Thoughts on Ontario Higher Education (Part 5)

With this post, my series of reflections on Ontario higher education concludes (the sighs of relief from my reader/s are audible).

So, last up: Now what? What does this all mean?

At the end of the symposium Harvey Weingarten (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario; and former President of University of Calgary and former Provost at McMaster University) directed the harsh light of reality on the issue:

“We can debate what the new universities might look like, but unless I’m reading different newspapers than everyone else, there’s no money to do this or really anything.”

His blunt observation was that if any investments are made in higher education in the coming years they will be for “financial not pedagogical reasons.”

Ouch. Cold water.

Of course there is no money; there is never any money. But there will be money, so let’s think about from a more holistic perspective. How to align what the various stakeholders want/need?

Ontario higher education is in for some lean years. No question. What little money is available will be highly targeted. Making yourself look like a target would be a very good financial strategy. And that would mean looking like you are truly committed to learning outcomes and productivity.

Learning outcomes and learning objectives have been much discussed. They are a strong area of focus for the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) and Vice Presidents Academic. It is very important stuff. We need to get on with this. If we can’t illustrate, demonstrate, even prove, the beneficial outcomes of our work on student development then we deserve to be shut down.

Productivity. Now there’s a word you rarely hear linked to the academy. Too bad. We are quite productive. We need to be able to show that better, and we must become more productive.

Of course productivity is a very loaded word. Here’s one example why.

A recent report from Richard O’Donnell, former special adviser to the University of Texas Board of Regents, provocatively highlighted concerns about faculty performance. The report detailed the low productivity and high cost of most faculty at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. Using categories of performance pejoratively labeled as “dodgers, coasters, sherpas, pioneers, and stars,” the report is thought to have attracted the attention of MTCU (despite its quite serious methodological flaws). This is perhaps evidenced by the decision of the Auditor General of Ontario to pursue his own investigation into faculty productivity. Not many details on this, it is still early days, but it the results are anything like that from O’Donnell it is going to set off a public firestorm.

And that leads us to the nexus of the problem: how to balance public accountability and institutional autonomy. Globally, this is a much discussed question. Some have tilted too much one way or the other. Both aspects are important, even essential, but finding an appropriate balance is going to take enlightened leadership.

Weingarten in his remarks suggested this was an extraordinary time for higher education policy in Ontario. Agreed. All the policy wonks (me now included) are going to have a field day with this stuff.

Ontario has a remarkable higher education system. It has been wonderfully successful. So say some, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” OK. It isn’t broken, but it also isn’t set up to lead us into the future. As we have noted before, it isn’t a system, it’s expensive, it doesn’t offer sufficient diverse opportunities, and it is being outpaced by other jurisdictions. Where, for example, is the much lauded Ontario Online Institute? Online learning is critical to system wide innovation and yet an MTCU initiative to support this among our institutions has apparently withered on the vine. Too bad.

If Ontario want to lead in the 21st century, what we have now is not going to get us there. Weingarten said we need to focus on:

  • A coherent PSE plan to guide the system
  • Differentiation and diversity among our institutions
  • Productivity and efficiencies within institutions
  • Learning outcomes to demonstrative effectiveness

Let me add to those:

  • A recognition of the importance of teaching and research
  • A balance of public accountability and institutional autonomy
  • A culture of risk and reward


Other post in this series on the Ontario higher education system:

Part 1: Where is the system? Where is the system wide plan?
Part 2: Do we really need more universities?
Part 3: Shouldn’t some of the colleges become universities?
Part 4: What’s going to happen to the universities outside the GTA?

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1 Response to Thoughts on Ontario Higher Education (Part 5)

  1. Ron MacKinnon says:

    Re the suggested Texas performance assessment categories for Higher Ed faculties (i.e. dodgers, coasters, sherpas, pioneers, and stars): I love it! Being more straight forward (not to say honest, in perhaps a little more terminologially respectful way) would be an initially bruising transition BUT if done in the context of systematically open 360-deg evaluation model, could be “fresh air wonderful” and highly motivating. On the other (reality grounded) hand, the invitation to corporate-maoist duncecapping would be very hard to guard against.
    Let’s instead try the Texas model out in the political arena since politicians are already used to this sort of name calling in so-called Question Period. They should be bruise proof from the getgo. Perhaps a social media site geared at “voting” on MPs/MPPs statements or actions as “dodger, coaster, etc”? within a short time we’d have enough data for individual and “team” rankings…

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