Today, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario released the recommendations of its “expert panel” convened to review the Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) submitted by each university and college in Ontario. Overall, the panel recommends that the Government of Ontario take a more directive, interventionist role to drive greater differentiation and competition within the sector. The paper does not address each institution’s SMA proposal directly.
OCUFA has long been critical of HEQCO’s position on differentiation, and this new paper contains many problematic suggestions:
· The idea that government should play a more active role in “designing” the system fails to protect universities from the vicissitudes of short-term political decision-making. Governments are notoriously bad at long-term planning in higher education, and shifting political priorities may lead to an unstable and unproductive planning environment for the sector. Ironically, this will make effective system design much more difficult.
· The paper suggests that “learning outcomes” be used to apportion operating funding, despite failing to outline what outcomes are desirable, who defines the outcomes, and how they should be measured. In addition, funding models that only use outcome measures tend to make it difficult for under-performing institutions to improve, by removing funding from the institutions that need it most.
· The panel recommends that there should be more competition for operating funds in Ontario. Such a model will inevitably create institutional “winners” and “losers”, thereby harming students at institutions judged to be somehow inferior. OCUFA believes that the funding formula should aim to support a high quality experience for every student.
· The paper suggests that funding decisions be made, or at least heavily informed, by an external body. HEQCO advocates for an “expert” model for this validating authority, but does not specify how these experts should be selected, or who they should represent. Given HEQCO’s fondness for former administrators and representatives of the private sector, it is likely that they will push for a similar model.
The paper also makes frequent use of phrases like, “The evidence suggests that.” without indicating what that evidence might be, or where it might be found.
Ultimately, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that HEQCO’s advocacy for third-party validation is an indirect argument for expanding HEQCO’s mandate and budget, adding a certain element of self-interest to the argument. The full report can be accessed at: http://heqco.ca/en-CA/About%20Us/policyadvice/Pages/smas.aspx
OCUFA believes strongly that any reforms to Ontario’s universities should be developed through meaningful consultation with those who know the system best – students and faculty. HEQCO has so far embraced a model – both in its behavior and its recommendations – that depends heavily on advice solicited from outside the sector, provided by unaccountable panelists who develop their recommendations behind closed doors. This is not a model that will develop recommendations sensitive to Ontario’s unique challenges and responsive to its needs.
OCUFA agrees that a serious discussion needs to occur on the future of Ontario’s postsecondary system. We will continue to work to build the quality and accessibility of our institutions with those who share our commitment.
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