THE COMMUNITY COLLEGE SYSTEM AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IN CANADA: LESSONS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION REFORM Introduction
The community college system plays a distinct role in Canada's higher education sector. It was purposefully created as an instrument of public policy to provide education that directly responds to the social and economic development needs of Canadian communities. Given the uniquely decentralized nature of Canadian higher education policy, community colleges have historically been able to adapt their programming and evolve as the socio-economic needs within Canadian communities have changed. This evolution continues today as the impacts of globalization increasingly permeate Canadian communities and the higher education sector. This paper provides an analysis of Canada's decentralized college system and its effectiveness in promoting socio-economic development. It begins with a broad overview of the history of the Canadian community college system and defines its core characteristics. The contributions made by community colleges to socio-economic development in Canada are identified, as are the challenges that have arisen in an increasingly globalized higher education landscape. The paper concludes with some suggestions, based on the Canadian experience, for other national higher education systems undergoing or contemplating reform.
History of the Canadian Community College System
The community college system in Canada is relatively new, dating to its creation in the 1960s. Unlike the university system, it did not gradually emerge through an evolutionary or organic process. Rather, the college system was purposefully and explicitly created by government to promote social and economic development in response to the socioeconomic needs of the 1960s (Gallagher & Dennison 1995; Quint-Rapoport 2006). Colleges were to act as instruments of public policy in contrast to the autonomy that Canadian universities hold (Dunlop 1998; Dennison & Levin 1988). This deliberate approach to the creation of the college system was driven by the convergence of three factors evident in the early 1960s (Gallagher & Dennison 1995):
The influence of human capital theory. Governments were increasingly convinced that the key to economic growth was through investing in people.
Increased higher education demand. Social scientists predicted that a huge increase in demand for higher education was coming.
The link between economic development and technical skills. Popular belief in Canada increasingly linked prosperity to the technical skills of the workforce.
Driven by these converging factors, the Technical and Vocational Training Assistance Act (TVTA) was passed by the federal government in 1960. The TVTA provided significant funding for training that addressed the socio-economic development needs of Canadian communities. With the TVTA as the impetus, Canada's provincial governments created individual provincial community college systems through a cost-sharing formula with the federal government.
This combined role of the federal and provincial governments is key to understanding the nature of the community college system and the larger higher education sector in Canada. Education in Canada has been shaped by the constitutionally entrenched division of powers between the federal and provincial governments and how this division of powers influences their ongoing relationship. While the federal government has spending power over areas of national interest indirectly related to higher education, such as the national economy and human resource development, the 10 provincial governments have sole jurisdiction over education in their respective provinces. The federal government therefore is limited in its influence over the education sector, other than through how it provides funding (Fisher et al. 2005). Jones (2006: 628) has outlined the rather unique situation to which this has led: "Canada may be the only nation in the developed world that has never had a national university or higher education act, or even a [federal] government minister assigned responsibility for higher education.