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College Quarterly
Spring 1996 - Volume 3 Number 3
Policy Initiatives to Transform Canada's Community Colleges
by John S. Levin

An insert to The College Quarterly (Summer, 1995) included a policy document from Ontario's Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology called “Learning-Centred Education in Ontario's Colleges.” This document, a product of the ACAATO Council of Presidents, is a provocative policy statement and is consistent with emerging official views in other provinces.

The appearance, over an eighteen-month period, of at least three major policy initiatives which have serious implications for colleges in three different provinces, may seem coincidental. But this is no coincidence. Instead, it is a product of major forces of change acting upon Canadian colleges, and policymakers are narrowly uniform in their responses to these pressures.

Government policies and initiatives to alter community colleges in Canada are not new; indeed, government initiatives are largely responsible for the creation and development of Canada's colleges (Dennison and Gallagher, 1986). But after decades of growth, external forces are pushing governments to propose major changes to these institutions. Not since the early 1980s have Canadian colleges faced such potential for transformation (Dennison and Levin, 1989), and even in the 1980s, change was more evolutionary than revolutionary. However, in the mid-1990s Canadian colleges confront not only the threat of reduced funding as a result of diminishing federal transfer payments to the provinces, but the provincial governments' proposals to connect higher education more closely to economic priorities and the demands of the marketplace (Dennison, 1995; Knowles, 1995: 184-207).

There are a host of forces acting upon the Canadian community colleges to stimulate significant organizational change from a multifunctional institution with a comprehensive curriculum, to institutions even more explicitly oriented toward training for employment than has been the historical case. The experience of Canadian community colleges since the 1960s is that they have been responsive to government and private-sector pressures to adjust to economic and workplace changes. Now, the colleges are being asked in circumstances of great financial restraint to make particularly significant changes in response to globalization and technological advances which are dramatically changing the nature of work and the skills required for work, even as these phenomena are redefining and reducing employment.

The conditions of change brought about by globalization and technological innovation are well-known to be reflected in institutions of higher education (Aronowitz and Di Fazio, 1994; Calvert,1993; Slaughter and Leslie, 1996).

To what extent will these external influences affect Canada's colleges? For three and one-half decades, Canada's community colleges have maintained a consistent mission which provides education and training to adults across the country, increasing access to educational opportunities, and meeting the needs of local communities. Furthermore, the Canadian community college has tenaciously emphasized its primary function teaching, which includes the imparting of knowledge and learning, not simply skill acquisition.

Without appropriate responses to external forces, Canadian colleges may forfeit their traditional role and become economic and political instruments, directed to serve primarily as trainers for employment. This potential alteration suggests that there are significant threats:

  1. to programs not specifically targeted to employment or workforce training such as adult education, basic education, special education, academic education, and community education;
  2. to services such as library, counseling and community development, and
  3. to working conditions of employees such as reduced wages, benefits and layoffs, as a condition of an altered mission.

I focus here on white papers from Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. These include “An Agenda for Change: Draft White Paper” (Province of Alberta 1994), “Charting a New Course: A Strategic Plan for the Future of British Columbia's College, Institute and Agency System,” (Province of British Columbia, 1995), and the above-referenced “Learning-Centred Education in Ontario: A White paper prepared for the Council of Presidents” (Province of Ontario, 1995).

These documents are the outcomes of three provincial policy bodies. In Alberta, the body's composition is unspecified. In British Columbia, it is comprised of representatives of college faculty, administrators, board members and government officials. In Ontario, it is senior college administrators. These policy-makers strategic purpose, as made evident from their white papers, not the preservation of institutional cultures and values, the development of individual colleges, or responsiveness to the community. Instead, policy makers portray community colleges as instruments of economic growth. Community colleges are presented as vehicles for economic prosperity and social well-being for the province's citizens in the cases of Alberta and British Columbia, although in Ontario, their role is largely unspecified.

The white papers are short on philosophy and rationale, yet expansive on recommendations following closely from the environmental trends identified by the authors, which were viewed as placing considerable pressure upon the college systems to change. The p[olicy-makers' recommendations are presented as measures to combat these pressures, yet their intentions and expected outcomes are not clearly articulated. The theme of change dominates the understanding of the environment in the documents and the themes of efficiency and productivity are underlined in the recommendations.

The theme of change is announced dramatically in the documents: in Alberta, adult education is “at a crossroads,” while in British Columbia, “environmental forces are creating unparalleled demands on the college, institute and agency system,” and in Ontario, the colleges are “in a period of transition.” The economy, the workplace, the workforce, learners themselves, educational technology, knowledge about learning itself, and the amount of funding available to public institutions are all noted as in a state of flux.

Strategies to cope with this dynamic environment are largely aimed at reducing costs and serving economic and employment needs.

In both Alberta and British Columbia, recommendations include a focus on enabling citizens to participate in the workforce, with colleges emphasizing programs that emphasize economic needs and employment preparation. In Ontario, the emphasis is on a “learning-centred environment,” which is a newspeak proxy for efficiency, in which the white paper asks: “Can we redesign a college education so that there is adequate funding for effective student learning?”

Thus, the principle strategy recommended in Ontario is to transform curriculum and instruction, and eventually to “redesign” not only college education but the colleges themselves. In British Columbia, the emphasis is upon “a revitalized public system,” which is a co-ordinated alliance of all education providers, including skill development agencies and private institutions as well as elementary and high schools, colleges and universities. Efficiency in British Columbia is also stressed, and streamlining of operations, sharing of resources and expertise, and implementing accountability processes are noted in the document.

In Alberta, “a renewed system of adult learning” will be accomplished through moving more responsibility for education and training to individual learners, and this means that a higher percentage of postsecondary educational costs will be born by the student and that there will be co-ordination between institutions in programming so as to avoid duplication of services. Finally, Alberta will establish a $47 million fund available on a competitive basis among public and private institutions to expand student access to education particularly earmarked for workforce preparation.

The strategies of the provincial white papers are directed at coping with decreasing public monies available for postsecondary education and at altering the colleges to provide increased workforce training and a more explicit economic role. Rather than manipulating the environment or reinterpreting external forces of change so that they are compatible with institutional goals, the white papers have re-conceived the colleges.

These documents view Canadian colleges not as educational organizations, but as instruments of economic policy and workforce development, and as institutions which are expected to re-make and re-structure themselves even as Canadian global education budgets are cut. These proposals are not organizational strategies needed to cope with the external influences of globalization and technologism, as they purport; instead, they call for nothing less than a profound alteration of the goals of college education and the complete restructuring of the ways in which colleges organize themselves and structure academic labour.

Restructuring the colleges to deliver what the policymakers have identified as a leaner, meaner, and somehow more relevant (to what?) new product means substantial organizational change. That includes shifts in resource allocations, the closing of departments and programs, the creation of new departments and programs, substantial change to academic labour, the establishment of new organizational forms, and new or re-designed administrative structures.

Either explicitly or implicitly, the white papers propose all of these actions. Their authors have accepted, apparently without question, that globalizing forces like internationalizing markets and telecommunications innovation somehow require 'high-productivity' economic strategies, and that greater control over what and how the colleges organize and teach is needed to cope with these changes. That is a short-sighted and reflexively defensive response.

Thus, as the state redefines its mission to reflect neo-conservative orthodoxy, the colleges can be altered to serve the state. Restructuring the community colleges of Canada from the perspective of the white papers is not strategic adaptation, but rather organizational transformation fundamentally altering the purposes of these institutions.

In considerations of public policy by college administrators and governments alike, Canadian community colleges are increasingly seen as economic and political instruments of the state. As governments are the principal funding sources for the colleges, the theory of resource dependency (Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978) is relevant to understanding the effects of this newly closer direction explicitly linking the colleges to public policy. These policy initiatives, taken in response to external social and economic trends the effects of which are often only dimly understood, are likely to bring fundamental change to the ways in which Canada's colleges serve their students and their constituents. And all too often, these changes ignore the internal dynamics and goals of individual institutions, the needs of students and communities, and the traditional missions and goals of Canadian colleges.


Aronowitz, S., and W. Di Fazio (1994). The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Calvert, J. (1993). Pandora's Box: Corporate Power, Free Trade and Canadian Education. Toronto: Our Schools/Our Selves Educational Foundation.

Dennison, J., ed. (1995). Challenge and Opportunity. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Dennison, J. and P. Gallagher (1986). Canada's Community Colleges. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Dennison, J., and J. Levin (1989). Canada's Community Colleges in the Nineteen Eighties. Willowdale, Ontario: Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

Knowles, J. (1995). “A Matter of Survival: Emerging Entrepreneurship in Community Colleges in Canada” in J. Dennison, ed. (1995).

Pfeffer, J. and G. Salancik (1978). The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependency Perspective. New York: Harper and Row.

Slaughter, S. and L. Leslie (1996). Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

John S. Levin was a college instructor and administrator in British Columbia 1970-1993, and is now with the University of Arizona.