College Quarterly
Spring 1998 - Volume 5 Number 3

Preparing for the New Millennium: The Ontario College System and the View from Afar

by Ted Dunlop


The eminent educational theorist, John Dewey, once noted that "the educator by the very nature of his work is obliged to see his present work in terms of what it accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, for a future whose objects are linked with those of the present" (1938, p. 76). Ever conscious of the need to look to the future in the way Dewey suggests, the author of this article offers his impressions of the current state of the Ontario college system and comments on some of the choices facing the system. These reflections are presented from a distance, both in time and place and are prompted by a personal milestone of sorts, that is, the observance of the fifth anniversary of the author's departure from the Ontario college scene, followed by the experience of spending the past 5 years working in a college system that shares some parallels but is quite different in many key aspects. One is obviously handicapped in making observations from outside the system and having to depend on second and third hand information (much of it anecdotal in nature) from former colleagues both inside and outside the system. Although useful information has been gleaned from a number of reports, discussion papers and journal articles, the nuances and subtleties that are picked up from direct experience with the immediate environment are worth noting and need to be taken into account. At the same time, however, having offered the necessary mea culpa of someone who now very much qualifies as an expatriate, there are certain advantages in being able to look back at the system from a distance and the space of a number of years. This vantage point can lend some clarity to reflections on how the colleges have evolved in the brief thirty years of their existence and allow the author to proffer some ideas on how to best prepare for a future fraught with much uncertainty and more than its share of challenges.

What is the key issues besetting the Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology (CAATs) at this point in history? A quick perusal of the report of the Advisory Panel on Future Directions for Post secondary Education (henceforth referred to as the Advisory Panel or just Panel) offers some hints, though these are somewhat overshadowed by an enduring preoccupation with the state of the larger and more prestigious university sector (some of us still have difficulty getting past our inferiority complexes and at times can be faulted for looking at slights around every corner). However, the report does intone the need for the core mandate of the colleges to be revisited. There are strains arising from efforts to preserve the autonomy of individual colleges while, at the same time, strengthening coordination and system-wide cooperation. This debate has been going on since the advent of the system and in many respects reflects the strong ambivalence that has coloured college/government relations from the outset (both tend to view each other at times with barely disguised mistrust). Lip service is paid to the importance of establishing system-wide standards, strengthening accountability, and ensuring the highest levels of quality that are universally understood (at least within provincial boundaries). From the college perspective, however, all of this must occur without "big brother", (i.e., the provincial Ministry of Education and Training) becoming too intrusive. The tension resulting from trying to reconcile these oftentimes conflicting priorities has haunted the colleges since their inception. In addition, concerns have arisen about the meaning of a college credential, and the need to bridge the two solitudes of colleges and universities thus affording students at the college level the opportunity to savour the delights of university level education through more generous transfer options or by allowing colleges to grant applied degrees. Human resource development issues get short shrift in the work of the Panel, at least in reference to the college system. And yet, it is in this area that colleges are currently experiencing perhaps their most profound challenges--ones that will undoubtedly overshadow discussion on all other fronts. The few sentences set aside in the report by the Panel do not do justice to the magnitude of the human resource problems that are rife throughout the college system in these closing years of the century.

The great strength of the Ontario college system over these past 30 years has been the unwavering commitment to career and vocational education. The founders of the system envisaged a new post secondary option not beholden to the universities for their raison d’être. While universities may anguish over efforts to explain their mission to the masses in ways that keep faith with the noble ideal "to prepare people for the world, not just one little narrow slice of life" (Galt, 1997, p. A3), the colleges can unabashedly refer back to the 1966 publication of the "basic documents" which explains in very explicit terms the role these new institutions would play as "instruments of public policy" by preparing knowledgeable, skilled and re-skilled employees through full-time and part-time study. The groundwork was laid in the second half of the 1960s when the established network of technical institutes, vocational centres, trade schools and adult education centres were subsumed under the new college system. Legions of new faculty were hired from the ranks of business; industry, the trades and public sector organizations that would do their part in fortifying a particular culture of career based education and training. And, for the better part of the past 30 years, the colleges have reaped many benefits from this singular sense of purpose and mission. However, by this juncture in time, the system is beginning to appear a bit frayed around the edges. Wide consensus exists that this is, in fact, the case but there is little agreement on what remedies might help inject new life into our colleges. Much tinkering has happened over the past 10 to 15 years or so but with modest effects. There are parties in the system who would argue, in fact, that one of the problems is that the system has been studied to death in the past decade and what we need at this point in time is a moratorium on studies, task forces and public reviews while the system catches its breath and sorts through a flood of recommendations that have emanated from these many different sources. Without in any way wanting to denigrate the hard work of all those individuals and "stakeholder" groups who have invested so much of themselves in these exercises, perhaps it is time to pause, review and re-visit all the work that has been undertaken to date without adding any further to the weight of data already available. It also needs to be acknowledged that the financial constraints of the current decade have done much to torpedo efforts to stimulate true renewal in the system. Instead of thoughtful analysis and implementation of significant recommendations from a variety of reports generated in the past 10 to 12 years, what we have witnessed is much fiscal slashing and burning. This experience has left the colleges somewhat anemic in terms of being able to muster the necessary resources to be able to move the system as a whole in exciting new directions while holding true to the core values that guide these organizations. In fact, it has been noted in the submission of the Councils of Governors and Presidents to the Panel that downsizing cost the colleges collectively about $68 million in the 1995/96 fiscal year alone.

In reading between the lines, one can sense a certain level of defensiveness and a real sense of battle-weariness on the part of the Advisory Panel on Postsecondary Education. There is also a note of stubborn defiance in the tone of the report and some of the submissions to the Panel that is clearly illustrated by the desire to recognize and applaud the great success of the college experience in the province over the past 30 years. There are those who would go so far as to suggest that the development of the CAAT system will stand as the most significant innovation in Ontario education in this soon to end century. However, it is hard to be in a celebratory mood when one surveys a landscape littered with the debris of downsizing and its impact on the human capital within the system as colleges struggle to balance their budgets. With few if any precedents to guide the leadership within our colleges for dealing with the kind of fiscal crisis that has prevailed throughout much of this decade, the tendency has been to rely on crude and somewhat primitive devices for bringing about relief--the purging of non-unionized administrative personnel, wholesale "early retirement packages" for faculty and staff with little time to assess the true impact on programs and services, program and service cut-backs and most insidious of all, efforts to squeeze as much teaching time out of already demoralized faculty. To be charitable, none of us could have predicted the kind of devastation that the recession of the early 1990s would leave in its wake. Writing in the early 1970s, George Leonard exclaimed, "anyone who tries to draw the future in hard lines and vivid hues is a fool. The future will never sit still for a portrait. It will come around a corner we never noticed and take us by surprise" (1968, p. 139). It helps to be reminded of this message before volunteering ideas for charting a new course for our colleges, in Ontario or elsewhere. This message also provides some reassurance as we might be tempted to cast a critical eye back on the recent past when reviewing the reports and commissions charged with the daunting task of expediting renewal for the system at large.

In explaining what ails the system, it would be hard to point the finger in any one direction. Granted, we have observed college boards and management awkwardly struggling, and with few precedents to guide them, in governing and leading our institutions through such a prolonged period of crisis; but, we also have a union establishment that appears to have difficulty seeing beyond their own defensiveness and desire to hold on to their hard earned gains over the past 30 years to participate constructively in a process of renewal that might test the status quo. Somehow these solitudes will need to be bridged if the system as a whole is to pull itself out of the funk it is currently in. This is where the emphasis needs to be placed. It would also be hard to accuse the colleges of profligate spending given that funding has been somewhat constrained even since the late 1970s (a quick glance of comparative figures for the universities for the same period of time would show the colleges to be the best bargain in town in comparison). As well as funding instability continuing to cast a pall over college operations, we also need to be cognizant of the changing demographic profile of learners entering our colleges who also are forcing change in the way we do business. In this regard, it helps to be reminded, as David Foot does, that an aging population can be expected to create heightened demand for practical and applied courses, of the kind offered by colleges, rather than more theoretical courses that fall more into the bailiwick of universities (1996, p. 157). The lofty principle of "lifelong learning" gets translated into hard reality as increasing numbers of people are going to require practical training and reeducating at different stages throughout their working lives. It is a combination of some rather volatile factors that will fuel the momentum for change--the economic (driven by constricting budgets), social concerns (often subsumed under the banner of efforts to enhance access) and the sobering recognition that we have indeed moved into a new economic system that is global and information based in its dimensions. Times and conditions may have changed dramatically in the past 30 years but these forces of change add fresh meaning and purpose to the original message inherent in the "basic documents" establishing the college system in Ontario. At the end of the day, it is recognition and reaffirmation of the founding vision that may best prepare us for exerting some control over the forces of change rather than simply reacting to change as it occurs.

In an article appearing in The College Quarterly, Erika Gottlieb (1995-96) talks about the great divide between the two major models of post-secondary education and goes on to lament how this schism has long-range intellectual and political social implications. She doesn't really enunciate in a detailed way what these implications are though there seems to be a dire tone to the way she phrases her warnings. Efforts to minimize barriers to students seem to be the rationale behind this message, which is not a new one. However, if this presumes a drift towards turning our colleges into pseudo-universities by injecting a heavy dose of traditional liberal studies, it is one that needs to be challenged. Michael Skolnik (1995-96) refers to a "process of academic drift" and postulates that there isn't a great deal of documentation of the arguments in favour of degree granting for the CAATs. In fact, when we look at the migration of university graduates into our colleges (perhaps abetted by the ease with which they can move into the college scene compared to their college counterparts who face a more daunting challenge trying to move in the other direction) we might consider shifting more of our emphasis towards strengthening the significance of the college credential as the Advisory Panel proposes. The case for doing so is fortified by the rough estimate that more than 10% of college full-time enrolment is made up of university graduates. Certainly, for those in our colleges who espouse a more liberal arts orientation and feel marginalized by the status quo, there might be some comfort in being able to put forward the case for degree level study in such a way that might strengthen the precarious status of "general education" in the scheme of things. However, there are few precedents in other provinces that can be used as ammunition in trying to make such a case. In provinces like British Columbia, for instance, where universities until recently tended to be concentrated on the Lower Mainland and the southern tip of Vancouver Island, it made sense to integrate the university transfer system into the colleges from the beginning. Even the introduction of these new hybrids called "university colleges" makes sense for communities not served by the physical presence of an established university. The same cannot be said about Ontario where a network of well established universities is dispersed strategically across the province to serve most communities with a significant population base. There are a few exceptions, which might help make the case for the introduction of some version of the "university college" model into Ontario. The experience of British Columbia might be worth keeping an eye on simply in order to learn from the mistakes as well as successes of this grand experiment taking place in the context of our most westerly province.

Although the arguments are weak in terms of extending wholesale degree granting status to colleges, the case can be made that some mechanism needs to be put into place that will help reduce barriers for that select number of college graduates who may aspire to continue their studies at the degree level. Over the past 10 years there have been lots of examples--albeit somewhat fragmented--of college/university cooperation through joint academic studies, customized degree completion programs, joint program offerings and concurrent program opportunities. Ironically, Ontario colleges have experienced much greater success in extracting generous transfer credit agreement from American universities--a trend that might continue as the free trade traffic in education across boundaries continues to gain momentum. Perhaps, this new reality helps explain the sense of urgency that is permeating the debate about enhancement of university and college partnerships. A case can be made for putting in place the necessary infrastructure for integrating the numerous ventures that individual colleges have launched on their own without particular consideration of the broader impact these activities exert on the system as a whole. The establishment of the Ontario Institute for Advanced Training may help consolidate and rationalize the plethora of articulation arrangements that have sprung up in recent years and might serve, as Skolnik suggests, as "good protection against injudicious proliferation of degrees" (1995-96, p.13). Handled in a prudent manner, and following somewhat the Alberta model, the opportunity for colleges on a very select basis to offer applied degree level study may not have to result in the undermining of the value and currency of college diploma and certificate programs. Certainly, the colleges have matured to the point that the possibility of a third option can be entertained without jumping to the conclusion that colleges might repeat the precedents of Ryerson in Canada and the polytechnics in the United Kingdom in drifting towards the traditional university model for providing degree level study. At the same time, we need to be clear on what constitutes degree level study and sets it apart from what we do at the certificate and diploma levels in our colleges (a point reiterated by Skolnik in his 1995-96 article in The College Quarterly). The curriculum debate around these issues has not yet occurred, even in those jurisdictions like British Columbia where the boundaries between college and university level study have become blurred with the extension of degree granting powers to the new university colleges.

Another hot issue that has garnered much attention in recent years is that of accountability and coordinated planning. For much of their history, the Ontario colleges have been in competition with each other to varying degrees. Lip service has been paid to the need for better coordination, program rationalization and a broader approach to global planning but, ironically, it took the financial crises that have marked most of the present decade, to edge the colleges in the direction of greater cooperation in planning and rationalizing program offerings across the province. Unfortunately, it is difficult to plan in a thoughtful and planned fashion with a gun pointed to your back, a point made by the governors and presidents in their submission to the Advisory Panel and one that is clearly reflected in their statement that "it has been difficult to think contextually when the financial pressures produced by reduced provincial and federal funding have been so acute" (p. 15). However, thinking contextually is what must happen at this juncture in time and it must be done in such a way (to echo the words of the governors collectively in their submission to the Panel) that respects " the diversity of 25 institutions with wide-ranging regional requirements, different academic missions and varying profiles of students/clients, employers and the local and global communities we serve" (p. 17). The trick is to develop more frameworks for inter-college cooperation that do not add to the weight of regulation and reporting that the governors already lament as "a disincentive to innovation and resource sharing" (p. 19) or lead to the creation of new, elaborate and costly bureaucratic structures or circumscribe each college's ability to serve its immediate communities. Catchment areas have gone by the boards but there is still some need for a mechanism that prevents colleges from stumbling over each other and competing for the same clienteles. Going hand in hand with this, is the need to share basic standards for ensuring rigorous quality assessment This need was the driving force behind the establishment of College Standards and Accreditation Council (CSAC) in 1993 but, it remains to be seen how this entity can be equipped with the teeth to ensure that basic standards are subscribed to and with "outcome indicators" that actually mean something. Although the presidents join with their board colleagues in calling for less regulation accompanied by greater responsibility and accountability of governing bodies, it isn't clear what this might look like or how it differs from the status quo. An advisory committee, by its very nature and constricted by a desire that it not become highly bureaucratized, seems a weak prescription for ensuring inter-college cooperation on certain key fronts. Nor, does it make much sense for making college boards and advisory committees the principal watchdogs for ensuring accountability given that these bodies are composed of volunteers who have a variety of priorities to balance in their lives. For this reason, potential exists for information to be filtered by adroit senior managers or who may have difficulty fending off pressure from the various special interest groups ever poised to scale the ramparts at any hint of threat to existing programs.

The colleges in Ontario were established as servants of government despite the "crown corporation" status of individual colleges. They were intended to play their part in furthering the economic and social agenda of succeeding governments and have done well in serving as highly effective "instruments of public policy" (to use a phrase that has frequently been repeated over the years). In fact, the various studies and reviews going back as early as the Wright Report in the early 1970s attest to the importance various governments have placed on the role of the colleges as agents for advancing the province's social and economic policy agendas through career education and training. Over time, an uneasy truce has been established whereby individual colleges have enjoyed considerable autonomy within broad parameters set by their principal paymaster at Queen's Park. Although, there are those who might wistfully yearn for the kind of institutional autonomy that the universities are seen as enjoying (though this might readily be challenged as an assumption that bears little resemblance to reality), the colleges are at the mercy of certain forces beyond their control. This will not change as long as the provincial treasury remains the principal source of funding for college operations and there is little to suggest that this will change despite efforts to tap non-traditional sources of funding through "development" and international education initiatives, among others. In many respects, the debate emerging resembles that taking place on the political and constitutional front between federal and provincial governments across Canada. In drawing such parallels, and without yielding to the temptation to suggest another study or system-wide review, perhaps there is some merit in calling for our own version of a constitutional convention of sorts that clearly re-defines the areas of responsibility of ministry, individual colleges and the colleges as a system. Obviously, this will call for a new set of protocols that meets the following objectives:

  1. Secure stable funding for the college system that addresses issues of equity in the formulae used for both college and university sectors. Effective strategic planning at local and system wide levels is predicated on knowing what financial resources are available beyond the bounds of any one fiscal year.
  2. Development of system-wide and local infrastructures for supporting the broad application of technology and alternative delivery systems for enhancing accessibility for changing populations of learners.
  3. Development of accountability frameworks for assuring educational and training quality that clearly delineate the roles and responsibilities of the different parties involved--colleges, ministry and its adjuncts, and the various clienteles served.
  4. Development of "learner friendly" transfer agreements that expedite the movement in both directions of college and university graduates.
  5. Development of clear strictures that govern the actions and activities of colleges beyond their own localities in regards to fund raising, student recruitment, program development and training, and educational initiatives that are regional, provincial, national or international in their scope.
  6. Careful examination of a broad range of human resource management and governance issues on a number of different fronts.

By way of closing, it is this last issue that perhaps warrants more careful scrutiny because it is one that has been given short shrift in recent years. The report of the Advisory Panel devotes only 1 of its 87 pages to any kind of consideration of the complex range of human resources issues that will determine whether or not the system will rise to meet the myriad challenges it faces in the years ahead. The plethora of reports and task forces over the years has resulted in some institutional tinkering taking place but, as pointed out earlier, it is the calibre of the people working in our colleges that will determine the extent to which we are able to respond to the changing learning needs of the various populations served. This is what the continuing viability of the system hinges on. But, looking at events of recent years, it is difficult to see how the slashing and burning that has taken place is going to result in a stronger and more vigorous workforce in our colleges. Early retirement, natural attrition and downsizing of administrative personnel constitute the primitive response to these events but it does not foster a sense of optimism about the future or support the creative instincts necessary for innovation to flourish. It has been estimated that almost 2,000 staff members have exited from the college system since January 1995. The resulting "brain drain" and loss of collective talent this represents interrupts the chain of continuity with a past that the governors, among a host of others, take pains to point out in some detail over 2 pages (4 and 5) of their submission to the Advisory Panel. Damage has already been done but it may not be too late to ameliorate some of fallout from the financial crisis that marks much of this decade. However, it will take some creativity and more than a little vision (predicated on a stable and equitable funding base) to get the healing process underway.

There is a telling statement in Vision 2000 that is worth repeating here: "the colleges' ability to be effective partners must begin at home, with strong and healthy working relationships within each college and across the system" (1990, p. 147). Perhaps it is time to dust off this still powerful document and examine in more detail the myriad of complex college human resource management issues the system faces. Such an examination can't help but force us to take a hard second look at the kind of governance issues that Pitman, Ganz, Skolnik and others tried to have addressed at an earlier time. The exclusion of individual college input into the collective bargaining process is but one example of the impotence faced by individual colleges in being able to have some say in developing human resource strategies that might allow more flexible delivery of education and training than currently possible. For such to happen, there will obviously need to be some devolution of powers in a way that renewal projects-- with an emphasis on nurturing our human capital-- can be put in place. For veteran faculty, this might entail reduced teaching loads and job sharing, work based sabbaticals, time limited exchanges between teaching and administrative colleagues, mentoring opportunities provided for individuals who may aspire to leadership positions in our colleges. Succession planning in the form of a program of teaching internships might encourage the recruitment of a new generation of instructional personnel to replace the vast number of baby boomer faculty expected to retire in the next 10 to 15 years (a good antidote to dooming a whole generation of aspiring college teachers to the insecurity of serial sessional appointments). The writing is on the wall and it doesn't take another task force or report to shed light on the issues, challenges and problems endemic to the college system in Ontario. What we need at this juncture is the collective will to take action in a planned, rational and humane fashion and in a way that helps overcome much of the mistrust, cynicism and discouragement that has seeped into our collective consciousness over the course of the past decade.

Perhaps there is some merit after all in looking back at the Ontario scene from a distance of nearly 3,000 miles and an interlude of 5 years in order to see most clearly the magnitude of the issues facing a college system in crisis but one, nonetheless, that has accomplished much in its short history and holds more promise than ever.


Advisory Panel on Future Directions for Postsecondary Education. (1996). Excellence, Accessibility, Responsibility. Toronto: Ministry of Education and Training.

Councils of Governors & Presidents. (1996). The Future of Ontario Community Colleges.

Recommendations to Advisory Panel on Postsecondary Education. Toronto: The Association of Colleges of Applied Arts & Technology of Ontario.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

Foot, D. K. with D. Stoffman. (1996). Boom Bust and Echo. Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross.

Galt, V. (1997, June 28). Universities defend role as purveyors of wisdom. Globe and Mail, p. A3.

Gottlieb, E. (1995-96). The Nice Work of Reconciling the University with the Community College. The College Quarterly. 3 (2), 19-22.

Leonard, G. B. (1968). Education and Ecstacy. New York: Delacorte Press.

The Ontario Council of Regents. (1990). Vision 2000: Quality and Opportunity: A Review of the Mandate of Ontario's Colleges. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities.

Skolnik, M. L. (1995-6). Should the CAATs Grant Degrees? The College Quarterly. 3 (2), 8-15.

Dr. Ted Dunlop is currently a faculty member and department head at the University College of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia. From 1983 until 1992, he worked in the Ontario college system as program co-ordinator, chair, dean, and vice president-academic.


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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1998 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology