OCUFA Memo on SMA’s (23 August 2012)

By Mark Rosenfeld, Executive Director of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA); as emailed to member associations, 23 August 2012.

Re: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) Strategic  Mandate Agreements for Ontario Universities and Colleges

I am writing you today to provide some background information and identify emerging issues related to a new MTCU initiative of which you may have heard. On August 7, Deputy Minister Deborah Newman wrote to Executive Heads and Presidents of community colleges and universities asking them to submit Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) proposals by September 30, 2012.

On the basis of a copy of the memo which we recently received and several conversations with other individuals and organizations, we now know the following:

Intent of SMAs

The goal of the SMA process appears to be:

  • To “strongly inform future decisions, including [funding] allocation decisions and program approvals”.
  • To identify a shortlist of community colleges and universities whose SMAs “…demonstrate the greatest ability to serve as lead institutions – models of advanced education in the 21st century.”
  • To improve productivity, quality, and affordability in postsecondary education (PSE) through innovation and differentiation.
  • To accommodate enrolment growth and reach the 70% enrolment target with no significant (or any) increase in government funding (either operating or capital).

Overall, these goals appear to be closely related to the goals and principles advocated by Minister Glen Murray throughout the summer consultations on his discussion paper, Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation, and Knowledge.

Content of the SMAs

Presidents of each institution are to prepare and personally sign-off on a completed SMA template, of no more than 8 pages in length,  which provides information describing objectives and concomitant activities through 2015 that will bolster the Minister’s directions outlined in the recent discussion paper and consultations for post-secondary education in Ontario.

In the template, the President of each institution is to provide three priority objectives in a “mandate statement”, provide a vision statement for the university/college related to the mandate, and describe how these will affect enrolment/enrolment mix, enrolment growth by credential, program approvals requests and new programs, and the balance between teaching and research.

The submission also asks for a description of institutional strengths that will assist in the achievement of the vision and priorities, and specify resource reallocations that will be needed to achieve the outlined goals. The template must also specify evaluation mechanisms, productivity improvements for teaching, research, learning or administration, identification of additional public policy tools needed to achieve the plan, and demonstrate correspondence to the government’s principles.

Government Principles for Post-Secondary Education in Ontario

The covering memo for the SMA templates specifies several principles that are presumably governing MTCU’s approach to the sector. These include:

  1. Putting students first through focusing on student choice, improving quality and affordability, increasing mobility with a better credit transfer approach and strong Ontario credentials brand, more use of technology in teaching and “flexible course and degree structures.”
  2. Meeting the needs of the creative economy through achieving the 70% PSE graduate target, ensuring that programming emphasizes workforce knowledge and competencies as well as liberal arts and sciences, increasing partnerships among PSE institutions, the community, and employers/entrepreneurs.
  3. Focussing on productivity, innovation, and sustainability through differentiation (strengths and areas of excellence), cost management through shared/integrated services, managing enrolment and program growth, improving productivity through teaching, technology, infrastructure, program and degree organization innovations.

SMA Process:

Completed submissions are to be e-mailed or mailed directly to the Minister. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) has been asked to establish a “peer” review panel that will evaluate the submissions and advise the Minister of the institutions that “demonstrate the greatest ability to serve as lead institutions”. It is not at all clear what the composition of the peer panel will be (or indeed, what qualifies as “peer” in this context). It is also not clear what criteria will be used to judge the SMA submissions, or what the designation “lead institution” means. The memo does not indicate what, if any, special consideration these “leaders” will receive.

It is clear that Minister Murray has a personal interest in this process, and the memo indicates that he “is particularly interested to see that quality teaching and additional learning options be made available to students through the SMA process.”  We understand that the Ministry is looking at establishing an “innovation fund” of some $30 million for next year where the Minister would approve proposals that enhance “innovation” at Ontario universities and colleges.

The government has signaled that the SMA submission is the “first step” in a process, so there may be scope for institutions to negotiate their SMA beyond the initial submission.

OCUFA Concerns

As with the consultations which OCUFA attended this Summer, the primary motivation for the SMAs appears to be a cost-containment exercise driven by the need to expand enrolment while maintaining quality. Personally, the Minister has a deep interest in “transformational change” and desires significant change to the current provision of higher education in Ontario. Given the fiscal realities in Ontario, it is unclear how this change will be funded, though it appears MTCU is interested in how best to “re-deploy” resources to reflect the government’s “strategic priorities”.

OCUFA continues to be concerned that neither the summer consultations nor the SMA memo adequately define “innovation” or “productivity” in the context of Ontario’s post-secondary education system. This ambiguity makes it difficult to identify and implement appropriate reforms.   HEQCO has also been tasked with the collection of data on “productivity”, a data collection project that we understand will be three to five years in duration.

For the first time, program approvals (normally within the purview of academic senates and the provincial, COU-sponsored program assessment and approval process under the aegis of the Ontario Universities Council on Quality Assurance) and decisions about delivery of academic programs appear to be a subject of interest and possible intervention by MTCU. Governments have a checkered history when it comes to academic decision making, and OCUFA is concerned that any attempt to align academic planning with the government’s strategic priorities would damage institutional autonomy and hurt the quality of education received by students.

From the SMA memo and the summer consultations, MTCU also appears interested in examining, and perhaps changing, the current funding formula and tuition fee policy. OCUFA will oppose any attempt to increase the use of competitive, performance-based operating funding, or to expand the number of special purpose funding envelopes. We will also oppose any proposal to further shift the cost of higher education onto students and their families. We believe, as we have always believed, that university must be funded primarily through public sources.

We also do not know yet how any new approaches, including those related to operational funding or tuition fee policy, may affect individual universities’ budget forecasting and planning, academic planning, institutional autonomy, the role of academic Senates, or academic freedom.

The competitive process outlined by the SMA, with its uncertainties and lack of clarity, cannot but impact on inter- and intra-campus relations at all levels.

OCUFA is working actively to acquire and analyze information on the government’s plans going forward. Over the next few weeks, we will be meeting with Minister Murray as well as senior civil servants to both express our concerns and learn more about their intentions, and we will keep you informed.  The Minister’s “transformational change agenda”,  including SMAs,  will also be discussed at the OCUFA October 27-28, 2012 Board meeting.

In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me directly at mrosenfeld@ocufa.on.ca.

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This entry was posted in Context - National, Provincial, Governmental, Differentiation of Ontario Universities, Financial Constraints, HEQCO. Bookmark the permalink.

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