Academic Transformation

Academic TransformationConsiderations of policy issues for higher education rarely make compelling and satisfying reads. This one does. Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario (Ian Clark, Greg Moran, Michael Skolnik and David Trick) should be required reading for all those involved in or influenced by universities and colleges in this province.

The book provides a clear and insightful review of higher education policy since the early 1960s when the system was radically transformed by government actions in response to a dramatically changing society. From there it presents an overview of the key challenges and pressures affecting higher education that have shaped and should shape the evolution of universities and colleges. It concludes with a set of specific recommendations on how to move forward in a manner that balances the very diverse interests of the many stakeholders in the higher education arena (faculty, students, parents, government, citizens, public and private sectors, and many others).

While universities are often chided for their glacial pace of change, they are enduring institutions for the very reason that they have adapted, altered and adjusted. Few other thousand-year-old institutions have survived and remained so important to our society. It is for that reason that I believe universities will rise to the changes and challenges outlined in this book

The book pokes at a number of sacred cows. Foremost among these is the desire of all Ontario universities to be research institutions (as opposed to “merely” teaching institutions). The research institution values, and tries to integrate, both teaching and research. This homogeneity of institutional models, very unlike virtually any other similar jurisdiction in the world, sets up other factors that, in the analysis of the authors, creates an insurmountable burden on the system in Ontario. The core observation: the economics and effectiveness of continuing with a homogenous research university model is unsustainable given the current and future challenges.

And those challenges are not insignificant. Ontario can expect an increase in demand for higher education as a result of immigration, growing participation rates, and an emphasis on enrolling currently underrepresented groups. In addition, universities will be expected to be more effective discovery engines for new ideas or new applications. While some of these pressures are exclusive to the Toronto area, the same choice remains: either we give more money to the current system (which the authors argue is inefficient in responding to these challenges because of the research university model which limits its focus and flexibility) or you create a new type of institution for Ontario.

The authors suggest two new types of universities:

1. a solely undergraduate university whose focus is exclusively teaching (very common in other jurisdictions but completely absent in Ontario). Such an institution would not seek research funding nor employ research faculty.

2. an open university for “open admissions.” Not necessarily an online university but open in the sense of accepting all qualified applicants and working to assist them to be successful and, possibly, transfer to other university programs.

In concert with these new institutions is the recommendation that a more active, indeed deterministic, role to be taken by the provincial government. In other words, specific, measurable, and monitored policy that would have universities and colleges play out government directions in a more deliberate and compliant manner.

Lots of a senior administrators will have significant concerns about these directions and I count myself among them. The arguments are compelling. However, the transformation required will involve a level of trust and shared objectives between government and universities that seems remote and unlikely. For these changes to be effectively implemented, a new level of dialogue among the universities and with government will be needed. A new set of goals, directions and incentives that puts behind us some of the divisive debates and actions of the past.

It should be noted that the authors are not merely academic observers; three of the four have been in senior roles that shaped and directed the Ontario system over the past decade or more. Clark is the former President of the Council of Ontario Universities (the government relations vehicle for the universities), Moran is a former Provost and VP Academic at the University of Western Ontario, and David Trick is a former Vice-Provost at the University of Guelph Humber and a former Assistant Deputy Minister responsible for post-secondary education in the Ontario government. It is fair to say that these individuals did much to shape and direct the very system they are now critical of.

The post-secondary system in Ontario is essential to both the advanced education of its citizens and to the discovery and application of new knowledge. Whatever the short comings, universities have been exceptional vehicles to educate young people and to provide groundbreaking research. These are not institutions in crisis; these are not places out of touch or out of control. Having said that, universities and colleges need help and support. Universal participation and the imperatives of basic and applied research have broadened the mission of the university and put increased pressure (and importance) on its success.

The current economic downturn is a shadow across the entire book. On one hand it is a reason to do more (because it matters now more the ever). On the other hand the financial constraints of the government as it wrestles with imposing deficits (and seemingly out of control health care costs) will limit their ability to invest in new solutions. That, of course, lands on one of the other main (and controversial) conclusions of this book: more money is not the answer (or at least not the key answer).

I do worry that the differentiation called for in this book will make collaboration among Ontario universities more difficult. The existing balance of competition and collaboration has been hard won. I think I have more confidence in collaborative solutions than the authors appear to have. I have seen this with the impressive way that the academic libraries in Ontario have collaborated to create Scholars Portal, one of the worlds largest and most valuable scholarly information systems. I believe similar opportunities exist for information technology relating to both academic and administrative systems. Will institutional differentiation undermine collaboration? If so, much will be lost.

This is an important and valuable book. It puts the current situation in a clear context, and it provides a lucid and challenging argument for a positive way forward. By identifying a number of elephants in the room, this book should provoke the necessary debate on how to make a highly successful system of universities and colleges even more valuable as the province is challenged by the increasing demands of the 21st century.

Additional information about this book and the authors is accessible at their website.


[Note: I published this post some time ago but re-posted it given my rekindled interest in higher ed policy. The authors will be issuing a follow up to this book some time this fall. Promises to create similar waves.]


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