1208 A multitude of universities

Postsecondary Education in British Columbia: Public Policy and Structural Development, 1960-2015
by Robert Cowin

Vancouver: UBC Press, 2019
$34.95 / 9780774838344

Reviewed by Ken Coates


Post-secondary education is a controversial topic in British Columbia. From failed attempts to revive Notre Dame University in Nelson to the decision to open the University of Northern British Columbia, from the endless and largely unimaginative debates about tuition fees and the province’s financial reliance on international students, to community-pleasing decisions to build new facilities, open new campuses or transform community colleges into polytechnics and universities, post-secondary education has played an outsized role in provincial public affairs. The province now has an impressive network of research universities, degree-granting teaching institutions, specialized institutions, and traditional community colleges. It is an expensive and comprehensive system that, to be clear, continues to serve British Columbia extremely well.

Robert Cowin, once the director of institutional research and planning at Douglas College, takes a systems approach to the study of the province’s post-secondary institutions. He pays welcome attention to private and boutique campuses, reviews the development of the public system, and examines the advanced education offerings with a view to social justice, marketization, and human capital formation. The book is, in the manner of most public policy studies, a rather plodding effort; the unique personalities, often intense conflicts, and controversial decisions involved in the management of PSE in British Columbia are given short shrift or are skipped entirely. The result is a book that knowingly and unapologetically emphasizes structure and process over personality and politics, an approach that necessarily masks some crucial dynamics in the evolution of post-secondary institutions.

Notre Dame University, Nelson, which operated from 1963 to 1984. Postcard (circa 1967) courtesy HipPostcard

The book is clearly laid out and nicely executed. The first part of the book lays out the author’s approach, describes the BC post-secondary system, and outlines the theoretical and scholarly context for the study of post-secondary education institutions. The bulk of the book divides the period from 1960 to 2015 into three sections: Clear Intentions (1960 to 1979), which emphasized the growth of the three research institutions and the integration of the vocational schools with community colleges, Assumptions Challenged (1980-99), which saw creative collaboration between governments and educators and which produced the emergence of the university college model and such new institutions as TechBC, Royal Roads, and Trinity Western, and Cynicism (2000-2015), which saw the fragmentation of the system. Like any broad categorization, this periodization lacks subtlety. It focuses almost exclusively on the institutional level and does not describe intra-institutional innovations or developments in detail.

The author’s theoretical approach is easy to follow and avoids the ‘preachiness’ that often dominated studies of post-secondary education. He weaves discussions of social justice, human capital formation, and marketization throughout the book and, although his preference for social inclusion runs through the book, he takes care not to be overly critical of the more market-driven forces that he describes as dominating 21st century education. In the concluding chapter, Cowin focuses on conceptual and theoretical concerns more than provincial policy and processes. This section includes important ideas about differentiation, private versus public benefits from PSE, and government-institutional relations. He seeks, in the main, to encourage readers to see beyond institutional boundaries and to view post-secondary education from a systems perspective.

The University of Victoria, early 1970s, at its Gordon Head campus. Photo courtesy Vintage Victoria
Simon Fraser University, circa 1970, designed by Arthur Erickson. Courtesy HipPostcard

Cowin adopts a strong social justice orientation to his work and clearly favours the late 20th century emphasis on expanding access to previously under-served and ignored populations and regions and the questioning of traditional models and openness to innovation in institutional design. He is clearly less impressed with the fee-seeking and institution-first approach that he describes as “marketization.” He connects these transitions to the priorities of the provincial governments and political leaders and the broader societal priorities.

It is fascinating to read a book that not just intersects with one’s life but describes the policy environment of the institutions that shaped my career. I have had fairly extensive experience across the sector in British Columbia. I earned both my Bachelor of Arts (History) and my PhD (History) at the University of British Columbia. My first tenure-stream position was in the Department of History at the University of Victoria. I was subsequently the founding Vice-President (Academic) at the University of Northern British Columbia, a post that involved extensive and, in my experience, productive relationships with the provincial college system. Later, after time in Saskatchewan, I was involved with both the initial work on Sea to Sky University (subsequently renamed Quest) and did consulting work for a time with several private sector colleges serving international students. Through my administrative service, I had regular (now dated) contact with senior provincial officials and politicians and was exposed to the quixotic nature of provincial decision-making and public debate on advanced education.

An aerial view of the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). Photo courtesy UNBC

Cowin does not delve into these public and political conversations in depth. Indeed, his short generalizations and descriptions of individual decisions tell much less than is required about the background to these processes. The discussion about the emergence of UNBC — an idea that was tolerated more than embraced by the three research universities, disliked by most politicians outside the North, hotly contested by college faculty unions and their supporters in the North, and caught up in the transition from the Social Credit Party government to the New Democratic Party administration — is perfunctory at best and misses the opportunity to provide important insights into the public policy and political processes surrounding Post-secondary education. The different approaches taken by the Social Credit and NDP governments to the formation and management of university and college boards alone is worthy of discussion. Similarly, people familiar with the story of the founding and disappearance of the Technical University of British Columbia will be more puzzled than informed by Cowin’s limited discussion of the institution’s brief history. The emphasis on political processes ignores the internal dynamics and lost opportunities in the TechBC experiment. Similarly, the study underplays the role of faculty unions, particularly the Confederation of Faculty Associations of British Columbia and Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C., in lobbying both governments and their institutions and promoting union perspectives with the public. The faculty unions have been a real force for — and against — change in the British Columbia system.

Cowin does a much better job discussing the structural and approval processes designed to protect the integrity of post-secondary education in British Columbia. While the analysis of groups like the BC Council on Admissions and Transfers is brief, it correctly underscores the quality assurance aspects of provincial oversight. The discussion of institutional approval processes, including an all-too perfunctory overview of a lengthy, intense, provocative, and reluctant acceptance of the evangelical Trinity Western University, helps explain how the province’s diverse system came into being. Much of the study is devoted to an historical overview of the legislative framework for post-secondary education. People who are not fascinated by the degree authorization process — a crucial innovation that paved the way for the rapid expansion of the private college offerings in the province — will find much of the book to be tedious and administratively complex.

Trinity Western University at Langley. Photo courtesy TWU
Robert Cowin

There are parts of Postsecondary Education that are quite special. Most of the scholarly writing on post-secondary education focuses on the public institutions that suck up most of the political ‘air’ and almost all of the public money in the sector. But as Cowin carefully documents, one of British Columbia’s key and sustained innovations has been the creation of legal and policy space for private colleges and training institutes. By the turn of the 21st century, provincial agencies had approved close 1,100 institutions. Well under the political radar in the province, save for occasional controversies surrounding the management of international admissions and the infrequent closure of such institutions, these schools trained thousands of students each year. They range from English language schools to faith-based institutions, to affiliates of accredited American universities and locally owned colleges brokering courses from Canadian and international universities. Many of the full fee-paying students are recruited internationally; collectively, they contributed hundreds of millions of dollars each year to the provincial economy. The overdue attention given to this sector, which focuses largely on the efforts by government to oversee and accredit their offerings, is an important addition to our understanding of the field. Furthermore, by incorporating the provincial apprenticeship system into the discussion of post-secondary education, Cowin gives fair and overdue attention to a critical part of the British Columbia’s training and employment preparation.

Postsecondary Education in British Columbia is, in the end, an important reference source. It lays out, succinctly and carefully, the evolving legislative and policy framework for advanced education in the province. While many of the topics, such as the work of Indigenous-controlled institutions, are dealt with briefly, the book does a solid job of describing how the provincial system grew dramatically and creatively after 1960. This study lays the foundation for future work in the field, which will no doubt look more closely at the politics, local promotional efforts, and student, faculty, and staff experiences within the diverse and complex institutional network. The province has learned, over time, that the post-secondary system is crucial to the socio-economic well-being of British Columbia. Politicians, civil servants and educational administrators have likewise learned that their work in inevitably political and subject to provincial oversight. It is here, at the intersection of politics, institutional management, market demand, and public acceptance that British Columbia continues to define opportunities for the students of the present and future.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) on its 400 hectare campus at Point Grey, west of Vancouver. Photo courtesy UBC

Post-secondary education is now viewed as being essential to personal and societal well-being. High school students are bombarded by entreaties from popular culture, teachers, counsellors, parents, and political leaders to plan carefully for their post-high school studies. False and even harmful institutional hierarchies, universities over colleges and the University of British Columbia over Kwantlen Polytechnic University, reflects the status orientation of North American society at odds. Governments are pressed to add more campuses, more programs, more spaces — and to either allow tuition fees to rise to meet institutional needs or to drop to improve access. Public debates, in B.C. as elsewhere, are typically unimpressive, ideological, or cultural, such as the successful attempt to prevent Trinity Western University from launching a law school.

Cowin does not venture into these spaces and provides only brief comments on such important themes as the outsized significance of international students at provincial institutions. The book does not tackle the related issue of the career and income outcomes of post-secondary education, an issue that increasingly preoccupies the civil service and some politicians. The research enterprise is, appropriately, largely excluded for this book focused on educational training opportunities. Issues of classroom learning and the general student experience are, likewise, not considered in detail.

In the end, one finishes Postsecondary Education in British Columbia wanting to press further into the field, to go beyond the structures and policies and learn more about the educational experience. As Cowin documents in full, educators, politicians, and civil servants reformed the PSE system in the province with a view to addressing identified social and economic challenges, seeking to create a set of institutions that met the dual objectives of meeting individual aspirations and address broader societal requirements. This is, ultimately, an insider’s view of the post-secondary environment and is not a book that will be a compelling read for people not immersed in advanced education. British Columbia, and Canada for that matter, needs a book that builds on the logical and systematic analysis offered by Cowin and that incorporates both the intensely political elements of institutional building with a comprehensive understanding of how these various and changing institutions affected the lives of students.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s provincial health officer, receives an honorary degree at Royal Roads University in Colwood, October 2020. Photo by Dan Anthon, courtesy CTV News Victoria


Ken Coates. Photo by Liam Richards, courtesy Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan. He has worked at universities across Canada and in New Zealand. He has held a variety of senior administrative positions. Ken has written extensively on the development of Canada’s post-secondary education system. Editor’s note: Ken Coates has also reviewed a book by Robert D. Turner for The Ormsby Review.


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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Govern

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The Academic Quadrangle at Simon Fraser University with a mural by Gordon Smith. Photo by Darren Bradley
The Elliott Building and lecture wing (sciences) at the University of Victoria, circa 1970. Photo courtesy Vintage Victoria


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