Hon. John Milloy: Notes on Post-Secondary Education: “Putting Students First” (30 May 2011)

As posted by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, 30 May 2011:

Notes for Remarks by the Honourable John Milloy, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities

Canadian Club, May 30, 2011

Watch the Minster’s speech hosted by the Canadian Club.

Check against delivery

Ontario must have a strong postsecondary education and training system. Our economic future depends on it. We need to prepare students – whether fresh out of high school or returning to the classroom after many years – to succeed in the modern world.

And it is a world that is complicated and changing – full of problems and challenges that demand the attention of well-trained and well-educated minds. We have careers, businesses and entire sectors that didn’t exist ten years ago and experts tell us that 70 per cent of new jobs are going to require some sort of education and training beyond high school.

The good news is that Ontario has one of the best postsecondary systems in the world – with a network of colleges and universities that are recognized for their excellence. We also have an apprenticeship system that has doubled in size since we took office and is helping to create a strong skilled trades sector.

And the better news is that we have a government and a Premier that is determined to ensure this excellence continues.

This is not a new sentiment. Our Premier has earned the right to be called the education premier and he recognized from day one that a strong education system was crucial to Ontario’s future. Smaller class sizes in the early grades, higher test scores, increased high school graduation rates and the introduction of full day early learning have been hallmarks of our government’s time in office.

In 2005 our Premier helped launch Reaching Higher – resulting in the largest single investment in postsecondary education in more than two generations. Supplemented by other investments we have made over the years, Reaching Higher has resulted in 60,000 more apprentices and 140,000 more students in the college and university system – all being taught in new classrooms, laboratories, libraries and training centres. Ontario can proudly say that it has the highest postsecondary attainment rate in the world.

But this is not good enough for our Premier. He wants 70 per cent of the population to have a postsecondary education or training.

So how do we get there? Where do we go from here? Reaching Higher is over – and in fact, I had the pleasure about 18 months ago of reporting to this very body – the Canadian Club – on its overall success.

Today I want to talk to you about the future – about the next step in the evolution of Ontario’s postsecondary system and the new five year plan that our government is launching. No, it is not called Reaching Even Higher – although it was tempting – instead we decided on a better title – one that conveys the very essence of what we are trying to achieve.

It is called Putting Students First – and it is our response to what I believe is the basic goal of Ontario families when it comes to postsecondary education – a goal that can be summarized in one simple sentence:

“I want my kids to go on in school and get a good job.”

This simple concept has been the driving force behind the plan that I want to share with you today.

It begins with the idea of “going on in school” – completing education and training beyond high school. And if you asked many Ontarians their first concern when it comes to attending college or university, I imagine it would be a simple response – the cost.

And you know what? I will never argue with anyone who says that the cost of education is a key consideration in deciding whether to go on in school. Which is exactly why we have capped tuition fees, developed one of the most generous student assistance programs in the country, adopted a more flexible loan repayment program and mandated institutions to provide supplementary assistance to those in need.

There have been some pretty revolutionary changes in OSAP over the last seven and a half years and the system that we inherited was in pretty dire shape.

When we took office, for example, a university student from a middle class family making $70,000 a year was eligible for about $4,300 in loans. With all the changes we have made to the system over the years, that exact same student is today eligible for over $12,000 in assistance, with almost half of it in the form of grants.

No qualified student should ever be denied access to college or university due to financial circumstances. This is a commitment that has guided us for the last eight years and I want to assure you will continue to guide our approach to tuition and student aid policy in the future.

Cost is only one challenge when you talk about “going on in school.” We also need to ensure that Ontarians understand options other than college or university. For a laid-off worker out of the classroom for many years, for example, “going on in school” may start with literacy and basic skills upgrading as a stepping stone to further studies – which is why our most recent budget committed substantial new funding in this area.

For others, “going on in school” may mean apprenticeship training and the many opportunities that exist for high-paying jobs and the acquisition of skills and qualifications that will serve learners for the rest of their lives. Which is why we introduced a series of financial incentives for both employers and apprentices to encourage people to enter the trades, with our new plan placing an emphasis on ensuring they complete their training. And it is why we are proceeding with the College of Trades – a self-regulatory body that gives ownership of the trades to the sector itself and mandates them to attract more apprentices and ensure that they are receiving as well as completing excellent training.

“Going on in school” also means recognizing the role of lifelong learning as well as the important role played by other players, like employers, trade unions and private career colleges in educating thousands of Ontarians every year.

So how do we get kids to “go on in school?” It has to start early and one of the most exciting parts of our new strategy is a joint commitment by both the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and the Ministry of Education to develop programming that encourages our kids at an early age to consider college, university and apprenticeships as well as making them aware of the financial supports that exist to help them make a smart decision.

It also means continuing to reach out and provide extra support and encouragement to underrepresented groups – Aboriginal students, students with disabilities, Crown Wards, francophone students that want to study in French and those who are the first in their families to go on to college, university and apprenticeships. We need to send a strong signal that our postsecondary system belongs to all Ontarians.

And finally, “going on in school” means that when they get there – to college or university – there has to be a space for them. Which is why, despite unprecedented fiscal challenges, our government has committed to fund the additional student spaces needed to meet enrolment growth over the next five years – estimated to be in the neighbourhood of 60,000 spots.

This is not just about operating dollars – the government is finalizing an infrastructure plan and for the first time in Ontario’s history, colleges and universities will be part of the government’s long-term capital funding commitments. We will start by focusing on immediate growth pressures while continuing to work with institutions to develop priorities for the medium and longer-term that are aligned with the province’s overall needs.

But it is not simply about getting more students through the door. Once there, we have to ensure that they receive a high quality education that leads to meaningful employment.

Putting students first means they have access to a wide range of courses and programs and can move easily from institution to institution as well as between the college and university systems. That is why we have placed such an emphasis on establishing a more mature credit transfer system here in Ontario.

Over the next five years, working closely with our college, university and student partners, we will invest close to $74 million to develop pathways and supports that will allow students to navigate the system and receive full credit for the learning that they have already completed, far more easily than they can today.

Access to a wide range of courses also means the further development of online opportunities. Work is wrapping up on our plans for the Ontario Online Institute.

As many of you are aware, we recently appointed Maxim Jean-Louis as a special advisor on the creation of an institute and we plan to make his final report public shortly. I want to thank Maxim for all his hard work as well as the enthusiasm exhibited by the sector. The role of the institute will be to serve as a clearinghouse and coordinating body for the large number of existing online courses as well as providing support for the rapid development of more online offerings at our colleges and universities with a particular emphasis on quality.

And quality is at the heart of Putting Students First. Students deserve a classroom experience that engages and challenges them in a way that gives them the needed skills for the new economy. One of the goals of the new strategy is to work with students, faculty and our institutions to identify and measure the essential elements of teaching excellence and see it improved across the board.

I want to make one thing clear. In linking postsecondary education to employment, I am in no way suggesting that the only programs worth pursuing are those that align directly with a career – as the proud holder of a doctorate in Modern History with a specialization in the Cold War, I remain a proud defender of the entire spectrum of studies including the arts and humanities.

But what is important is that every program – whether we are talking engineering and auto mechanics or philosophy and theology – is taught in way that gives students the needed skills to function in the new economy – as well as allowing them to recognize the many, many doors that their individual educational and training experience opens for them.

That means making experiential learning, internships, coop programs and post-graduate college certificates an important part of the learning experience.

We need to make sure our system delivers. Yet before we speak of a system – “delivering” – we need to ask ourselves if we have a fully mature postsecondary – “system” in Ontario.

Individual colleges and universities focus their work on a variety of areas. For better or for worse, our approach to funding these institutions has been mainly on a per-student basis, meaning that one of the principal mechanisms to attract additional government support has been to grow.

The results have been exciting – tens of thousands of new students entering the system every year – new undergraduate and graduate programs, professional schools, satellite campuses and capital builds. And while we have welcomed this growth, it has not always occurred in a particularly well-planned way that always fully aligns with provincial interests or highlights areas of institutional excellence.

So what if:

What if we didn’t put our institutions in a position where they felt they must grow at all costs and instead asked them to focus on their strengths?

What if all of us began to take teaching excellence as seriously as we take research excellence?

What if we had a serious and frank discussion with our colleges and universities on their future plans? Where should growth really take place? Who really needs new programming or professional and graduate schools? What is the individual mandate and purpose of each institution within the overall system? How can we help our colleges and universities use the tools of credit transfer and online learning to allow their students to access the best that other institutions have to offer?

This is what our new plan proposes to do.

Beginning this fall, working with each college and university – and using the best third-party advice – we want to negotiate individual mandate and enrolment agreements as a first step to designing a framework of how we want the system to evolve based on the principles of quality, sustainability and most important – the best interests of students.

There is no question that every college and university should be able to offer a full range of core programming, particularly at the undergraduate and entry level. And there is no question that we need to see the continued growth of graduate studies as well as a strong research agenda within both the college and university sectors. But putting students first means focusing our resources on what each institution does best so that collectively they offer the maximum choice, flexibility and quality experience to Ontario students.

Take the issue of satellite campuses. Everyone agrees that the presence of a college or university can benefit an under-serviced community.

But instead of communities and institutions self-identifying as the next location for a satellite, what if we turned the process around? What if government – with a careful eye on the province’s growth plans – identified key areas that might be suitable for satellites and worked with interested parties to develop a model that would best benefit local students as well as preventing unnecessary competition from other colleges and universities that might be nearby?

That is only one example of the new approach we want to take.

And yes, it means that government will have the right to say no to requests because they fail to align with system-wide priorities. But it will give Ontario students the reassurance that our system is evolving in a way that focuses on quality and excellence.

To complement these mandate agreements, we will also be negotiating a new round of multi-year accountability agreements with each college and university. These agreements will establish baselines and targets for each institution in key areas related to the goals of this new strategy, such as teaching excellence, and tie future funding to their achievement.

The way we fund is of course the final piece of the puzzle. The new approach we have outlined today will require a modernization of our funding formula away from one that simply rewards growth at all costs, to one that makes sure that we are achieving our goals in areas like teaching, overall quality and helping institutions fulfill long-term plans and mandates.

Funding formulas may appear to be a long way removed from the concerns of those who simply want their kids to go on in school and get a good job. Yet, if we can get it right, if we can continue to see our postsecondary system evolve in a way that rewards excellence and focuses on our strengths – it is going to result in significant benefits for students across Ontario.

We have so much to celebrate here in Ontario and we owe a great debt of thanks to the leadership shown by so many of you gathered here today to hear this address – administrators, faculty and students. Our postsecondary system is the envy of the world and it is too important to our province’s future to see it undermined by the types of cuts and neglect that have been hallmarks of past governments.

Education – at all levels – has been a central focus for our government. I am very proud of the gains we have made and I can assure you that under the leadership of our Premier, we will be unwavering in our commitment to build upon our achievements.

Over the past eight years we have built a high-quality and competitive postsecondary education and training system for the people of Ontario.

We have achieved this success by working together – and we need to take the same approach in the years ahead as together we build a stronger and smarter system that puts students first.

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