Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Fall 1995 - Volume 3 Number 1
In Praise of the Invisible Hand
by Carl Eriksen

The birth and growth of the CAAT system in Ontario over the past twenty-five years is truly a remarkable success story. In the early days, the CAATs (Ontario's Colleges of Applied Arts and Tehnology) were considered by many to be second class post-secondary institutions designed for those citizens who could not aspire to the loftier heights of a university education. The notion that they were equal, but different in their mandate, failed to ignite at first. The vast majority of the public clung to the Zlitist perception that only a university degree had value and prestige. Today, this view is changing rapidly. High school students are increasingly making deliberate choices between two systems based on their interests, natural aptitudes, and needs. That portion of the population which recognizes the need for further education and training, look to the colleges. Individuals who have graduated from university are increasingly discovering and unashamedly returning to the CAATs. Employers throughout the province compare favourably the graduates of colleges with those of the universities. The simple fact is that the colleges have established, in the relatively short period of twenty-five years, an enviable reputation and, while ?litist perceptions continue to linger in some corners of society, the distinct mandate of the CAATs and their significant contributions to the Ontario economy are being increasingly recognized.

Central Planning versus Market Forces

Anyone looking through the archives for the key, or the master plan, which made the success story of the Ontario college system possible is going to be disappointed. It's a fruitless search. There is no opportunity here to write a doctoral thesis extolling the virtues of systematic planning in higher education. The thesis that best described the growth and development of the CAATs was written back in 1776 when Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations talked about the “invisible hand” directing economic activities. The success of the CAATs is directly related to the decision in 1967 to unleash the powerful forces associated with individual freedom when the government of the day adopted a “hands-off” approach. Over the years and continuing today, thousands of women and men who understand the broad mandate of the CAATs have developed, designed, re-designed, modified, and cancelled programs only to start the cycle all over again. This has been done in conjunction with local Advisory Committees and Boards of Governors made up of volunteers from the community who not only have a vested interest in the success of the programs but also have knowledge of the continuing changes which are taking place in the labour market and in their respective communities generally.


And now along comes the College Standards and Accreditation Council. The recent CSAC initiatives are not about generic education, general education, or positioning the colleges for the next century. They are about a mechanism of control. They are essentially about the struggle which is going on in the world between those who believe in free markets and competition and those who believe in centralized, controlled planning. The free market approach is not neat and tidy but it works. It's a bit like democracy; it's not perfect but it's a lot better than the alternatives.

CSAC nonetheless tells us that the colleges are at a crossroads and that what has worked well in the past will not be adequate to meet the challenges of the future. If the reference here is to the substance and content of what we do in the colleges, few will disagree. The success of the system depends, to a large extent, on its capacity to respond to changing conditions. On the other hand, if the allusion to change refers to the means by which we ensure quality, responsiveness and continued relevance, then those who believe in the forces of competition and the creative powers of the individual will have serious questions about what CSAC represents. This concern cannot be dismissed simply by referring to Vision 2000 or claiming that the Establishment Board's mandate is to implement and not to question the government's decision to proceed with CSAC. The repeated references in the Establishment Board's position paper to the effect that it is the intention of CSAC to “avoid, wherever possible, unnecessary intrusion into colleges' decision-making regarding specific curriculum and delivery” ring hollow on careful reading and reflection on what is being proposed and, most importantly, on how it will work in practice.


The issue of accountability of publicly funded institutions is valid and must be addressed. This can be done in a number of ways without the need to resort to processes and mechanisms which are intrusive and which dampen creativity, individual enthusiasm and initiative, and which run the risk of preventing the CAATs from responding quickly and effectively to changing needs. Indeed, some of the concepts envisaged by CSAC with respect to programs may in fact be better employed were they to be applied against the institutions per se (i.e. institutional performance outcomes and appropriate testing and measurement procedures). Such an approach would not only be less intrusive and costly, it would also assist the Boards of Governors in exercising their responsibilities more effectively. What is being suggested here is something which is more rigorous and meaningful than the present approach to Operational Review.

Program Standards

There appears to be some confusion with respect to CSAC's role when it comes to program standards. On the one hand, both Vision 2000 and the CSAC Establishment Board proclaim that they are after minimum standards, not standardization. At the same time, concerns are raised about: (a) the ability of students to transfer between colleges; (b) the confusion which supposedly exists among employers in the market place; and (c) variations in program hours among the colleges. These concerns can only be rectified by having CSAC impose program standardization across the system. Were that to be done, the cure surely would be far worse than the disease.

The Establishment Board has stated that “the goal of system-wide outcome standards is an attempt, on a province-wide basis, to ensure similar outcomes for similar college programs.” That seems a reasonable objective, but how do we know that is not being achieved right now? Has any research been conducted to answer this question before CSAC proceeds? Are all the similar program clusters across the province lacking in similar outcomes? Before CSAC was established, an analysis should have been carried out to determine the magnitude and the seriousness of the problems which CSAC has been created to solve. This was not done by Vision 2000. As an aside, however, it is interesting to note that Early Childhood Education is one of the pilot projects now underway as part of the CSAC activities. This area has had at least one, if not several, DACUM studies conducted in the past. Provincial program guidelines have been developed. A provincial consultative committee operated for some years and the individual college program coordinators and faculty have been very active over the years discussing curriculum, learning outcomes, teaching methodologies, field work and required teaching resources such as laboratory schools. After all these efforts, do the current ECE programs not have similar learning outcomes across the province? If the answer is no, are there reasons to believe that the process suggested for CSAC will have greater success? If the answer is yes, perhaps an alternative to CSAC is to formalize and provide financial support for program coordinators to come together at least once a year and devote a minimum of one full day to shape and share learning outcomes with appropriate input from their respective advisory committees. In this way, they will continue to take ownership and remain motivated and committed to their programs and students. Without the ongoing support and involvement of the faculty and program coordinators, all efforts to achieve the objectives identified for CSAC are bound to fail. Also, it should be remembered that the work done in ECE over the years is not unique. Identical and similar approaches have been employed in many other program areas.

The complexities and difficulties involved in producing program standards and learning outcomes are more than significantly underestimated by the Establishment Board; in fact, they are not addressed at all. The Board deals only with the “who” question, not the “how”. While it may be possible for the program standards committees to speak about learning outcomes in general terms, they cannot be expected to produce the detailed documentation required if such standards are to be used by the colleges to develop curriculum, by the review panels to assess the implementation of the standards, and as bench marks against which prior learning can be assessed. To do this properly will require a substantial increase in the number of professional persons to be employed by the CSAC Secretariat, something which cannot be justified given the current financial circumstances and the success of the present approach to program standards.

Another critical issue which the Establishment Board has failed to deal with adequately is the question of the responsiveness to changing circumstances in the labour market. Once outcome standards have been developed centrally, they tend to become inflexible and remain on the books long after they cease to be relevant. This is particularly true in those situations where considerable time and money have been expended to develop them in the first place and where a strong sense of ownership has developed on the part of the central bureaucracy. It is at this point that those close to the “action” will bump up against what will be perceived to be unenlightened interference and a lack of local autonomy to deal with reality. This problem, by the way, is not solved by having 50% of the membership on the Program Standards Committee made up of internal stakeholders. It is endemic to the centralized approach.

General Education/Generic Skills

Vision 2000 recommended that “there should be a significant increase in the generic skills and general education content of programs.” It made a limited attempt to define generic skills and general education and did not say what it meant by a significant increase.

The Establishment Board is suggesting that general education be dealt with separately from generic skills. In the recommendation from the Vision 2000 report, the two are linked together. This is an important point, particularly when it comes to quantifying what Vision 2000 meant by a significant increase. Did it mean a significant increase in general education, generic skills, or both? In the “research” conducted by Vision 2000, which led to the recommendation for a significant increase, did the external and internal stakeholders favour a significant increase in general education, as now defined by the Establishment Board, or were they responding to generic skills?

The suggestion that 30% of the curriculum will be dedicated to general education, as defined by the Establishment Board, will alter significantly the balance between the vocational and non-vocational area of the programs offered by the CAATs. In the minds of some, this will blur the distinction between the mandate of the colleges and the universities, and may result in the colleges losing their identity and, over time, their very reason for being. The strength and the public support for the CAAT system has been built on a reputation of providing practical education and training. This reputation and identity must be retained. At the same time, the recognition that the world is changing must be reflected in the programs offered. This notion is not new nor lost on those who have worked, and continue to work, tirelessly to make the Ontario college system successful.

Few, if any, will argue against the need for a balanced curriculum. CAAT graduates must possess generic skills, vocational skills, and be prepared to take their place in society as active and responsible citizens. The notion that 30% of the curriculum be devoted to teaching generic skills and general education seems appropriate. Those colleges or programs which fail to meet the guideline should be encouraged through moral suasion. If they fail to respond, is it not reasonable to assume that they will earn a reputation, over time, of not providing quality programs and that this will ultimately be reflected in declining enrolments and subsequent failure? The students and employers will vote with their feet. The difficult issue, of course, is how to determine when the 30% guideline for generic skills and general education has been met. It is not possible, other than conceptually, to compartmentalize curriculum among vocational, generic and general education. The three are interwoven. This difficulty, however, should not be used as a reason to impose arbitrary hours for one category and also exempt the same category from the test of learning outcome standards. Providing a proper climate and operating on the assumption that people are committed to doing the right thing, coupled with the notion of self-interest (if you don't meet the needs of the consumer, you are out), are powerful forces seldom recognized and acknowledged by those who favour central control.

Program Review

When it comes to the issue of program review and testing outcome standards, the Establishment Board has again dealt primarily with structure and glanced over the significant practical difficulties associated with implementation. It suggests a massive paper flow from the colleges, but it is not clear how or by whom this data will be analyzed. Will it be done by the small proposed CSAC secretariat, or by the various panels and committees made up of volunteers? Neither of these are practical solutions when the enormity of the task involved is considered.

The Establishment Board is suggesting the Program Councils will develop a series of common indicators or instruments to be used to assess the attainment and appropriateness of outcome standards. This sounds simple, but anyone who has ever been involved in this type of work knows better. If this is to be done credibly, it is an enormously complex and expensive process. Moreover, the reality is that the conclusions will be questioned and often challenged, particularly when peoples' competencies or even their livelihood are in question. This in turn will lead to time-consuming appeals. At the same time, it is not clear how the colleges will be able to respond to reviews which indicate there is a need to invest and reinvest in new technologies and capital equipment in order to meet the minimum standards. This is a recurring theme in many of the program reviews now being conducted by the colleges. The deficiencies are identified, but not resolved.


The Establishment Board concludes its position paper by stating:

“The challenge and the changes proposed by Vision 2000 and by this discussion paper are considerable. Ontario needs workers who are highly skilled, knowledgeable flexible problem solvers; and Ontario needs citizens who are broadly informed about their complex and changing world. Ontario's colleges have a pivotal role to play in serving the workers and residents of the province - a role which will demand excellence from all participants in the system.”

It then goes on to say it believes CSAC can be a focal point for fostering excellence in programming in Ontario. The purpose of this article has been to indicate that despite the best of intentions on behalf of Vision 2000 and the Establishment Board, the contrary is most likely to occur. Far too little attention has been given to the practical realities associated with the implementation of CSAC's mandate and to improving and strengthening the existing mechanisms which have served the system so well.

The CAATs have evolved, and will continue to do so, with appropriate support from the communities they serve and from the various levels of government to whom they are ultimately responsible. By continuing the tradition of decentralization and strengthening the existing mechanisms which have been so instrumental in facilitating the growth of the Ontario college system over the past twenty-five years, the success of the CAATs and their ongoing contribution to the Ontario economy will be assured.

Carl Eriksen is Dean of Applied Arts at Humber College in Etobicoke, Ontario.