If It Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It? Why Some Ontario Colleges Transition into Universities



By Monica Wice, Brock University

Ontario colleges have been and remain a vital component within the provinces higher education system (OntarioColleges.ca, n.d.,a). The 24 schools are viewed as a place to gain essential work skills, so much so that many university graduates attend college after graduating (Abraham, 2015). Additionally, a Statistics Canada 2009 report (as cited by Abraham, 2015) predicts that college enrollment will rise by 30%, or 150,000 students by 2025, proving their need.

So, I admit I was appalled when I heard that two of Ontario’s colleges were transitioning into universities. Having graduated from several colleges and universities over my lifetime, I have developed some definite opinions about the roles of each type of institution, what they have to offer, and who they serve. I also had my suspicions that money was at the centre of their reasoning for becoming universities and wanted to dig deeper to find out the “truth”.  I will admit when I am wrong and this is one of those times. What I discovered was eye opening and should be concerning to all Ontarionians.

A Little Background

In 1965, the Ontario government created community colleges in response to the need for technical training not offered at university and beyond the level existing in the secondary school system. In 2000 Ontario colleges were allowed to also offer applied baccalaureate degree programs under the Post-Secondary Education Choice and Excellence Act (PEQAB, 2009, para 2). The four-year degree programs were deemed a success and recommendations for expansion of the degree programs were made in 2004 (Colleges Ontario, n.d.). At this point, colleges were successfully offering both diplomas and applied bachelor degrees to their communities, however in 2012, colleges like Sheridan and Yukon applied to become polytechnic universities (Brown, 2012), leaving me wondering what could possibly be their reason for wanting this change.

The College Argument for Transition

I use Sheridan as a reference because I believe they may be the first of many colleges to make this transition. Back in 2012, when Sheridan college started the transition process, then president Jeff Zabudsky claimed the sole reason for the college wanting to become a university was to give its degree students an opportunity to further their education, saying, “I want every graduate to be able to carry on to grad school if they choose, but Ontario graduate schools refuse to recognize applied degrees” (as cited in Brown, 2012, p. 1).

But simply changing the name of the institution from a college to a university will not grant students access to graduate programs that predominantly look for research experience, something Sheridan adamantly says they will not focus on (Sheridan Journey, n.d.). Their refusal to comply with the research requirement, left me asking who else might benefit from this transition?

Who Benefits? The College

The fact remains that university tuition is higher than college tuition, which results in more revenue for the institution. A 2009 report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) noted that there have been significant changes in revenue sources, with a considerable shift toward tuition (Snowdon & Associates, 2009). “The amount of revenue available to institutions is a key determinant of their ability to carry out their education and research functions effectively” (p. 10). The HEQCO report further acknowledged that college programs have significantly lower tuition costs than other postsecondary options (p. 67).

According to OntarioColleges.ca (n.d.,b), the average cost of tuition for one academic year in an Ontario college diploma program is $2,400 versus $6,100 per year for a bachelor’s degree program. As an example, the total tuition costs for the 4-year Bachelor of Early Childhood Education Leadership program offered at Sheridan College is $11,664 (Sheridan College, 2017), whereas a 4-year Bachelor of Early Childhood Education offered at Brock University totals $34,015 (Brock University, 2017). So, there you have it; universities charge more, therefore get more revenue from student tuition fees. Colleges who transition must be doing it for purely monetary reasons. Right? Not so fast.

Another Possibility

Digging deeper, I discovered that the working environment for college professors is nothing like that of their contemporaries at universities. Ontario colleges were originally created with the single purpose of educating and training workers to support economic development and were never intended to be academic institutions like universities. Colleges are organized and operated as businesses, with departmental managers overseeing their workers (instructors). As Hogan and Trotter (2013) note, “the creation of colleges and institutes was an explicit attempt by provincial governments to produce a separate structure of higher education not intended to share the same historical rights and privileges as universities” (p. 73).

What this means

According to a 2013 Report on Education in Ontario Colleges (MacKay, 2013), three important problems about the teaching environment were noted. First, college professors have no say in course design, content, delivery method, or evaluation methods (p. 4). Second, faculty are educational technicians only, completely ruled by management. “It does not matter if the professor teaching a course has a Ph.D. and 20 years of experience in her field, while her manager has absolutely no relevant expertise; the manager can dictate academic terms to the faculty member” (p. 58). And finally, and most disturbing to me, is that professors have no legal ownership to their intellectual property, not their curriculum, research, or publications. Without academic freedom, “there is a profound disincentive for intellectual workers to innovate, create, and develop new knowledge. In the CAATs today, all intellectual property developed by faculty is seen as the legal property of the college that employs them” (p. 59).

This may have worked within colleges of the past that employed professional experts as instructors, but today’s colleges are filled with academics with doctoral degrees who are accustomed to independent thought and the “publish or perish” mentality. Professors who would like to move on to teach within the university environment will have to rely on those publications and their research as part of their curriculum vitae. Furthermore, the growing tendency of colleges to favour part time and contract employees has led to strikes and a growing concern that colleges are at risk of survival (Rushowy, 2017).

Why Should We Care

Should other colleges go down the same path as Sheridan and Yukon, which I suspect they will, then underrepresented and marginalized populations will be left behind. The community college has been an educational alternative for those students who are not bound for university, those looking for a more vocational trade, closer to home, at a lower cost (Berger, Motte, & Parkin, 2009, p. 17). This new trend of colleges becoming universities, in my opinion, threatens educational opportunities for all the students they are entrusted to serve.


Abraham, C. (2015, November 30). Why colleges are increasingly being seen as the smart choice. Maclean’s. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/education/college/why-colleges-are-increasingly-being-seen-as-the-smart-choice/

Berger, J., Motte, A., & Parkin, A. (2009). The price of knowledge: Access and student finance in Canada. (4th ed.). Montreal, QC: Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation.

Brock University (2017). Undergraduate tuition and fees, 2016 academic year. Retrieved from https://brocku.ca/safa/tuition-and-fees/overview/undergraduate/ug-2016/#2016-ug-arts-science

Brown, L. (2012, February 8). Sheridan wants to become a university. The Toronto Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2012/02/08/sheridan_wants_to_become_a_university.html

Colleges Ontario. (n.d.). Expand degree programs at colleges. Retrieved September 5, 2017 from http://www.collegesontario.org/news/fact-sheets/Degrees-2014.pdf

Hogan, B. E., & Trotter, L. D. (2013). Academic freedom in Canadian higher education: Universities, colleges, and institutes were not created equal. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 43(2), 68-84.

MacKay, K. (2014). Report on education in Ontario colleges. OPSEU. Retrieved from https://ocufa.on.ca/assets/2014-04_CAAT-A-Report_Education_FULL.pdf

OntarioColleges.ca (n.d.,a). Find a program. Retrieved October 1, 2017 from http://www.ontariocolleges.ca/FindProgram

OntarioColleges.ca (n.d.,b). Why choose college? Retrieved October 1, 2017 from http://www.ontariocolleges.ca/colleges/why-college

PEQAB Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board (2009). Quality of Ontario College Degrees. Retrieved September 11, 2017 from http://peqab.ca/QualityONCollegeDegrees.html

Rushowy, K. (2017, October 6). Ontario colleges and faculty to resume contract talks. The Star.com. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/queenspark/2017/10/06/ontario-colleges-and-faculty-to-resume-contract-talks.html

Sheridan College (2017). Tuition fees. Retrieved September 13, 2017 from https://www.sheridancollege.ca/admissions/fees-and-finances/academic-fees/2017-2018-academic-fees/tuition-fees.aspx

Sheridan Journey (n.d.). What is a teaching university? Retrieved September 10, 2017 from http://journey.sheridancollege.ca/?p=qa#

Snowdon & Associates (2009). Revisiting Ontario college and university revenue data. Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Revenue%20Data%20Eng.pdf




3 thoughts on “If It Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It? Why Some Ontario Colleges Transition into Universities

  1. Hi Monica, and interesting read and a topical subject area. I appreciate the symmetry to your piece — you conclude the introduction in suggesting why this should be a concern for all Ontarians and finish with the ‘so what’ argument to explain why. As for the historical background — you might be able to flesh it out a bit — the 1960s was an important period in terms of Ontario education. Bill Davis was in charge of education and in May of 1964 he was given the additional portfolio of university affairs. He also presided over the explosion on the university system (Trent, Brock, Nipissing and others) along with the establishment of the college system, which you addressed.
    In your “who benefits” section, it might be worthwhile to address that in addition to higher tuition at the university level, universities also receive more funding from the government. Why, how, under what circumstances does this exist and to what extent does it create a class-based system at the post-secondary level (the paradigm that rich people go to university, poor people go to college). Does this have any bearing on the notion that Sheridan and others want to appear gentrified and what is the impact of this transition/transformation away from the service of colleges’ original constituents (those who want specialized job training, want to stay close to home and other identifiers that you noted).
    You might also consider other schools who have made this transition. Although outside of Ontario, Cape Breton University was University College of Cape Breton a handful of years ago — what was the process through which that school went to change its identity. In Ontario, Guelph and Humber are affiliated with one another — what is the impact of that partnership on each (University of Guelph and Humber College), and where do you think that partnership might be doing in the short- or long-term future?
    Do you think that there might be any incentive for universities (especially smaller ones — Algoma, Laurentian, for example) to transition into colleges? Particularly as colleges are starting to (re)-establish their niche as career-centric places of learning, it might give them increased flexibility in terms of programming and delivery.
    Some thoughts and ideas on this topic, I hope that they’re useful for your research and writing going forward. Good luck!

  2. Monica:

    Honestly, this is such an interesting topic that I am unsure of where to begin my comments. First, the opening statistic about the rise of college enrolment could form the basis of an entire paper; maybe, “why college is the better postsecondary option in an ever-changing society.” Your blog mentions multiple reasons to suggest this claim, from the affordability of education for all students to the focus on teaching the ‘employable’ skills companies are seeking. While this claim may be far-reaching, I believe the practical education colleges offer is a necessary component of developing 21st-century citizens.

    Perhaps you could explore a collaborative approach to higher-education; theoretical education from a university and practical education from a college, simultaneously. Collaborative university and college programs could be an answer; from Brock’s website “Brock University has collaborated with a number of academic institutions to create new learning pathways that combine applied education with strong theoretical learning. Students enrolled in any of these collaborative programs will complete the requirements for a Brock University degree as well as a college diploma.” https://brocku.ca/registrar/transfer-students/articulation-agreements-new

    Maybe these collaborative programs would be an interesting component of your final paper. I am thinking that these programs would provide the theoretical knowledge base (the BA/BSc.) for students to pursue graduate programs while concurrently offering the practical knowledge (the diploma) employers will be looking for upon graduation. Could Sheridan’s transition be an attempt at restructuring their institution to include both forms of education under one roof?
    Sheridan’s transition may not completely address the affordability of postsecondary education, as the transition will assuredly result in an increase in tuition, but the enhanced funding available through the government could mitigate the discrepancy. In fact, the collaboration between universities and colleges could create opportunities for an affordable education for all students, an education based in both theoretical and practical application.

    I have provided a few resources that discuss this collaboration between universities and colleges, hopefully these will provide you with ideas for your final paper.


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