Harvey P. Weingarten – Governments and policy: A tribute to experiential learning

I attended two conferences recently to speak on the issue of how governments form higher education policy and how postsecondary institutions can behave to have greater influence over the policies governments adopt and the decisions they make.

Many of the speakers in these gatherings approach these problems from some theoretical orientation.  In contrast, my contributions have been shaped by my experiences as an academic administrator dealing extensively with two quite different provincial governments in two provinces (Ontario and Alberta), several federal governments of different stripes (the Liberals under Chretien and Martin, and the Conservatives under Harper) and now, sitting on the other side of the policy desk, at HEQCO where our job is to fashion policy advice for government.  I consider my education on matters of policy-making as a tribute to experiential learning.

To date there have been two public accounts of the messages I offer.  The first was a blog by Leo Charbonneau of AUCC.  The second was an article in the Toronto Star.  Charbonneau did a better job of capturing the tone, spirit and central messages of my talk.  The slant of the Toronto Star focused on confrontation between universities and government and presented it as a way for universities to improve how they “beg for money” rather than what the talk was really about — how governments and universities could establish a more productive, useful, informed and influential relationship that would lead to improved policies to better serve students, institutions and the public. (Interestingly, in the Twitter world, Charbonneau takes the Star to task for stealing his blog without attribution – I will let them fight it out).

If I have learned one thing in the Peyton Place-like (I know that this reference dates me) world of higher education, it is that if you want to know what someone really said, you should ask them directly and not rely on third-party accounts.  Otherwise, we are like the New Yorker cartoon where two people argue vociferously about the merits of a particular movie. Neither has seen the movie but both have read reviews.  So, here is a distillation of what I really said:

  1. The relationships between governments and postsecondary institutions are far from optimal and all are better served if we get them to a better place, and now more than ever.  A turbulent and economically constrained environment such as we are in now often leads to consideration of greater and more profound policy and process changes.
  2. Governments make decisions the way everyone else (including postsecondary institutions) makes decisions.  They respond to their constraints and incentives.  Specifically:
    a.  Policies are based on stories, anecdotes, stereotypes, intuitions, ideologies and personal experiences as much as they are, or even more than they are, by evidence.b. Politicians, as one should expect, make political decisions.c. Good policies take some time to get right.

    d. Today’s political dynamic is highly intolerant of failure, making it difficult for governments to adopt bold or innovative policies.

  3. There are behaviours postsecondary institutions can adopt that would increase their influence over policies and decisions governments make.  These include:
    a. Thinking less about themselves and trying to better position their views, taking into account the perspective, challenges and constraints of government.b. Being consistent with their message.c. Communicating in ways that people, not just a group of researchers, would comprehend.

    d. Understanding that the point person for government relations is the university president, not the higher education research and policy communities.

    e. Putting some of their own institutional resources behind a project to demonstrate real commitment to it before asking for government support.

If you want a more extensive description of some of these points, consult the Charbonneau blog.  If for some reason you are motivated to read the full paper, I can send you a prepublication version (for your amusement and not for citation – these are the conventional constraints of traditional academic publishing).  As always, delighted to hear from anyone out there in the blogosphere.

Thanks for reading.

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