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“Getting it done” Ontario’s agenda for college education

July 20, 2023

8-minute read

I don’t think bringing an arts degree is necessarily the criteria [sic] to go to Ontario Police College, and to be a cadet I think it’s our whole life experience that we bring. I’m really excited that by removing the barrier of a university or college degree will encourage people who have these life experiences to come forward.

—Solicitor General Michael Kerzner

The Ontario government’s prioritizing the demands of the marketplace came into even sharper relief with two recent policy moves in education. Ontario students will now be allowed to start apprenticeships after Grade 11, getting credit for their high school diploma through trades training. And more recently, the premier announced that—to boost recruitment and get “more boots on the ground”—a post-secondary degree or diploma would no longer be a requirement for police officers.

Both decisions speak to the ideological direction of this government, and the conflating of education with training and training with work. But they are also linked to the evolution of the college system in Ontario, and its place in the broader post-secondary education sector.

Ontario’s colleges: a brief history

Following World War II, demands for change in post-secondary education (PSE) became sudden and jolting. Post-war (and post-depression) capitalism adapted Keynesian economics, adopted the welfare state, accommodated popular pressure for upward mobility, and boosted cold-war anxieties, as technological innovation ushered out the elitism of Ontario universities and encouraged mass education in new, expanded facilities.

A larger, more equitable, and more practical PSE system was required and led to the expansion and creation of several new universities. The postindustrial, high-tech society was imminent.

In 1965, then-Education Minister Bill Davis went further. Universities would still grow, but he created, almost ex nihilo, an equivalent number of colleges of applied arts and technology (CAATs). They would be affordable and oriented toward applied rather than theoretical knowledge, but they would maintain academic standards roughly equivalent to undergraduate university programs.

Unlike American junior colleges, they would be “stand-alone,” not “feeder” institutions. By provincial mandate, about 40% of the curriculum in all diploma programs in all colleges was required to be in the liberal arts. The goal was to create immediately employable, communicatively competent, socially aware, and politically responsible citizens for the new “high-tech economy.” If the CAATs fell short of the Gramscian ideal of producing “worker-intellectuals,” neither would colleges be mere trade schools.

Davis’ ideal was short-lived.

Almost from the outset, but certainly after college faculty joined the Ontario Public Service Employees Union in 1972 (Roberts, 1994, p. 137-140), the social purpose and academic status of the CAATs became subjects of controversy. By the later 1980s, following the first faculty strike in 1984, successive provincial inquiries (Skolnik, Marcotte & Sharples, 1985; Pitman,1986; Gandz, 1988) identified the “complete unworkability of an ‘industrial’ or ‘military’ model of management [and] a continued lack of faculty participation in academic decision-making that would be catastrophic” (MacKay, 2014, p. 26).

At issue were college governance and academic freedom. Faculty grew restless partly because of the increasingly corporate culture and partly because of the growing neglect of the CAAT’s original ideals. Wholly within the liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill, the colleges seemed dedicated to the proposition that democracy would thrive and prosperity would follow if the middling and working-class citizens learned to exercise electoral power wisely through both avocational and vocational education. So, among the CAATs’ founding principles, these came first: “they must embrace total education, vocational and avocational…[and] they must develop curricula that meet the cultural and occupational needs of the student”. A ratio was specified: the curriculum of every student in every CAAT diploma program would include 40% vocational, 20% “related theory,” and 40% in liberal arts.

The rise of neoliberalism

Unfortunately, neoliberal ideology was also growing and began pressing the whole of PSE toward a competitive, corporate model. Both colleges and universities struggled to increase their “market share “of “customers.” Far from the original optimism of the early Davis years, the 1990s witnessed the transition to a “post-secondary sector characterized by underfunding, intense competition, privatization, internationalization, job-deskilling, online learning, rising tuitions, the unbundling of faculty work, and the casualization of labour” (MacKay & Devitt, 2021, p. 3).

The spectre of the digital diploma mills (Noble,1999) yielded to the academic equivalent of discount department stores of knowledge with associate professors transformed into intellectual versions of superstore “associates”. The CAAT mandate faded further with the advent of large numbers of contingent faculty on campus.

Faculty morale plummeted partly due to the adoption of a managerial model that resisted academic freedom and administration/faculty co-determination and partly because of a lack of clarity about what the colleges were for.

Colleges added baccalaureate degrees for example, one-year certificates in financial planning or corporate communications to students with accredited B.Com or even MBA degrees. Recently, partnership deals have been struck allowing students with CAAT degrees to undertake MA studies at Northeastern University in Massachusetts or the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.

Faculty morale plummeted partly due to the adoption of a managerial model that resisted academic freedom and administration/faculty co-determination and partly because of a lack of clarity about what the colleges were for.

In 2017, matters came to a head. The longest faculty strike in Ontario’s history not only shuttered the colleges for five weeks, but surprised Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government when the employer’s “final” offer was rejected by 86% (Doughty, 2018; MacKay & Devitt, 2021). Legislated back to work and subjected to compulsory arbitration, college faculty demands were validated when Arbitrator William Kaplan’s award provided academic freedom and established a task force to suggest reforms to college governance and precarious employment. The sense of satisfaction was temporary.

“Getting it done”

The Progressive Conservatives won provincial political power in June, 2018, garnering a majority with 40.8% (17.8% of eligible voters). Upon taking office, Premier Doug Ford initiated a caribou-in-a-ceramics-shop approach to policy making (and unmaking) (Doughty, 2021). And while he did not invent the problems of the Ontario colleges, he made them his own and made them worse.

The premier has made clear he is no fan of “academia.” After one month at Humber College where he complained he was “bored silly in the lectures,” he quit and went to work in the family business, “an option available to very few Ontarians” (Borins, 2018), which allowed him to inherit, with his brothers, his father’s lucrative printing business and deep conservative party connections.

It would be easy to claim that the premier is not totally driven by right-wing ideological convictions. Yet even his apparent friendship with Chrystia Freeland and occasionally friendly dealings with Justin Trudeau are rooted in neoliberalism’s disruptive, transactional, market-driven precepts wherein collective well-being and the common weal carry little weight. Libertarian today, authoritarian tomorrow, this inconsistency and cunning fits nicely with the essence of neoliberalism which is paleocapitalism (primal Adam Smith sans the moral philosophy).

The rhetoric of cost-efficiency embraces regulation, hierarchy and monopoly to transform college educational policy. The resulting marketing of education is destabilizing the college system by lowering educational standards and replacing education with labour-ready training.

Recent proposed changes for the colleges reveal a politicized administrative agenda based on an amalgam of neoliberal and neoconservative ideology. The rhetoric of cost-efficiency embraces regulation, hierarchy and monopoly to transform college educational policy. The resulting marketing of education is destabilizing the college system by lowering educational standards and replacing education with labour-ready training.

The infamous slogan of “getting it done” alleges to speak to a concern for the people of Ontario; however, a closer look at the economic plan for post-secondary education paints a different picture. After obtaining the first majority mandate, the Ontario government instituted a 10% cut in 2019 to the budgets of colleges and universities, followed by three annual financial freezes that resulted in a decrease of 30% of funding when factoring in inflation (Cohn, 2023a).

In addition, there have been various systematic cuts and defunding initiatives, such as a cap on the number of students the government supports (Cohn, 2023b). Not only has Ontario actively defunded post-secondary education for many years, but funding problems are exacerbated by the fact that Ontario lagged behind the rest of the country in PSE spending for more than a decade. In 2017-18, Ontario only spent 0.7% of its gross domestic product, well behind Newfoundland-Labrador and Quebec (both at 1.4%). (Canadian Federation of Students, 2021). This orchestrated crisis has resulted in institutional retrenchment at the University of Guelph, for example, which recently announced the cancellation of 16 programs, mostly in the sciences (Cohn, 2023b).

Deskilling and devaluing

With a decline of operational expenditures for Ontario colleges from 75% in 1967 to 30% in 2020, the provincial Auditor General, Bonnie Lysyk, highlighted in her 2022 annual report the fact that international students currently account for 30% of enrolment and 68% of tuition fees.

Under the guise of making substantive changes in educational policies to improve access to college programs, the provincial government has revealed that the intention is to fill gaps in employment of law enforcement recruits as well as to deliver the province’s infrastructure plan regarding the construction of 1.5 million homes by 2031.

But the pedagogical plan is no less disconcerting and will result in changes in student recruitment and training that essentially bypass key components of a college education.

The first example involves alterations to the recruitment and training for large numbers of students entering college trade programs. Students will be allowed to enter 100 skilled trades programs after grade 11 without graduating from high school. Some 30 credits from a Certificate of Apprenticeship can be credited towards earning an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. In anticipation of these and other changes to trades’ programs, training has been removed from the integrated colleges and university portfolios under Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education, and placed under Minister Monte McNaughton’s jurisdiction in Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development. Trade specialists have noted that “soft skills” are needed in these occupations including organizational capabilities, customer communication, marketing, and financing, that are lacking in the province’s plan for the trades.

While the provincial government is reducing the requirement to enter the trades; several Ontario colleges have recently claimed polytechnical status. In Canada, the label “university” is protected under government provision, but titles such as “college” and “polytechnical institute” can be adopted by any public or private organization. So, Polytechnics Canada now includes seven CAATs (Algonquin, Conestoga, Fanshawe, George Brown, Humber, Seneca, and Sheridan) plus six established polytechnical institutions (British Columbia Institute of Technology, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Saskatchewan Polytechnic, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and Red River College Polytechnic). Polytechnics Canada suggests such organizations provide advanced technical education that is industry-responsive.

Ontario’s rush to designate several colleges as polytechnics highlights the provincial government’s approval of a cheap and quick transformation of colleges to a trades’ agenda.

In the tradition of world-renowned, polytechnical institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S., program offerings are in civil, electrical, mechanical and automotive engineering with 129 bachelor degrees and a faculty ratio of 8:1 students. And the prestigious German University of Mannheim offers degrees and doctorates equivalent to U.S. bachelor and master’s degrees.

Ontario’s rush to designate several colleges as polytechnics highlights the provincial government’s approval of a cheap and quick transformation of colleges to a trades’ agenda. It may also foretell the transfer of funds among some universities and colleges, in addition to transforming funding within colleges. The second example of the Ontario government’s heightened vocational agenda for the colleges involves changes to law enforcement programs. Ontario previously required that a law enforcement candidate have a college diploma or university degree, supplemented by specific training by police associations regarding requirements for the job. For decades, college law enforcement programs were offered that required vocational courses as well as courses in Canadian government and politics, public administration, psychology, sociology, and several English and liberal arts electives— courses consistent with the CAATs’ foundational mandate for a holistic education.

Ontario’s new approach not only eliminates the necessity of PSE qualifications, applicants no longer require a high school diploma to enter a police training program. Instead, candidates can enter the Ontario Police College (whose mission is the “pursuit of business excellence”) in Aylmer Ontario after Grade 12 and will be further induced to do so with a waiving of the $15,450 tuition fee for a 13-week course (Martin, 2023, April 25).

In 2017, University of Western Ontario sociologists recommended to the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development that the work of police officers required extensive educational preparation. They suggested that the complex job calls for highly qualified, diverse candidates with an understanding of the world, the development of critical thinking, problem solving, cultural competence, and communication skills, as well as an understanding of research, data analysis, and policing models (Kalya & Peladeau, 2017).

In lowering the educational requirements for policing, the Ontario government has deskilled the profession with potentially dire consequences.

Education consists of more than vocational training. It prepares students for citizenship in a democracy. A robust college system that embodied both was Bill Davis’ dream—but “getting it done” seems, at least for now, to have won the day.

Topics addressed in this article

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