College Quarterly
Summer 2008 - Volume 11 Number 3

The Quest for "Yes"

by William B. Calder


Higher education institutions play an increasingly significant role in addressing societal challenges, whether grounded in technological, educational, social, or economic domains.  Funding and operational relationships between these institutions and all levels of government are changing due to a number of driving and restraining forces.  It is clear that a different type of working relationship is needed between government and educational institutions, like the relationships developed with other funding providers.  The current ‘Quest for Yes’ approach to systemic solutions needs to be replaced by a more business-like working relationship, including improved role definitions and decision making structures in government so that its broad social and economic agenda can be continually addressed by higher education institutions.

The Quest for 'Yes'

Canada’s system of colleges and technical institutes has evolved over many decades and is not only a remarkable educational accomplishment in its own right, but a true social and economic achievement as well.  For the most part, post-secondary education has enjoyed unprecedented levels of public support.  In particular, stakeholder opinion has viewed it as a virtual panacea for many of today’s society’s ills.  We know, for example, that an educated public is less reliant on social programs and other forms of government support; there are lower unemployment rates and as a whole there exists a stronger economy (Calder, 1999). 

It is often characteristic of society and its government (at all levels) that whenever it identifies a function or service which it considers to be essential for its citizenry, it establishes an institution for the purpose of performing that function or service in an ordered manner.  Higher education (or tertiary education) is just such an established function and as such, it has become one of our most institutionalized functions in western society.  Higher education institutions suffers from the basic weakness of every established institution — that is, over time they slowly become overly regulated or, as some would describe it, the ‘hardening of the policies’ which govern its actions.

While many important societal issues can be addressed by higher education (e.g. sustainability) as supported by government, there continues to be compelling questions around these issues especially as they relate to government and its partnership with higher education. 

One important query that rises above many others is to consider the question “what is truly needed to improve a government and higher education relationship, particularly a business relationship?”  The assumption, of course, is that all relationships can be improved, as is the case here.

It is becoming increasingly clear in the halls of higher education that the ’means‘ of government may become much more important than the ’end‘, that is ongoing bureaucratic (government) processes can sometimes dominate relationships over any meaningful progress; in other words prolonged input (sometimes referred to as ’analysis paralysis‘) without substantive output; and of course endless dialogue over any significant ’moving forward‘ type relationship development.  The major objective of this inaction, it seems, is the preserving of systemic processes rather than addressing critical institutional requirements.  Self-preservation becomes the modus operandi for all those involved.

However, a true business relationship, which is being advocated here, requires a meaningful ’ends and means‘ dialogue between higher education and government personnel.  Although there are undoubtedly bureaucrats, institutional administrators, governors, staff, and faculty who are not prepared to acknowledge such a phenomenon, the institutionalization of higher education is becoming increasingly evident.

Society, through its government, creates institutions to solve problems.  As we move forward and develop, so the nature of our problems changes.  But the institutions themselves and the government that creates and maintains them are often unable to change because of internal processes, outdated policies, or worse yet an unwillingness to change because of antiquated attitudes to adjust to new realities.

Often, the typical response to significant change has been to create yet another institution.  Thus, when the traditional university could not cope with the rapidly expanding need for access to post-secondary education, the political machinery created colleges, institutes, and other educational agencies.  This development led in some provinces to establish community-based skills centres, the creation of hybrid institutions called university-colleges, as well as legislation to establish new degree providers, among other advances. 

However, given the existing situation in higher education demanding broad changes, as we move ahead we could ask ourselves “what kind of institutions will be established next to take up where our current higher education system leaves off?”

To the earlier question of “what is needed in higher education?” the answer is really a dynamic system with increased flexibility.  Business relationships are generally based on customized or individualized approaches to education and training.  All of us are looking for a system that can remain flexible and responsive enough to provide learners with the particular type of education they want, when they want it, and where they want it.  As we know in higher education, learners will no longer support an educational system that takes it upon itself to decide what form of education they ought to have.  Clearly, the focus is to produce learning not just provide teaching in our higher education system.

Higher education was primarily created for the expressed purpose of meeting the changing post-secondary education needs of society.  Some may argue that unless the system moves beyond its current narrow range of flexible options then an improved business relationship will not take place.  The ability to survive and thrive will surely depend on a willingness to adjust quickly to changing needs (thus increased flexibility) as supported by new policies and transparent practices of government and the stakeholders that benefit from Canada’s provincial education systems.

From time to time government creates plans to help move its political and social agenda along.  Whatever they call those plans, the expressed purpose is to provide important guidance for the development of the system’s policies and practices.  However, there is a growing belief that an improved business relationship needs new parameters for public policy development which are intended to add value, depth and scope on the future of higher education.  Fundamentally, systemic transformational change is required which involves redefining existing policies and developing new ones that address lasting, sustainable restructuring for a preferred future.  All of which supports a higher level of confidence for an improved business relationship.

Clearly identified parameters can form a business framework when establishing future public policies and practices in higher education.  Educational decision-making then should be based on transparent policy parameters rather than on political expediency.  For example, some new parameters for an improved business relationship in higher education might centre around access with success metrics, as well as, an increasing recognition of the role that higher education plays in community, business/industry and economic development.

All provinces and its citizens require vibrant and continuously improving higher education systems.  It is anticipated that future policies and legislation which serve to shape the system, be based on a clearly defined framework and on public expectations.

Coupled with these working parameters is a related topical issue to clearly defining the roles of government workers.  Role clarity has eluded many of us who work directly in the trenches of higher education.  This clarity would address the ‘Quest for Yes’ or who really can say ‘yes’ to the various educational proposals and constructive ideas that institutions submit to government personnel.

It is a big issue indeed because much of an institution’s precious time and effort goes into this activity, which some educational leaders would argue takes away from its core business.  The ‘Quest for Yes’ has been an interesting and often frustrating undertaking by individuals that deal with the system.  Often in the quest for a firm ‘thumbs up,’ or a ‘nod of the head,’ or a reassuring ‘yes’ from government, institution personnel encounter bureaucrats that can only say ‘no’ to institutional ideas, or revenue generating ideas, or sound proposals to systemic solutions.  Not to be deterred, there is an ongoing institutional search for the elusive civil servant who has a ‘yes’ mandate in his/her job description.

We learn all too quickly who can say ‘no’ to our requests (it is believed by some educational leaders that many individuals are only authorized to say ’no’) but the challenge is to find who can really say ‘yes.’  We have all heard the expression “what part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand.”  Some of us can also identify with the expression “what part of ‘yes’ makes you think that your proposal has been approved”.  Sometimes it is layers of ‘yes’ that is the frustrating issue.  It is important to note that once that ‘yes’ person is found then all others become individuals to be avoided or circumvented in the pursuit of positive solutions to institutional or systemic problems.  This exercise alone becomes one of life’s lessons from a career in higher education.

While the critical issues in higher education have not been exhausted, their resolution does serve to further the dialogue by all those who are concerned with a thriving and sustainable higher educational system.


Calder, Wm. B. (1999). Securing BC’s Future – An Advanced Education Perspective. (Paper presented in May 1999 at Annual AECBC Conference and AGM, Justice Institute, New Westminster, BC)

William B. Calder is Provost and Vice President Academic at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, AB, Canada. He can be reached at:


• 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.
Copyright ©
2008 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology