Higher Education in Ontario: Who Goes? Who Benefits? Why Pays?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 26 Mar 1970, p. 344-358
Wright, Dr. D.T., Speaker
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Ladies Day. The new Commission on Post-Secondary Education: charged with considering how, most effectively, the needs of the people of Ontario for post-secondary education can be met during the next two decades. First, a look back at the accomplishments and growth of the previous two decades. Ontario formulae being used in other jurisdictions. Features of the financing systems and operations. Reasons for the continuation of rapidly rising costs. Important unmet needs; these along with a critical review of present policies and beliefs as the focus of concern for the Commission on Post-Secondary Education. Two groups that are now largely missing from post-secondary education whose attendance and participation would be of general benefit. The issue of soaring costs as justification on its own for a study to be done. At the same time, reconsidering questions of purpose and function. A review of why enrollment is increasing. The issue of universality. The issue of "Who Pays?" with a discussion of alternatives. A summary review of the broad questions and policy issues.
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26 Mar 1970
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Full Text
MARCH 26, 1970
Higher Education in Ontario: Who Goes? Who Benefits? Who Pays?
Ladies Day
CHAIRMAN The President, H. Ian Macdonald


The story is told that the late Stephen Leacock, when teaching economics at McGill University, often used to pause half-way through a lecture and remark to his students: "Well, that's all you've paid for; the rest you are getting from the goodness of my heart." Among his varied responsibilities, Dr. D. T. Wright has the task of ensuring that, even in the age of transplants, there should not be undue strain on professorial hearts.

Compared with the days of Leacock, there are enough strains in evidence. The groves of academe have been swept by brush fire in recent years and their tranquility upset by periodic turbulence. Not all institutions are equipped with the remarkable protection evident among the Warden and Fellows of Wadham College, Oxford. To a group of students who presented a list of nonnegotiable demands, the College staff replied in the following manner:

"Dear Gentlemen:

We note your threat to take what you call 'direct action' unless your demands are immediately met. We feel that it is only sporting to let you know that our governing body includes three experts in chemical warfare, two ex-commandos skilled with dynamite and in torturing prisoners, four qualified marksmen in both small arms and rifles, two ex-artillerymen, one holder of the Victoria Cross, four karate experts, and a chaplain. The governing body has authorized me to tell you that we look forward with confidence to what you call a 'confrontation', and I may say even with anticipation."

Such is the world in which our speaker must work. Now, let me tell you about the speaker. Douglas Wright is an engineer by profession and an expert on problems of stress and strain in structural engineering, hence his affinity for university administration is natural. A native of Toronto, he was educated in each vertex of the North Atlantic triangle: a B.SC. in civil engineering from the University of Toronto in 1949, a M.S. from the University of Illinois in 1952, and a PH.D. from Cambridge University, where he was an Athlone Fellow in 1954. His contribution to higher education in Ontario has been recognized by honorary degrees from Carleton University and Brock University.

Dr. Wright is a highly practical man who has managed to keep a hand on applied engineering as well as a finger in engineering research. Perhaps his most noted contribution to university affairs, prior to his present appointment, was the period 1959-1966 when he served as the first Dean of Engineering at the University of Waterloo. In that capacity, he was responsible for implementing the co-operative programme and for developing one of the largest undergraduate and graduate engineering schools in Canada. The battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the acceptance of the part-classroom, part-apprenticeship system at Waterloo University was won largely by the perseverance of Douglas Wright.

His public activities are numerous and his international interests many-sided. He has twice been a visiting Professor in Mexico and has toured Africa on behalf of the Canadian Universities Foundation to investigate aspects of higher education on that continent. His publications on structural engineering and engineering education appear in a variety of Canadian, British, American and international journals.

Today, however, he occupies the pivotal position in higher education in Ontario. The Ontario Committee on University Affairs was established as a liaison body between the Ontario Government and Ontario universities on all aspects of development and financing of higher education in Ontario. Dr. Wright became a member in 1964 and, subsequently, the first full-time Chairman. Among other achievements, the Committee has pioneered in formula-financing for grants to Ontario universities. It is perhaps characteristic of Douglas Wright that one fulltime job is not enough. Consequently, when the Honourable William Davis appointed a Commission on Post-Secondary Education in Ontario, last year, he chose Dr. Wright as Chairman.

The President of an Ontario university once remarked that parents send their children to university for one of two reasons: either because they went themselves or because they didn't. Whatever the motives of parents, the man who will chart the future of post-secondary education is with us today. To tell us about "Who Goes? Who Benefits? Who Pays?", I am pleased to introduce Dr. D. T. Wright.


Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen, when I am introduced as an engineer who has strayed a little from the technical side, I am reminded of Mark Twain's comment that just because a man is an engineer it doesn't mean that he knows anything about engineering, it only means that he doesn't know anything about anything else.

As you have heard, the new Commission on Post-Secondary Education is charged with considering how, most effectively, the needs of the people of Ontario for postsecondary education can be met during the next two decades. Given all that has gone on in the development and expansion of universities and other kinds of post-secondary educational institutions in the past few years, it might seem on the one hand, that we have already established a pattern that will carry us for at least another decade or more; or that, on the other hand, such a study might better have been undertaken five or more years ago.

It is, in fact, the very magnitude and character of our accomplishment in the past several years that makes it necessary now to take stock of where we stand so that we might determine the best direction for future policies in the face of some challenging conditions. Some of you will recall that in the days before the Armed Forces adopted the unisex uniform the Air Force used to have a shoulder badge showing an albatross in flight looking over his shoulder. He didn't seem to give a damn where he was going--he wanted to know where he'd been.

We have all noticed new campuses and new buildings for post-secondary educational institutions in the province in the past few years. Few realize, however, the scale and character of our recent accomplishments in providing opportunities for post-secondary education in Ontario. If we look back the twenty years that the new Commission is asked to look forward, we find that 1950 was the peak year of graduation of the returning servicemen from the Second World War. This may be something of an omen. Canada's first great experiment in mass, democratized, higher education has never been fully documented but was an enormous success. Large numbers of young people were encouraged to pursue higher education, including many who had not even been to high school who were given short crash courses to overcome admissions hurdles. Not only were the doors opened, but financial assistance was provided, including subsistence allowances. Physical facilities were improvised but effective, and there are probably not a few here today who remember, as I do, the Ajax "lines".

We can find a better base point for our analyses in the year 1954, by which time the ex-servicemen had all cleared the system. Enrolments were then at their lowest post-war ebb. In 1954, we had just under 30,000 full-time students in post-secondary education in Ontario, of whom about 70 per cent were in universities, and total Government operating grants were less than $10 million. There were then four provincially-assisted universities.

In the decade to 1964 enrolments just managed to double to 60,000 reflecting an average annual growth of about 3,000. But in the five years from 1964 to last fall, full-time enrolment in post-secondary institutions in Ontario increased from 60,000 to 160,000, that is at an average rate of 20,000 a year. In this period of explosive growth, the number of provincially-assisted universities increased to 14, and a system of 20 colleges of applied arts and technology was created while Ryerson Polytechnical Institute continued to grow, and other significant developments such as regional schools of nursing were introduced. Not surprisingly, the cost grew too. In 1969-70, the estimates of the Government of Ontario show some $535 million of ordinary expenditure committed for post-secondary and adult education along with some $170 million for capital development, leading to a total cash flow of over $700 million from the Provincial purse alone. This, of course, does not include other sources of finance such as contributions by parents and from students' own earnings, nor, of course, does it include the cost to both society and individuals of lost wages.

The Province has a good record and has won considerable esteem in other jurisdictions for its administrative patterns and policy developments affecting post-secondary education. The Department of University Affairs was founded in 1964, and, with the Committee on University Affairs, has worked to provide for university expansion with adequate regard for questions of cost-effectiveness and economy. Both because of concern for university autonomy, and a clear realization that such a large system needed the maximum impetus for decentralized decision making with local authority and responsibility, there have been developed systems of formula grants, based on objective criteria, for both operating and capital support.

These formula notions, developed and used first in Ontario, have been copied now in several other jurisdictions. They stand in distinct contrast to traditional patterns of line-budget review and/or so-called deficit financing, in which there is an inevitable tendency to scrutiny and control of every element of expenditure. This is of course absolutely stifling to local initiative and efficiency and, experience suggests, never leads to very effective control of total costs, anyhow. The formula system not only preserves university autonomy but gives government a simple preemptive control of unit costs, relating total costs to the numbers of students enrolled. With the formula there is a real incentive for the universities to be efficient and to manage their affairs well; any notion that improvement in efficiency in an institution will lead to a corresponding reduction in support is offset. Long-range planning is greatly facilitated. Rather than limiting initiative the formula system gives freedom to individual institutions to order priorities and take necessary decisions. And, importantly, private donors are assured that gifts for operating purposes are an added resource to the university and not a substitute for public support.

The formula for operating grants has been in use now since 1967, and an interim formula for capital grants was introduced last year, although further work remains to be done before final details are resolved.

Since the formulae relate support to enrolment, there is a clear and simple inhibition against unnecessary duplication of academic programmes. An institution must be able to anticipate sufficient average enrolments before inaugurating new programmes. This is really a kind of market regulation which experience shows to be working effectively.

Notwithstanding these features of the financing systems adopted in Ontario and the high point at which we stand now, costs are, of course, continuing to rise rapidly.

This reflects the conjunction of a number of factors. First, the number of young people in the 18-21 age group continues to increase rapidly. The birth rate in Canada has stopped growing in the last couple of years and, in fact, tended to decrease. But the number of young people of college age, which has increased so very rapidly in the 60's, is still increasing at about 10 per cent per annum and will continue to do so through the mid-70's. Beyond this, the proportion of young people attending full-time post-secondary education is increasing at a rate of some two per cent per annum. A recent report by the Economic Council of Canada on national trends projects full-time enrolments in post-secondary institutions in Ontario to increase during the 1970's from the present 160,000 to almost 400,000. Cost increases of close to two per cent per annum can also be anticipated because of a significant continuing shift towards more advanced programmes and graduate work, which are of course more expensive. Another two per cent annual cost increment arises because tuition levels in Ontario have been kept fixed for some years and accordingly represent a smaller fraction of institutional income every year.

With all these factors, large and small, compounded, and the cost of inflation thrown in, it is not hard to see how costs have been rising at nearly 25 per cent per annum over the past few years without much provision for net improvements in relative quality standards. As I noted a few moments ago, the pressure of increased enrolment arising simply from population is beginning to abate, reflecting the decline in the birth rate that started in the early 1960's. But it is not hard to see how total costs can be expected to continue to rise at a compounding rate of 15 or more per cent per annum through at least to the mid-1970's if we continue our presently established policies. This is pretty sobering.

Beyond all this and notwithstanding the very real accomplishments of the past five years, there are clear evidences of important unmet needs. All these along with a critical review of present policies and beliefs combine to form the focus of concern for the Commission on Post-Secondary Education.

Given the enormous rates of increase of enrolment in post-secondary education in the past few years, can there be any significant unmet needs? The commitment we have made to the development of post-secondary education in these past years reflects generally held views that higher education is a good thing, benefiting the people who attend and society as well. If we accept this view then we must acknowledge the fact that two groups are now largely missing from post-secondary education whose attendance and participation would presumably be of general benefit.

One of these groups is made up of young people from families of below-average economic or cultural levels. While we have achieved near-universality in secondary school attendance, the likelihood of a young person attending and graduating from a post-secondary educational institution is still strongly linked to the cultural and economic situation of his family. The Ontario Student Awards Programme has had an enormous impact in the past few years in reducing the significance of economic barriers to higher education, but it remains that attitudes and anticipations formed long before a young person is prepared directly to consider post-secondary education can affect his chances significantly. (Too many people are trapped in socioeconomic cul-de-sacs.) This remains so notwithstanding the fact that during the past two decades the proportion of young people attending university or college in the 18 to 24 age group, (the six-year span embracing post-graduate and professional studies) has tripled from six per cent to over 18 per cent. The development of new universities, and especially of new non-university programmes, has greatly broadened opportunity and has undoubtedly led much larger numbers of young people from all social backgrounds to consider post-secondary education. Christopher Jencks, the American sociologist, has shown that such a pattern of increased participation, while benefiting more of the most gifted children of working class background, also tends to bring in many more of the less able children of middle and upper-middle class families. There is no reason to expect a different experience in Canada. As Jencks puts it, the fear of downward social mobility is greater than the desire for upward social mobility. Research on questions of social selectivity in education is not easy, but the Commission obviously must address this question.

The other great need for post-secondary education that I sense to be still largely unmet is that of adults. Relatively few adults who either missed the opportunity initially on leaving high school to enter full-time higher education, or who might now benefit from further education to live and work more effectively are to be found either in full-time or part-time study. Some estimates recently made in Scandinavia, where conditions are remarkably similar to those in Ontario, have suggested that to offset obsolescence and to provide for upgrading six months full-time study might reasonably be required for most workers every five years.

It is clear that to extend present programmes to attempt to embrace and satisfy the unmet needs I have described, while carrying on with the ordinary trends of expansion and development, would add greatly to the cost escalation already outlined.

The issue of soaring costs is of course already reason enough to study post-secondary education. In Britain there are signs now of intense concern on the part of government about the costs of post-secondary education. The Department of Education and Science a few weeks ago put out for discussion a set of thirteen points outlining possibilities for cutting costs. These have quickly become notorious for they include such ideas as coupling grant-support for students to requirements for specified kinds of employment after graduation, the idea frankly being that such a policy would either reduce applications or at least lead government to get some prompt and direct return from its investment.

It seems to me to be a little short-sighted to look only at questions of cost without at the same time, if not first, reconsidering questions of purpose and function.

Clearly we should commence with some more careful analysis of higher education and its role in society. It is simply not good enough to believe that education necessarily leads to the better life. Has the great commitment of the American people to education made that country a happier place?

Let us consider then some of the reasons why young people have been flocking to post-secondary educational institutions. Beyond all the good and satisfying reasons are some that are disquieting. Kingman Brewster of Yale University identified one of these at a recent talk when he explained how students feel compelled to attend college or university because of the attitudes of parents and employers. He argued that there is a general perception that higher education provides "an indispensable hiring hall for those who would escape the menial levels of drudgery."

Perhaps even more disquieting is some evidence just now being published that suggests that the holding of a good job at a good salary is correlated much more with academic credentials than with ability and performance. If this is so then we should look for ways to loosen the characteristically tight coupling between academic credentials and job sorting. I have observed all too often that professional groups and employers, especially the larger ones, deny their responsibilities and even their own interests in this process. It is distressing to note how many believe that people can be sorted on the basis of educational certification into tidily labelled homogeneous groups that will be stable for the best part of 40 years. Of course, this is not entirely an educational problem. Educators might, however, try to solve the problem, much as the RAF dealt with war-time German radar, by scattering so much tinsel paper around as to cause total bewilderment. Rochdale's proposal to sell degrees might be interpreted in this way. More realistic might be a move by the professions to periodic reassessment of performance and ability, quite divorced from considerations of formal educational certification.

Whatever the reasons, it is certainly true that those who attend and graduate from post-secondary educational institutions anticipate an enhanced earning power.

Of course, we still have tuition fee charges for postsecondary education. Depending on the course, these cover three to thirty per cent of costs. There have been repeated suggestions that such charges should be eliminated, that is that higher education should be "free" and that students should be paid a stipend in lieu of lost wages. Yet we know that there is no truly free education, under any circumstances. Education may be free to the student while he is a student, but in the rest of the community the consumption of medical services or transportation or food or environmental improvements or something must be reduced to free the resources required for education. It seems clear then that we must take care to ensure that the benefits that accrue to society as a result of expenditures made on education are reasonable vis-a-vis possible alternative benefits that would arise from the alternative use of these resources. Beyond this, we must consider the implications of the transfer of resources through education to certain individuals. It is unjust to require certain groups to make sacrifices which tend, regressively, to transfer resources to other, relatively more fortunate, groups.

The great issue, which is just now coming to be defined, is whether post-secondary education will become universal as secondary education has become during the past 30 years. While the notion of universal post-secondary education may seem to some at first sight to be incomprehensible, it is really no more so than was the notion of universal secondary education and to confirm this one need only review the debates that surrounded the opening of opportunities for universal secondary education a few decades ago. In several jurisdictions attendance at post-secondary educational institutions is already open to all those who simply wish to attend. All of this, of course, implies a pluralistic kind of postsecondary education in which different kinds of programmes are available to suit differing interests and abilities. While this may seem strange to those who believe in "standards", it has to be remembered that the abolition of formal departmental entrance examinations for admission to Grade 9 led to predictions that secondary school standards would be undermined.

The U.S. has already gone a long way towards universal post-secondary education. In some States well over 60 per cent of college-age youth are already entering higher education. Many recent policy directions in Ontario can be seen as leading in the same direction. But in considering universal post-secondary education, we should note two special questions which distinguish it from any simple extrapolation of universal secondary education. The first is that post-secondary is also post-adolescent. The second is, of course, still the question of how much?

No small part of the student unrest in recent years has been due to the enforced prolongation of adolescence into adulthood, under parietal rules, and with the general compulsion for attendance that I tried to describe earlier. It may reasonably be asked whether instead of prolonging full-time study, we might better provide for some kind of transitionary process to facilitate the transfer from learning to doing. My experiences at Waterloo with the co-operative programme in which study and work experience were closely integrated in a kind of progressive internship suggested to me the value of this kind of process as much for facilitating social adjustments as for training. Most evidence suggests that programmes of study are tending to lengthen for a variety of reasons which may be broadly categorized as reflecting a general view that more is better. Where, as is so often the case, longer programmes are designed to provide for ever greater specialization, this trend must be confronted with the increasing rate of obsolescence of specialized knowledge. A strong case can be made for shorter programmes of post-secondary education complemented with opportunities for recurrent study in later years.

To the extent that post-secondary education is universal it may be fair for it to be free. But to the extent that postsecondary education is not universal, a very vexing question remains concerning the distribution of costs and benefits. One of the most important series of studies being planned by the Commission on Post-Secondary Education has to do with the distribution of costs and benefits, both monetary and non-monetary, of post-secondary education. Technically, this is proving to be pretty challenging. It makes me appreciate the description in the recent advertisement for a one-armed economist--to get around these arguments that, on the one hand . . . , but, on the other hand . . . .

If post-secondary education is not to be universal then we might reasonably turn to some of the proposals for loan programmes that have been made. These have the characteristic that opportunity is not a function of immediate resources or parental support, but that progress can be financed against the prospect of future earnings with the whole process embedded in a contingent structure that limits repayment obligations to some fraction of an individual's actual earnings.

The economics of the educational process are also fascinating. Education is a kind of mass-production handicraft industry. It is as labour intensive today as it was 50 or 100 years ago. Other industries were similarly labour intensive in the past, but today they are capital intensive. We cannot really resolve the problems of escalating cost or obtain higher productivity in education without using technology. A major frustration in seeking to move in this direction is the way in which government treats capital, so carefully separated from and forgotten by operating accounts, a free resource--once you have it.

If I have not said much so far about campus unrest it is not because I think that expressions of discontent are unimportant or that all of our problems are over. I do feel, however, that we can take some credit in Ontario for learning how to talk and how to make changes of substantive character without most people getting very uptight. But it would be naive to think that the process of change is largely completed; it is only just beginning. In a recent paper Alex Corry suggested that "the tensions between academic staff and students will continue to rise. Students who are dissatisfied, but not openly rebellious (and I believe there are many more of these than we think), are finding out that the main obstacle to the adjustments they want is not the obscurantist lay board of governors, not the much reviled president and senior officers, but the academic staff." The issues still to be fought out are the relative emphases between teaching and research, and the egocentric nature of most university or college departments organized as they are around disciplines.

It is no accident that the social sciences have been the principal area of contention. Those young people motivated by a concern about the continuance of poverty, violence and injustice in society, by a desire to work for the survival of the human race, are flocking to the social sciences. They expect to come to an understanding of society and to learn how to contribute to the solution of human problems. They are understandably resentful when they find psychologists pulling habits out of rats. Somehow, programmes of study must be restructured so that we may discover how to mobilize the intelligence of our society and the zeal of the young in solving the problems of survival. In the mean time, any young person who wants to do something about pollution and the environment is better advised to study Chemical Engineering.

Let me come back to some of the policy issues that are implicit in what I've said so far, and that must be faced. Should higher education be planned primarily to promote economic development, or should its primary goal be the equalization of social opportunity? How, in fact, should planning and decision-making be organized? We know that deterministic manpower planning is an impossible dream. What role should there be for the individual in deciding and doing? What chance is there for freedom in individual decision-making when the resources society provides for education are pre-empted by government and employed in a monopolistic structure? Should students, rather than institutions, be funded? Would a free market be as effective as centralized planning? Is it too radical to think that government should manufacture automobiles and the private sector sell education?

Dr. Wright was thanked on behalf of The Empire Club by Mr. Graham Gore.

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Higher Education in Ontario: Who Goes? Who Benefits? Why Pays?

Ladies Day. The new Commission on Post-Secondary Education: charged with considering how, most effectively, the needs of the people of Ontario for post-secondary education can be met during the next two decades. First, a look back at the accomplishments and growth of the previous two decades. Ontario formulae being used in other jurisdictions. Features of the financing systems and operations. Reasons for the continuation of rapidly rising costs. Important unmet needs; these along with a critical review of present policies and beliefs as the focus of concern for the Commission on Post-Secondary Education. Two groups that are now largely missing from post-secondary education whose attendance and participation would be of general benefit. The issue of soaring costs as justification on its own for a study to be done. At the same time, reconsidering questions of purpose and function. A review of why enrollment is increasing. The issue of universality. The issue of "Who Pays?" with a discussion of alternatives. A summary review of the broad questions and policy issues.