Thoughts on Ontario Higher Education (Part 1)

I attended the Three New Campus in Ontario Symposium on Tuesday at OISE (University of Toronto). Congratulations to Glen Jones for an exceptional day. Timely. Vibrant. Insightful. Close to a Starbucks. All the ingredients for a successful academic event.

Here’s the rationale for the meeting:

  • many more students want to attend higher education (enrollment increases driving new space requirements)
  • the government wants to increase the higher education participation rate to 70% (responding to demands of the global knowledge economy)
  • the government has announced a desire to create three new campuses/universities to respond to this demand (building capacity and accessibility)
  • the government has announced the Ontario Online Institute (to advance online learning and accessibility)

Critical issues; dramatic announcements; far reaching implications. Hence the symposium.

It was a very rich day of presentations, questions, and hallway discussions.

Over the course of a number of posts in the next few days I want to explore issues that arose at the symposium and my own thoughts about what this will mean. These are not intended to summarize the proceedings.

So, first off, why we need an actual “system” of higher education, not merely talk about a system.

A Higher Education System

Ontario needs a coherent higher education system. We need a model and a strategy that articulates a vision for post-secondary, creates mechanisms for it to work, and funds it appropriately.

Currently it’s a mess and everyone knows it.

We have two distinct policy and regulatory environments (one for colleges; one for universities); we have an incomprehensible, arbitrary transfer system (Christine Arnold likened it to a game of Snakes and Ladders); we have no over arching vision or ambition; we have growing public unease about the value of our degrees and diplomas.

A mess (albeit a successful mess; more on this contradiction later).

Various people at the symposium called for a higher education strategic plan for Ontario. This is not a call for yet another study; it is actually a plea for provincial leadership and vision. Ontario has an opportunity to a leader in innovative education. But we must get our act together.

If the government is going to invest in new capacity (e.g. three new campuses) then we should allocate those resources in the most effective way possible. Throwing money into the dog’s breakfast we currently have will get the expected (and disappointing) result.

Despite the importance of institutional autonomy (more on this in a future post), it is clear that only specific government involvement (READ: directive policy) will create the incentives and mechanisms to create a coherent, rationale higher education system.

This vision and strategy needs to be supported by two pragmatic foundational pieces:

  • clear public accountability requirements based on learning outcomes and research success;
  • rational funding models and timetables to allow longer term institutional planning.

Having said all this, it is clear that a university brings with it distinct economic benefits. As Glen Jones noted, as it pertains to where any new universities will be located the mantra is not NIMBY but BUMBY (Build a University in My Back Yard). There is institutional dating going on all over the province. Everybody wants one of these things no matter what they look or behave like, no matter how dysfunctional the system.

…Mike

Next Post: Do we actually need three new campuses/universities?

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One Response to Thoughts on Ontario Higher Education (Part 1)

  1. Glen Jones says:

    Mike,

    Thank you for your thoughtful discussion of the Symposium that I organized earlier this week. I just wanted to let you (and your readers) know that we have now created a legacy webpage for the event that includes the program, video of the sessions, and the slides used by presenters. You can access the site via http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/hec
    Thanks once again for your thoughtful commentary on these important issues.

    Glen

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