Language selection


Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter 2023]
Military Education

Image by: Wyatt Brooks

RMC hosts their 123rd annual commissioning parade in honour of their 2022 graduating class. Family, friends, classmates and staff all join in celebrating this year’s newly commissioned officers, May, 20, 2022.

Dr. Howard G. Coombs, OMM, CD is an Associate Professor of History at the Royal Military College and Deputy Director of the Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy. Both are in Kingston, Ontario. He is also a part time Canadian Army reservist who serves as the Director Commander’s Action Group, Canadian Defence Academy. His research interests are Canadian professional military education, in addition to Canadian military operations and training.


In keeping with this enduring and aspirational goal the Royal Military College (RMC) was founded in 1876 at Kingston, Ontario. It had the dual purpose of developing personnel for employment as military officers, as well as ensuring that they had the skills required of civilian professions. Despite the vicissitudes of external events, like the closure during, and for three years following the Second World War, the College has managed to withstand challenges and cope with adversity over the last 146 years. One can argue that, notwithstanding the incongruence of such seeming dichotomy, since its inception, RMC has managed to maintain a tradition of excellence in these twin roles. Today that includes producing educated and professionalized entry level bilingual officers, military personnel of all ranks and educating civilian professionals. A key part of this accomplishment was becoming, in 1959, Canada’s first degree granting university that is fully federally funded. RMC is overseen and resourced by the Department of National Defence, yet is simultaneously responsive to the educational standards set by Ontario. This Canadian province, which hosts the College, provides the legal statute underpinning the university level education supplied by RMC, through the Royal Military College Degrees Act.Footnote 1

“The Royal Military College (RMC) is a national university for educating and developing leaders committed to serving Canada.Footnote 2
Canada, Department of National Defence, Royal Military College, “Introduction,” (2022).

Critical to its mandate, RMC offers an undergraduate education, second language instruction, physical fitness training combined with professional development and experience to military students holding the rank of Naval Cadet or Officer Cadet (N/OCdt) of the Regular Officer Training Plan (ROTP), who will become commissioned officers in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). At the same time, the College serves other student populations and gives undergraduate and graduate education in arts, science and in engineering to hundreds of military and civilian students on campus and via distance learning.Footnote 3

If anything over the years RMC has illustrated the tenet of Greek philosopher Heraclitus that “the only constant is change.” The College has grown institutionally to better deliver upon its core mandate of producing Canadian leaders. At the same time RMC has come to provide undergraduate and graduate level education to a myriad of students and through its research supports the Government of Canada and National Defence. One can discern this adaptation in the evolution of the university, the changes within its programs and the College’s willingness and responsiveness to recommendations to better fulfill its mission and reflect and promote twenty-first century Canadian societal values.

Modern Context

While today the idea of providing undergraduate education as part of the preparation of military officers is common, in Canada this was the result of post-Second World War debates regarding the preparation of officers. The opening in 1940 of the naval college His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS)Footnote 4 Royal Roads, later Royal Roads Military College, near Esquimalt, British Columbia, combined with postwar plans for a joint Royal Canadian Navy (RCN)/Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) College, prompted debate concerning reopening of RMC in Kingston. Unlike the First World War, when it ran shortened courses, the College had closed over the duration of the Second World War and devoted itself to other training activities supporting the war effort.

The crux of the postwar discussion was that the Navy and Air Force, anxious to put newly commissioned officers to sea or in the air, initially believed that a two-year matriculation program would meet the needs of non-technical officers of their respective services in the postwar environment. The RCN would send its officers to the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England, for shore-time advanced training. However, the Army was adamant that a four-year degree programme was required for Canadian Army officers. General Charles Foulkes, at the time Chief of the General Staff, argued that officers capable of controlling combined operations needed the intellectual capacity developed by degree programs. He also noted growing military ties with the United States and opined that sending junior naval officers exclusively to England for advanced training was out of line with the needs of future inter-service cooperation. After some debate and further study, it was agreed among the services that most officers needed a degree and that the Royal Military College would open as a tri-service institution. The bulk of the college program would focus on academics to develop officers who would meet the unpredictable demands of the operations and alliances of the postwar environment. This decision demonstrates a Canadian desire to invest in its own degree-granting institution to meet the exigencies of the Cold War. However, despite the desire to create an RMC that would eventually award undergraduate degrees, it took the Minister of National Defence Doug Young’s 1997 Report to the Prime Minister on the Leadership and Management of the Canadian Forces (Young Report) in the wake of the Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia (Somalia Inquiry) in the late 1990s to create a universally degreed officer corps within the Canadian military.

The College was re-opened in 1947 and its first intake of cadets took place in 1948. By 1950, it was taking students from Royal Roads to complete a four-year non-degree program.Footnote 5 In 1959, as previously mentioned, RMC became a degree-granting institution with undergraduate and graduate programs. Canada had created a truly multi-service cadet college, and one perpetuating the combined service perspective of the Second World War. This multi-service orientation was further reinforced by the unification of the major services as the CAF in 1968. This joint service academy orientation is not shared by other Western states, particularly Canada’s closest military ally the United States. About a decade after unification, during 1979, the decision was made to admit women into the military colleges. These first female entrants would have been admitted in 1980.Footnote 6

Other Canadian military colleges have co-existed in the past and currently operate in conjunction with RMC. First, and already noted, was the 1940 opening of HMCS Royal Roads, later Royal Roads Military College (RRMC). In the beginning, this college was not a degree granting institution. Students completed the first two years of their undergraduate programs at RRMC and finished the balance of their degree at RMC. In 1977 RRMC achieved degree granting status, although some students continued to RMC to finish their programs. RRMC was closed in 1995 as part of larger Canadian military reductions.Footnote 7 Second, was the Royal Military College Saint-Jean (RMCSJ)Footnote 8 founded in 1952 at Saint-Jean, Quebec to provide education and training to OCdts in French. This was an effort to address the underrepresentation of francophones within the Canadian military. While 27.5% of the Canadian population were French speaking this was not reflected in the officer demographics of the three services. Only 2% of naval officers, 12% of army officers, and 4% of air force officers were French speakers. The non-commissioned francophones were respectively 11, 20 and 16%. The College at Saint-Jean could not award undergraduate degrees until 1971 when an agreement was reached with the Université de Sherbrooke. Until that point, as in the RRMC instance, RMCSJ students finished their degrees at RMC and some continued to do this after the implementation of the Université de Sherbrooke arrangement. In 1985 RMCSJ gained the ability to award its own degrees. This college was also closed in 1995, but reopened in 2008, with all its students finishing the last years of their program at RMC. In 2018 RMCSJ returned to university status, and the first class graduated in May 2021 with undergraduate credentials in International Relations, currently the sole degree program offered.Footnote 9 There is close cooperation between RMC and RMCSJ in many education efforts, as well as students moving between the institutions. Although the flow of students is currently one-way, with many RMCSJ ROTP students moving to RMC to complete degrees other than a Baccalaureate of International Relations, that movement will eventually evolve to cater to the opportunities and programs that both institutions will offer.Footnote 10

The Four Pillar ProgramFootnote 11

RMC offers a selection of undergraduate, graduate and non-degree programs to aspiring officers, serving members of the military, civil servants, and a small number of civilians. However, the education offered to officer candidates within ROTP is the core of the College’s efforts. This plan provides a chance to acquire an undergraduate degree and an officer’s commission in the CAF at RMC or at another Canadian university. While ROTP is not the sole source of entry level officers into the Canadian military, it does provide approximately 30% of the officer intake for the CAF. Given that the ROTP accounts for roughly one-third of CAF officer intake, it is worth noting that the ROTP at RMC takes in roughly 20%–25% of the total officer intake in recent years. This is about two-thirds of the entire amount of the annual ROTP acceptance. In 2018, the total officer intake was 1137 and from 1997–2018 that figure averaged 903 per year for the CAF. Consequently, RMC is a significant participant in the CAF officer productions system. During the period 2011–2020 RMC and RMCSJ averaged a total 340 officers per year as their intake and in turn graduated an average of 226, averaging about 33% attrition.Footnote 12

The selection process for limited ROTP vacancies ensures that the officer aspirants who attend RMC have high levels of academic and military potential.Footnote 13 Education is tuition-free for these undergraduate students due to the obligatory post-graduation military service commitments incurred for their education. While they live on campus and are charged for meals and accommodations, they are paid a modest monthly salaryFootnote 14 The sailors, soldiers and aviators of the University Training Plan — Non-Commissioned Member (UTPNCM) do not reside on campus and continue to receive their normal salary. They too are not charged for their education; in return, they also incur obligatory service commitments. Additionally, there are a small number of on-site undergraduate students, usually reservists, who pay for their education and are not under the same terms of service as the ROTP students. Further to on site education, distance courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels are available that offer flexible education options for military personal, active duty and reserve personnel, as well as civil servants and spouses of regular force members. Through the prior learning assessment process, students taking selected undergraduate programs can receive academic credits for certain military and professional experiences.Footnote 15

A further difference between RMC and other universities is the incorporation of an obligatory set of common courses, or core curriculum, across the arts, sciences and engineering to ensure a professionally relevant foundation for future military employment: “Military professionals today require the abilities not only of the soldier-warrior, but also of the soldier-diplomat and the soldier-scholar.”Footnote 16 It is worth stressing that core courses in civilian universities are established per program, rather than across the whole university. The RMC core curriculum, approximately 30% of the degree requirements across the programs, gives all students a balanced mix of liberal arts, science, and military education. It is made up of economics, psychology, mathematics (including logic and Information Technology), English, calculus, Canadian history and military history, chemistry, physics, and civics.Footnote 17

Image by: Royal Military College

RMC, November 28, 2019.

In addition to academic success, students need to demonstrate proficiency in Academics, Physical Education and Athletics, Social Development and Military Leadership. These four areas are known at the “four pillars” and are linked to all RMC activities for on-site undergraduate students who are ROTP.Footnote 18 Research by the Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis (DGMPRA) has shown that the four pillars have demonstrable value in the early stages of an officer’s career and create the foundation for future success. As a result, students may be removed from the sponsored program or not graduate unless all these requirements are met.Footnote 19 The core curriculum and four pillars underpin the sobriquet a “university with a difference.”Footnote 20

Academic pillar. N/OCdts are required to complete a degree program as part of the ROTP. Degrees available vary based upon the needs of the career path they have chosen. Included in all degree programs is a core curriculum component identified in the Withers Report (1998) as essential to the development of critical thinkers as junior leaders.Footnote 21 Successful completion of the core component and undergraduate degree is required to graduate successfully from RMC.

Military Leadership pillar. As part of the entry level officer requirementsFootnote 22, the ROTP program has a military component laid out with RMC instructions that specify the objectives a ROTP candidate must attain to graduate from RMC. These objectives include: General Military Knowledge, Personal Attributes, Teamwork, Leadership, Communications and Ceremonial Activities. These are accomplished over the four years at RMC through classes, self study, leadership assignments and mentoring. During this process, N/OCdts are assigned leadership positions within the Cadet Chain of Responsibility to provide them the opportunity to develop their leadership techniques.Footnote 23

Social Development pillar. The CAF mandates a bilingual officer corps and RMC ROTP includes a second language training program designed to take either an Anglophone or Francophone N/OCdt from no second language capability to a bilingual level. This effort requires over 650 hours of second language education while living, studying and working in a bilingual environment and is measured according to civil service criteria administered at the end of their four years. The program in past years has averaged a 97% success rating if the time requirement is met. As an added incentive, if the requisite bilingual level is met or exceeded, non-specific arts credits valued at 90% on the transcript will be added. Depending on the bilingualism scores achieved, the numbers of non-specific credits can range from one to four. These credits are not counted towards degree attainment but do apply to calculating average mark. This may assist with graduate applications at a future date. When considering bilingualism, it is important to contrast the level of bilingual RMC ROTP graduates with the Canadian bilingualism rate. The percentage of Canadians able to hold a conversation in both official languages was 17.5% in 2011 and, depending on immigration levels, is projected to range from 18.3% to 18.8% of the population in 2036.Footnote 24

Physical Education and Athletics pillar. The fourth pillar of the RMC ROTP is physical fitness. Cadets are tested in physical fitness based on both the RMC fitness standard and the CAF standard. The former is more demanding than the latter. Additionally, all cadets are required to take part in the intramural sports program conducted throughout the academic year or participate in one of the varsity level sports teams or competitive clubs, such as rowing. As part of their academic program, cadets are required to take part in physical education classes that build on basic knowledge and participation in their first year to teaching and supervising fitness in their fourth year.Footnote 25

A Comprehensive Institution

Image by: Royal Military College

January 18, RMC-West Point Exchange 2020.

Currently, RMC is internationally acknowledged for its focused research in areas that are of direct and indirect support of the Government of Canada, the Department of National Defence and CAF operations. In addition to undergraduate degrees associated with the RMC ROTP and other programs, the College also delivers undergraduate education onsite and via distance learning to CAF personnel and public servants. These degrees are Bachelor of Military Arts and Sciences (BMASc), Bachelor of Military Arts and Science (Honours) (BMASc (Hons)), and Bachelor of Arts (General).Footnote 26 There are also Certificates in Ammunition Technology, Environmental Protection, Management with Applications to Defence, Military Leadership and Management. Residential graduate programs include the Master of Defence Studies (MDS) at the Canadian Forces College; Master of Science (MSc) in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics, and Physics; Master of Engineering (MEng) in Aeronautical, Chemistry and Chemical, Civil, Electrical and Computer, and Mechanical Engineering; Master of Applied Science (MASc) in the Engineering disciplines, and Doctorates of Philosophy in both Science and Engineering.

It is important to note that the Masters of Defence Studies, awarded at the Canadian Forces College in conjunction with the Joint Command and Staff Program, is an RMC postgraduate degree, and the CFC Department of Defence Studies functions within RMC’s academic framework. It is fair to say that, with CFC and CFCSJ, RMC provides the substance of a comprehensive Canadian defence university.

In addition to these residential graduate programs there are online graduate program: the Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Public Administration (MPA), and a Master of Arts and Doctorate of Philosophy (Arts), both in War Studies. All these programs are open to military applicants, military spouses, veterans, and civilian members of the Department of National Defence. Additionally, graduate programs will also accept, based on merit, civilian applicants domestic and foreign who do not fall in the previously described categories.Footnote 27

In addition to supporting educational activities, faculty members of RMC are solicited in various national and international fora to present papers and lectures as experts in their fields. Additionally, they produce a great deal of both peer reviewed and non-peer reviewed publications. From 2012 to 2017 the average number of annual publications, proceedings and presentations was approximately 940 per year.Footnote 28

Research activities at RMC take many forms other than publication. Currently, RMC is internationally acknowledged for its focused research in areas that are of direct and indirect support of the Government of Canada, Department of National Defence and CAF operations. Emphasized are scholarly efforts in the humanities; engineering, including computer, electrical, mechanical, aerospace, ammunition, chemical, and civil; fundamental and applied science, such as physics, space science, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science, along with environmental science and defence economics. While these research areas are also offered at civilian institutions, at RMC their defence focus makes them unique within the Canadian university milieu.Footnote 29

First, RMC has a SLOWPOKE-2 Facility which provides for Department of National Defence nuclear educational, research and operational requirements. Second, the Centre for Space Research supports space research programs and activities, including Space Science and other space-related degree programs. Third, the Environmental Sciences Group (ESG) is a one of a kind internationally acknowledged cross-specialized group that brings to bear scientific expertise in the management of contaminated sites. This knowledge is available to individuals and organizations in both the private and public sectors. Fourth, RMC is a co-founder with Queen’s University of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR). CIMVHR is now a network of 1700 researchers, 43 Canadian universities and 10 international affiliates. This research group examines the health research needs of military members, veterans and their families. Fifth, RMC has a Computer Security Laboratory, the CSL, which is a leading research organization for cybersecurity and computer matters. Sixth, RMC is part of the national Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP). The CRCP is a Canadian government strategy to enhance research opportunities in Canada. Created in 2000, this program endowed 2000 Canada Research Chairs in about 80 universities with about $265 million annually to recruit and retain gifted scholars. RMC has five Canada Research Chairs. Finally, faculty are active in international and national academic societies and support scholarly competitions, like such as the graduate Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition. RMC faculty contribute greatly to education, research and publication within their respective fields.Footnote 30

RMCSJ faculty also have vibrant research programs which that contribute to student success. They access and receive grants from federal and provincial (Quebec) based organizations. Similarly, their outputs are varied and touch many scholarly domains.Footnote 31 On top of academic programs, RMC offers professional military education to members of the CAF other than ROTP students, as well as technical capability to the Government of Canada. RMC provides a range of short technical education courses and assists technical inquiries and related research of operational importance to the CAF. This focused technical education includes cyber-security and electronic warfare programs. These latter activities and the support that they provide the Government of Canada and the Department of National Defence are unique to RMC and not reflected in other institutions. Other longer technical programs of about one year include Army Technical Staff Officer (ATSO) and Army Technical Warrant Officer (ATWO) courses, as well as Ammunition Engineering and Aircraft Structure. There are also other year long defence related programs such as the the Indigenous Leadership Opportunity Year (ILOY) participants. This program, located onsite and within the Cadet Wing, offers education and military opportunities to young Indigenous Canadians, without any obligation for military service beyond the program year. Furthermore, the Non-Commissioned Member Executive Professional Development Program (NEPDP), which give Chief Warrant Officers/Chief Petty Officer 1 the opportunity to complete undergraduate courses that may assist with their future career paths and leads to Certificates of General Military Studies or Advanced Military Studies.Footnote 32

Image by: Royal Military College

Officer Cadets from the Indigenous Leadership Opportunity Year (ILOY) receive their cap badges at RMC, September 3, 2021.

Constant Evolution

Over the course of its existence RMC has, like other federal institutions, been scrutinized as part of normal reviews or in the wake of significant events and undergone organizational change in response of governmental direction. For example, during the last decade RMC underwent examination and cost cutting measures as part of the federal government Report on Transformation (2011) that resulted in the Strategic Review (DRAP) and Deficit Reduction Action Plan (DRAP), which directed a lessening of $4.5 million to the overall budget (approximately 1/10 of its baseline), as well as Work Force Adjustment (2012) that saw cuts of 28 of 189 academic positions and 25 academic support staff. Since then, the RMC budget has been even further reduced as part of the general reductions across the Federal government in the wake of COVID 19 related budget disbursement.Footnote 33 Additionally, there have been several specific reviews of the College and its operations, like the Canadian Association of University Teachers “Report of The Commission On Governance Of The Royal Military College Of Canada” (2013), the CDS’ “Special Staff Assistance Visit - Report on the Climate, Training Environment, Culture and ROTP Programme at the Royal Military College — Kingston,” or SSAV Report (2017), and the Office of the Auditor General’s “Report 6—Royal Military College—National Defence.” (2017).Footnote 34 Moreover, there have been wider context reports discussing the CAF. These reviews have either directly or indirectly had implications for RMC. Included in this category are the “External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces,” or Deschamps Report (2015), “Report of the Third Independent Review Authority to the Minister of National Defence,” or Fish Report (2021), concerning the military justice system, and “Report of the Independent External Comprehensive Review,” or Arbour Report (2022), also dealing with sexual misconduct.Footnote 35 The history of RMC shows the only constant is change and that the College will continue to strive to meet the needs of these constantly changing strategic, operational and organizational settings.

Image by: Cpl Alex Brisson, Imagery Technican

Indigenous Leadership Opportunity Year (ILOY) Naval and Officer Cadets receive their CAF Universal Pattern Cap Badge, also known as the “Cornflake” to signify their entrance into the CAF, September 01, 2022.


Through the ROTP, RMC gives a thorough sponsored education program, including common core competencies, to potential officers in four pillars — academics, military leadership, social development, and physical education and athletics — “to produce officers with the ethical, mental, physical and linguistic capabilities required to lead with distinction in the Canadian Forces.Footnote 36 At the same time RMC provides undergraduate and graduate level education to other members of the defence team and select civilian students. As part of its mandate, RMC conducts a vibrant research program across the various departments and divisions. Faculty produce high quality research that not only supports the needs of the Government of Canada and Canadian defence establishment but is also recognized both nationally and internationally. Faculty members engage as part of varied scholarly communities of practice to cultivate and propagate knowledge. RMC operates efficaciously and economically, comparing favorably with the costs of Ontario civilian universities and US service academies. Additionally, RMC is evolving to mirror the diversity and values of today’s Canada within its student population. Although over the years there have been various challenges as RMC has changed with the times, it continues to graduate people who contribute positively to Canada’s efforts at home and abroad and, in doing so, RMC, is truly deserving of the title “university with a difference.”

Dr. Howard G. Coombs, OMM, CD is an Associate Professor of History at the Royal Military College and Deputy Director of the Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy. Both are in Kingston, Ontario. He is also a part time Canadian Army reservist who serves as the Director Commander’s Action Group, Canadian Defence Academy. His research interests are Canadian professional military education, in addition to Canadian military operations and training.Footnote 37

Report a problem on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, please contact us.

Date modified: