Paulo Santiago, Karine Tremblay, Ester Basri and Elena Arnal. Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society. Volume 1: Special Features: Governance, Funding, Quality; and Volume 2: Special Features: Equity, Innovation, Labour Market, Internationalisation. Paris: OECD, 2008. 728 pages.

The idea that universities and colleges are part of a planned system occupies little space in discussions of Canadian public affairs. Students who arrive on a university or college campus do not consider how their institution sustains itself or where it came from; it simply exists. After graduation they hold the institution in memory, until, as parents of teenagers, they expect it (or an attractive competing institution) to exist once more. Policy analysts and public administrators may witness the existence of higher education more regularly in their careers, but the topic of higher education does not attract the sustained attention that can be seen, for example, in research institutes devoted to health policy or international affairs. Even faculty who are on campus almost daily are usually too occupied with the semester’s challenges to consider the long-term evolution of the higher education system.

Among the provinces, Ontario’s historical inattention to planning the higher education system stands out. Ontarians live today with a system based almost entirely on decisions made between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. From then until very recently, system planning in Ontario has been characterized by piecemeal change and extended drift. But during that one very busy decade, the legislature enacted statutes creating eight new universities (Brock, Carleton, Guelph, Lakehead, Laurentian, Waterloo, Windsor, and York); all but one of the religious-based private universities adopted secular governance and so became fully eligible for public funding; the university presidents created an organization to defend their collective autonomy; the government created a Department of University Affairs; a government funding formula was created that gave universities autonomy in how they spend their budgets; and the government won control over the setting of tuition fees. By 1963, to the disappointment of a number of community sponsors, Premier Robarts declared a moratorium on the creation of new universities –– a moratorium that held until the 1990s. Shortly after his announcement, the government conceived of and created the colleges, with 22 new institutions opening their doors between 1966 and 1971.

It could have happened otherwise. The decision to accommodate the baby boomers’ demand to attend higher education was controversial. Some university administrations argued that the projected rise in university applications should be an opportunity to set more demanding admissions standards. (The president of the University of Toronto, Sidney Smith, told a national conference on university enrolments in 1955 that “[w]e are admitting many young men and women who have neither the brains nor the moral stamina to pursue advanced studies.”) The decisions leading to the creation of  15 public universities with the statutory authority to grant doctorates (as of 1973) stood in contrast to jurisdictions that chose to create a more diverse set of universities; for example, California today has only 10 doctoral-level public universities for a population three times Ontario’s. Likewise the decision to establish a province-wide system of colleges gave Ontario a more robust system of career-oriented education than can be found in many U.S. states, whose patchwork systems reflect decisions in the 1960s to let municipalities choose whether to create community colleges.

Today, Ontario is on the brink of another opportunity to make decisions about higher education that will endure for decades. It is reasonable to expect that baccalaureate enrolments in 2021 will be 60,000–100,000 higher than in 2007. These figures are beyond what the existing universities are likely to be able or willing to accommodate. College diploma programs will also face increased demand, and their enrolments might reasonably be expected to be 12,000–50,000 higher than in 2007. The demand for more spaces comes at a time when higher education is already stretched to compete for research funding and to fund the rising per-student cost of education. The global economic crisis will make these pressures more urgent and more difficult to resolve.

Where to turn for advice? What trends are apparent in higher education across the industrialized world that might guide us? What evidence is there to show how different policy approaches shape the capacity of higher education system to respond to national economic and social objectives? These ambitious questions are tackled in Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society, a report on the results of a multi-year review of higher education across 24 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

The authors – three social scientists from the OECD and one external consultant – take on the task of discovering the similarities in these systems of higher education, identifying innovative policy initiatives, and describing the conditions under which they are successfully implemented. The report is aimed at government policymakers, but it holds lessons for anyone who is interested in the options open to government in trying to shape higher education systems.

Some of the 24 participating countries have mature higher education systems (France, U.K.), and others have rapidly developing systems (China, Poland). Some are experiencing a sharp increase in the normal university-age population (Chile, New Zealand, Sweden), while others are seeing a decline (Spain, Japan, Portugal). Canada and the U. S. were not participants,  so are mentioned only in passing.

Finding trends among this diverse group is no small task. The authors find that enrolments in tertiary education have been growing in almost all OECD countries, as rising participation rates have trumped population trends that in some case have been flat or declining. As higher education systems have expanded, the providers have become more diverse: more institutions have been created that focus on career-related education, that combine academic and career-related programs, or that serve non-traditional age groups. The demographics and socioeconomic background of the student population have also become more diverse.

The increased prominence of higher education in government economic development strategies has led to increased government demands. With the growth of enrolments and the rise in per-student costs, government funding has been growing, but funding from students and their families has been growing even more: the share of costs paid by households and other private entities has increased in 80 per cent of the countries for which data are available. Expectations for research and development have grown as well. R and D spending at higher education institutions grew by more than seven per cent per year in the first half of this decade, compared with four per cent in the business sector. These demands have created a need for academic leaders who are good at managing costs, forming coalitions in pursuit of common interests, accounting to government, and building relationships internationally. The participating countries have seen a narrowing of the scope of collegial models of self-governance, as leadership is now seen as requiring a larger ability to make strategic choices between faculties and to assign priorities among competing plans.

The heart of the book is its discussion of how governments are responding to these trends, including strategies for funding, improving quality, increasing equality of access, and strengthening the role of higher education in research and in supplying the labour market. Much of the discussion is based on literature surveys rather than on the collection of comparable information from all of the participating countries. The discussion is founded on the realist premise that governments have their own interests (which ideally have a substantial overlap with the public interest), and that governments’ willingness to support higher education depends on higher education’s role in advancing these interests. This relationship need not be purely instrumentalist – indeed, the authors caution governments against expecting universities to meet short-term fluctuations in workforce demands or to be effective commercializers of research – but there is a frank assumption in the book that higher education’s role in society cannot be entirely self-assigned and its achievements cannot be entirely self-assessed.

A consistent theme in the policy prescriptions is that governments should aim to make higher education systems more flexible so that they can respond to changing public needs. The authors see a need for rising tuition fees,  so urge the adoption of a comprehensive student support system that includes means-tested grants and a loan program with repayments based on income after graduation. They urge a reduction in barriers to private higher education. They support external quality assurance agencies to supplement universities’ and colleges’ internal processes. They advocate incentives for institutions to increase participation among disadvantaged groups, as well as direct support to prospective students from these groups. They propose an increased role for universities in diffusing the results of R andD, including more opportunities for researchers to move between higher education institutions, private firms, and not-for-profit research entities over the course of their careers. They see a need for more academic programs that are oriented to careers rather than to the transmission of disciplinary knowledge.

Readers may find particular interest in the chapter on how changing social and economic demands are reshaping academic careers. Here, too, the advice is to encourage flexibility – in particular, to manage academic careers in a more flexible manner. Rather than expecting all faculty to engage in research, teaching, and service, the authors encourage the creation of teaching-only positions or other specialized positions.  They applaud the use of formative evaluations and salary differentiation based on performance, but they observe that current evaluation processes give more regard to research than to teaching. They document the under-representation of women among the professoriate, which they link in part to the difficulties of reconciling child rearing with a research career.

None of the participating countries is experiencing a critical shortage of faculty, although there are difficulties in selected fields. The authors nevertheless note a number of trends that may diminish the attractiveness of academic careers: the challenge of teaching students who may be under-prepared; increasingly impersonal faculty-student relationships; larger class sizes; and increasing workloads associated with developing new pedagogies and building relationships with funding partners and research partners. All the countries use a mix of permanent and fixed-term positions, but there are variations in whether the latter group can be tenured. The proportion of non-tenured positions appears to be increasing, although the only evidence cited is from the U. S. and Korea.

Above all, the authors urge governments to steer higher education so that it meets public goals. They do not advocate top-down direction – quite the opposite. They recognize the importance of consensus-building among stakeholders, and they argue for the merits of institutional autonomy and a free and competitive market in higher education. But they also argue that higher education will (and should) always deviate substantially from a pure free market. Left to itself, the higher education market will produce outcomes that are less than optimal for all concerned. They see the importance of a public authority that can set concrete goals in consultation with stakeholders, regulate higher education institutions so as to meet these goals, link institutions to the other parts of the education system, and prevent “academic drift” among institutions. They encourage this authority to consult widely so that voices other than those of producers of higher education are heard.

To draw these conclusions requires the authors to use a substantial bit of judgement. One of their stated purposes is to “shar[e] evidence on the impact of policy reforms and the circumstances under which they work best.” This suggests some effort to compare the impacts of different policies on otherwise well-matched cases. In practice the book does not live up to this goal – and indeed, given the project’s breadth, how could it? Instead, the book performs the valuable task of documenting current policy directions in the participating countries, reporting on what the participants believe is being achieved by these policies, and refining them into policy options that other governments might consider. The authors caution that there is no single model of effective higher education governance, and they urge governments to consider their suggestions in the light of the current situation of higher education in a given jurisdiction, the intended goals of higher education, and the institutions and traditions in the jurisdiction that may facilitate or inhibit change.

This blend of caution and confidence is appropriate to Ontario’s history. Many of us work today in the shadow of decisions made by people five decades ago who gathered the best evidence they could and applied their judgement to problems as they understood them. The coming boom in demand for higher education – which arrives at a time of already-heavy demands on the higher education system and on the public purse – is an opportunity to build on what they got right and to fix what no longer works. Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Societyis not a blueprint for this task, but it provides a menu from which we can draw.

David Trick is president of David Trick and Associates, consultants in higher education strategy and management, and a part-time instructor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University. He is a former assistant deputy minister for postsecondary education in the Government of Ontario and was the first CEO and vice-provost of the University of Guelph-Humber. He is the co-author (with Ian D. Clark, Greg Moran, and Michael Skolnik) of The Transformation of Ontario’s Postsecondary Education System, to be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press later this year.