates all aspects of contemporary

discussions on higher education in Ontario.

It is not unreasonable to expect some level of accountability for money spent. Taxpayers

may demand accountability from the government: it is, after all, their money that funds public

institutions such as universities. In turn, the government demands accountability from the

universities. In a somewhat ironic twist, it seems that the less that the provincial government

spends per student, the more interested it is in institutional accountability, as accountability

became a major point of discussion only in the 1990s when provincial funding dropped to its

lowest levels in decades (Jones 157). By shifting discussions of the functions of universities to
Ferguson 46

ones debate the funding the universities, we have removed one of their greatest ways of

adapting to social change, rendering them less than ideally efficient.

Part III – Overall Conclusions

The overall argument of this paper has three premises. The first is that the university is

very good at doing what it originally did, as shown by the relatively few changes its primary

functions have undergone over its 800 year history, and its massive popularity worldwide as a

tool for the preservation and dissemination of higher knowledge.

The second is that the university has evolved over time to meet social needs.

Universities began as small, community organizations used to educate small numbers of people

(i.e. the sons of the wealthy and well-connected). It is in this capacity that they excelled and

spread worldwide. They arose in very different social and political contexts than they exist now,

and to expect them to function in the same way given these differences is unreasonable.

The third is that, by misusing universities as we have in Ontario, we have caused them

to become ineffective. We have crippled our universities’ ability to respond to social change by

changing the focus of discussion what society wants from its universities to what society can

get from its universities. It is the conversation between the institution and society that is the

essence of a university. The life of the university comes from this interaction with the world.

The dialogue between society and the university is what has enabled it to become such a

successful, universal institution. The problem in Ontario has been that a discussion about

function has become a discussion about funding – primarily driven by the universities, who

have focused on getting money more than what it is the university can do to best support
Ferguson 47

society, which is the conversation that society has always been interested in having with the


One problem compounding this dysfunction is that universities were never really

designed. They evolved in concert with the needs of society. As changing social and political

contexts gave way to new systems and values, so too did universities. One of the many

difficulties facing Ontario universities is that they are used as if they were designed and that

every part of them exists for a specific purpose or to perform a certain task.

Our system needs to be philosophically coherent in order to function at its best. The

values that we want must match the social context in which they operate. The early history of

the German model of university instruction illustrates this point very well. When the values of

the system cohere with the values of the society, excellence ensues. In this case, the values that

informed the system were that scientific research was a university’s primary function, and that

a spirit of liberalism should pervade every aspect of the university’s operation, from teaching to

administration. The French model of university demonstrates the opposite: when values and

practice are in conflict, the system becomes inefficient and eventually will fall apart. In this

case, a revolution that was supposed to liberate universities from the oppression of the Church

merely traded one form of oppression for another, and the system eventually disintegrated.

We are viewing a similar problem in Ontario, as we ignore the vital conversations required to

invigorate our educational system.

The university is a social institution, just as much as healthcare or social security. It

exists in a dialogue with society. History bears out this perspective, as evidenced by the various

systematic changes that the university has undergone throughout its history. When medieval
Ferguson 48

society required more professionals, enrolments in those courses grew. When Nonconformists

were barred from England’s best universities, they formed their own academies, breaking from

tradition and teaching a socially relevant, modern curriculum, which was eventually adopted by

other European universities. And when two German philosophers decided that society needed

a university where research and a passion for the process of scientific discovery were the focus,

the German model arose. When scholars returning to the United States from Germany could

not convince their colleagues to adopt the German model of university education into their

colleges, graduate schools were founded. As Canadians returned home from the Second World

War, universities readily accepted and accommodated them. All of these changes helped

redefine what a university was and how it was to be used. No one change defines a university

on its own.

It is difficult to deny the important role that university research has played in furthering

scientific knowledge. It would be equally difficult to argue against the proposition that

universities have played a vital role in the economic development of the province of Ontario.

And no one could argue against the idea that the provincial government has had a huge

influence over the development of universities in Ontario. Once we accept that the university is

a social institution, we can ask the important questions about the role it plays in our society,

and begin to reinvigorate the dialogue with our institutions of higher learning that has fallen by

the wayside for so long.

Ferguson 49

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