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The Purpose of Higher Education: Three National Studies

First published on ActiveHistory.ca on NOVEMBER 5, 2013
By Roberta Lexier

In recent months (years, really) universities in Canada have come under sustained attack. Provincial governments, especially in Alberta and Ontario, have dramatically reduced financial support for higher education and have publicly demanded that universities solely contribute to economic growth and development through their utilitarian functions. These demands are based on a particularly narrow view of the role of universities.

Conflicts over the purpose of higher education are not new. My research into Sixties student movements in Canada, for instance, demonstrated how developments in the post-World War II period, including increasing funding from federal and provincial governments, a more utilitarian focus, and the perception of universities as, in historian Philip Massolin’s words, “the focal points for the continued material and technological advancement of society,” led to significant discussions regarding their role in the post-World War II Canadian context.

Along with often heated debates within universities themselves, national studies were also undertaken to try to understand the issues and make recommendations for the future. The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, generally referred to as the Massey Commission, concluded in its 1951 report that universities encourage cultural communication between the provinces, supply the trained individuals and expertise necessary for continued economic growth and prosperity, and contribute to the development of a cultural and intellectual community. They were the “nurseries of a truly Canadian civilization and culture.” The Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Prospects (the Gordon Commission), which released its findings in 1957, insisted that universities are “the source of the most highly skilled workers whose knowledge is essential in all branches of industry” and are central to the “expanding and increasingly complex economy.” Responding in part to these two Royal Commissions, a report published in 1965 by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) known as the Bladen Report, highlighted the personal benefits that individuals could obtain through postsecondary education. “[B]y this greater concern for the individual,” the report argued, “we will surely come nearer to achieving the ‘good life.’” These three national reports emphasized different reasons why universities were important, including cultural development, economic expansion, and personal advancement, and together reflected an increasing belief in the value of postsecondary education in Canada.

To a large extent, governments seemed to accept the positions put forward in these reports and provided increased and relatively stable funding for universities in the decades that followed. They also allowed and encouraged institutions to develop a wide range of programs that could contribute to economic, cultural, and personal development in varied ways. However, as Paul Axelrod has clearly explained in his book Scholars and Dollars: Politics, Economics and the Universities of Ontario, 1945-1980 (1982), public support of higher education began to erode once these benefits came into question. Thus, by the 1990s, governments began to withdraw their financial support and began to question the role of these institutions in Canadian society. These challenges have only increased in recent months (and years).

While the context within which universities in Canada operate has changed significantly since these reports were undertaken, they are nevertheless valuable contributions to important debates about the value and purpose of higher education. Ultimately, there are numerous ways that postsecondary education benefits both individuals and the wider society and it is fundamentally important that we continue to discuss the place of these institutions in our society. These debates are increasingly necessary as universities face persistent threats from provincial governments intent on reducing their fiduciary responsibilities and shaping programs and courses to fit their particular, often short-sighted, practical goals.

robertaRoberta Lexier is an Assistant Professor in the Department of General Education at Mount Royal University. Her dissertation, titled “The Sixties Student Movement in Canada: Three Case Studies,” explored the creation, evolution, and eventual decline of student activism at the University of Toronto, University of Saskatchewan Regina Campus (now University of Regina), and Simon Fraser University in the 1960s. Her current research focuses on social activism and social change from a variety of perspectives in an effort understand how and why individuals come together, as well as what tactics might be most successful to effect social change.