Globe and Mail: Ontario shakes up postsecondary funding (1 June 2011)

As published in the Globe and Mail, 1 June 2011:

By JAMES BRADSHAW

Ontario is overhauling the way it finances universities and colleges, replacing some per-student funding with performance-based support intended to discourage an attitude of “growth at all costs” that has been acknowledged to have harmed quality. Although still pushing expansion, the province is pressing some schools to focus more on teaching than on aspiring to grow into elite comprehensive institutions.

Enrolment will still need to rise overall to supply the needs of a changing job market, partly by luring more academically strong foreign students. But the new funding formula, announced this week by John Milloy, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, is part of a five-year plan that acknowledges that giving all schools a financial incentive to grow indefinitely was no longer sustainable.

Bonnie Patterson, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, interprets the new plan as a signal that it is “time for a correction, with government as partners, on getting a focus [back] on the quality front.”

“I think we’re all very conscious that in the extraordinary decade of growth … there are good examples of where quality has suffered because of the extraordinary costs associated with the growth,” she said.

The province will negotiate each school’s strategy individually, measuring success on priorities such as student satisfaction, employment rates, and student mobility more closely.

The goal is to have universities and colleges specialize more in their own strengths and core programs, spending more on excellence in teaching and the student experience on campus, while also providing as much choice and flexibility as possible in the style of learning available.

As Ontario’s university enrolment rose to 418,000 students from 275,000 over the past decade, the ratio of students to faculty members crept up to 27 to 1, the highest in Canada.

“While we have welcomed this growth, it has not always occurred in a particularly well-planned way,” Mr. Milloy said in a speech to the Canadian Club this week.

The unfolding of Ontario’s new funding model will be watched closely across the country because the province is by far the largest provider of post-secondary education.

A representative of the province’s students said that funding should be targeted to specific areas. “If you want teachers to have better pedagogy, then fund training of pedagogy,” said Sam Andrey, executive director of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. “Don’t increase budgets and hope for the best.”

University and college administrators are eager to see the plan’s details. Its success – and their future funding – will hinge on the government’s ability to negotiate a strategy with each school. Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario, agrees a change in approach is in order, but said “colleges would argue that they’re in the best position to determine how to run their institutions well.

“Nobody likes funding formula reviews because sometimes they’re endless,” she said.

Universities that have tried to focus on the undergraduate experience, and which may not have the space or regional demographics to expand, appear optimistic that the new formula can help them thrive.

“One of the things I like about this concept is one size does not fit all,” said Queen’s University principal Daniel Woolf, adding that his school “has not prospered by a growth-only formula.”

Meanwhile, large schools with top reputations, for whom attracting more students has been relatively easy, may need to make the case for their funding in new ways.

Many schools, especially those in urban areas, will continue to expand. Some 63 per cent of working-age Ontarians have a postsecondary education, but the government estimates 70 per cent of new jobs will need more than a high school degree. To narrow that gap, the government’s latest budget has promised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund 60,000 new student spaces over five years.

But for the first time in years, the government is also suggesting some schools can decide not to grow, or even to shrink, without automatically seeing their funding stagnate.

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