Monday, June 6, 2011

Appreciating Douglas College's history as an access-based institution

Douglas College opened its classrooms in September 1970. As we near the end of our 40th year of quality education, it’s appropriate to remember our roots in the 1960s.

As much as we have our sights set on the future with Vision 2015, a look back has value beyond mere nostalgia.

When we understand our heritage as an access-based institution, we gain insight into who we are today, as well as a deeper context for planning how we’ll change to meet the needs of tomorrow’s learners.

Besides, it’s a fascinating story.

So let me take you back to the 1960s. The civil rights movement. Sputnick and the space race. The Bay of Pigs, the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. In Canada, we had the Quiet Revolution and Trudeaumania, and a vision of a “just society,” which was a counterpoint to LBJ’s “great society.” It was a time of hope and aspiration, as well as tremendous social transformation.

A wave of baby boomers was coming of age. Increasing numbers of them were finishing high school, but the job market couldn’t absorb them. At the same time, the economy was industrializing, professionalizing and becoming more technologically sophisticated.

Post-secondary education became a major issue. Keeping young people in school would be good for society – better than unemployment lines, to be sure – and good for Canada’s productivity.

But the universities weren’t ready to cope – not yet. Many were elite institutions, by and large, serving affluent students with good grades. They weren’t structured to admit a broader range of people. They didn’t offer the career-focused, semi-professional and technological certificates and diplomas that the job market required. And, in general, they weren’t prepared to accommodate the projected increased demand for post-secondary education.

A more egalitarian approach was required that would provide better access for more students to university, as well as access to training and re-training for job-ready skills.

The post-secondary sector responded to this challenge differently in different places.

In Ontario, Education Minister Bill Davis (later, premier) created a college system as a “new and different level of education,” completely separate from universities. Colleges were to offer workplace training, pure and simple. Universities would continue to offer traditional degree programs, but they would expand. And new, non-elite universities were created, including York in 1959 and Waterloo 1n 1962.

BC and Alberta created a different model. While SFU (in 1965) and the University of Calgary (in 1966) were created with (at least partial) access mandates, the university system didn’t expand nearly as much as it did in Ontario.

Instead, a college system was designed to provide job-skills training as well as access to university, through the university transfer process. Here in BC, VCC and Selkirk College were open by the late 60s, and others, including Douglas, would soon follow.

By all accounts, the early days of Douglas College were wild and woolly. In September 1970, there were no College buildings to speak of, and faculty and students rushed around the district to find classes in about 20 different community halls, church basements and schools. Those fascinating details are well told by Gerry Della Mattia in his new book, Douglas College: The First 40 Years. I encourage everyone to get a copy.

The key thing to remember is that our roots are all about access: access to post-secondary education and access to the job market. That much hasn’t changed, and is certainly worth preserving.

In a future post, I’ll offer an opinion on how well our post-secondary system has done when it comes to adapting to society’s changing needs.



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