Fifty years ago tomorrow, on March 21, 1963, Premier John Robarts announced the plan that shaped Ontario’s higher education system as we now know it. His statement was delivered as part of routine proceedings in the Legislature, book-ended by statements about LCBO outlets and the Ontario Food Council. He spoke for about an hour. One looks in vain for a good sound bite in his text.
But in a province that is famous for its aversion to system planning, Premier Robarts’ statement was as close as the government came to a plan for creating a mass system of higher education. It set out how many baccalaureate spaces Ontario would need and how many universities we would have. It foreshadowed the creation of the colleges. It established wide accessibility to high-quality education as the government’s primary objective for higher education. With the benefit of hindsight, we can make a number of observations about how Premier Robarts handled his task.
He set accessibility and quality as complementary goals. Premier Robarts was proud to say that “no student has been turned away from our universities because of lack of accommodation.” He also said, “There is little point in obtaining a university degree unless it indicates academic excellence.” He saw no need to trade one of these goals against the other. Without naming them, he chastised Queen’s and Toronto for trying to become elite universities by requiring “unreasonably high standards of admission.” Admission standards, he said, should be “moderate and reasonable and such as to enable the average student to proceed to a degree.”
He looked for good advice. No one in 1963 could be sure how big a university system to plan for. Participation rates were rising, and the first baby-boom students were expected to start university in 1965. Premier Robarts said he sought advice from the research department of the Ontario College of Education, government departments, his Advisory Committee on University Affairs and the university presidents. These sources, working in partnership, projected that enrolments would triple to 91,000-100,000 full-time undergraduate students by 1970. The Premier adopted that target. (The actual figure was 105,000.)
He made contingency plans. The Premier freely acknowledged that there was room for error. He provided a contingency fund in case universities needed to rent temporary space. He left the door open to a controversial proposal from Claude Bissell, then-president of the University of Toronto, to use televised instruction if there were not enough professors and classrooms to meet growing student demand.
He knew when to say yes. Since 1956, Robarts and his predecessor Leslie Frost, had approved the establishment of Lakehead, Laurentian, Waterloo, Windsor and York universities, some from antecedent institutions. Following the advice of the university presidents, Robarts’ statement confirmed the creation of three new stand-alone universities (Brock, Guelph and Trent) as well as new “arts colleges” of the University of Toronto in Scarborough and Erindale (now Mississauga). The older universities had mixed feelings about seeing public funds devoted to new competitors. But Premiers Frost and Robarts recognized that the old campuses could never accommodate all of the students who were to come.
He knew when to say no. Having approved these new universities, Premier Robarts announced that “our present plans, as I have set out, call for sufficient universities to meet our needs for, say, the next 15 years.” In doing so, he disappointed a number of communities that had joined the queue for new universities. In late 1962 there were still outstanding requests for universities from community groups in North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Oshawa, Chatham, Belleville, Barrie, Oakville and Burlington. The Premier also stood firm against the denominational universities (notably Waterloo Lutheran) that hoped he would breach Ontario’s century-old policy of providing funding only to universities with secular governance. It was a tough stand for a government that would soon face an election, but the government was re-elected six months later with an enhanced margin. The moratorium stood until the elevation to university status of Nipissing in 1992 and Ryerson in 1993.
He took things step-by-step. Premier Robarts was notably silent about colleges, with only an oblique reference to the possibility of “arts and other colleges.” The need for a college system was recognized in 1963 by employers, the university presidents and many others, but there were conflicting views about what it should look like. Rather than make a hasty decision, the Premier left the task of designing the colleges to William Davis, his newly appointed minister of education. Mr. Davis’s plan to establish the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology emerged in 1965.
He supported more funding for postsecondary education, but he knew it would never be enough. Premier Robarts announced a three-year guarantee of capital funding and a 54% increase in the universities’ operating grants for the following year, to $70 million. Leader of the Opposition John Wintermeyer immediately criticised him for not providing the $97 million that was the university presidents’ minimum request. Even in the flush years of the 1960s, there was ongoing tension between what universities thought they needed and what the government thought it could afford.
He said nothing about research. Premier Robarts’ statement implies the only significant output of the universities was educated young people. The transformative effects of research and development had been widely recognized at least since the Second World War, but universities were not yet seen as central players in knowledge creation. The challenges of how to provide teaching and research in an affordable way were still to come.
All of us who have attended an Ontario university in the past 50 years owe Premier Robarts some thanks. He did not get everything right but he had the courage to begin. He made decisions, provided leadership and made adjustments as circumstances changed. Fifty years on, his example provides lessons for higher education leaders in Ontario and elsewhere.
David Trick is president of David Trick and Associates Inc., consultants in higher education strategy and management.
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