Harvey P. Weingarten – It’s time to get serious about improving Canada’s colleges and universities

A recent Globe and Mail article pointed out that Canadian universities appear to be slipping in world rankings.  This is not a good thing.  Higher education institutions — because of the students they teach, the research and discoveries they make, and the communities they support —  are some of the most critical public institutions in Canada positioning us for a robust  economy with plentiful good jobs and the  quality of life and civil society Canadians want and merit.

The challenge Canada faces in higher education is best summarized in this question:  How can we deliver a better education to more students with no more money?

I know that some will suggest that the solution must involve more government funding.  But, Canada’s postsecondary system already enjoys a level of public support higher than most other countries.  And, the Ontario system (which represents about 40% of all higher education enrolments in Canada) has seen mounting concerns about quality at the same time that it has been receiving significant increases in government support.

Fortunately, Canada shares this same postsecondary challenge with many other countries around the globe, providing the opportunity to see what other countries are doing to improve their higher education systems.  Interestingly, countries have gravitated to a small set of core strategies:

  1. Governments manage the system, and move away from micromanaging institutions.  Governments create a framework of policies, practices and incentives that identify desired public goals and that steer institutions in the system to collectively achieve these goals and to maximize the output of individual institutions.  Governments shy away from policies and practices that tell universities and colleges how to achieve these goals.  Rather, they leave the means to the experts, who typically are in the institutions, not in the government.
  2. Governments create clear and transparent accountability mechanisms. Governments monitor the performance of institutions to hold them accountable and to identify areas where improvements are needed.  This requires the measurement of relevant metrics and indicators that are meaningful and useful to the public, students and the institutions.  Best practice is to make these data available publicly.  The most effective accountability mechanisms are those that are tied to funding.
  3. Governments fund institutions on the basis of outcomes, not inputs.  This  focuses attention on what matters – whether desired outcomes are being achieved.   So, for example, don’t fund on the basis of the number of enrolees but rather on the number that actually graduate.   This strategy requires that governments be articulate about which outcomes they desire from their system:  Higher enrolments? Students better prepared for jobs? More world-class institutions?  More commercializable discoveries?  It is okay to have more than one desired outcome.  But, too many diffuse the efforts of the system and may lead to too few institutions performing at the highest levels.   And, it is not required that all institutions contribute equally to all desired outcomes.
  4. Adopt a policy of differentiation.  Differentiation means that there are not the same expectations of all institutions in the system. Rather, the system is designed to allow each institution to do more of what it does best and, therefore, to make its optimal contribution to the system.   So, institutions can be different in terms of the students they accept, the programs they offer, their balance between teaching and research, and how they are funded.  Differentiation is the major lever available to governments, particularly in resource constrained times, to improve quality.  A differentiated system provides students with clarity of choice among a set of higher quality institutions that best serve their needs and aspirations.  Coupled to a sensible transfer credit system, differentiation permits students to move seamlessly and efficiently between institutions if their needs and aspirations change.

These core strategies are interdependent.  Thinking about outcomes and differentiation drive system-level thinking.  Effective accountability requires clarity around desired outcomes.  Differentiation drives changes to funding formulas.

Some provinces in Canada are exploiting some of these strategies.  For example, BC and Alberta have a differentiated higher education system that is based on classification of universities as more or less involved in research.  Ontario is beginning to pursue differentiation based on individual mandate agreements with each of its 44 institutions.  In general, though, Canada lags other countries in the clarity of its discussion about outcomes, the collection of meaningful and useful data to manage higher education, its commitment to continuous improvement of the quality of its higher education sector, its willingness to hold institutions accountable for performance and the willingness to tie funding to differentiated mandates.

Canada has a very good public postsecondary system that has served the country well.  We have several institutions in the Top 100 in the world.  This is a good platform from which to build.  We know the strategies other countries use to drive higher quality in their postsecondary systems.  These other countries are moving with an urgency, speed and scale that may leave Canada in their wakes.  It is time for Canada to get more serious about improving its colleges and universities and we do not need, nor do we have, 8-10 years to figure this out.

Harvey P. Weingarten is President of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

This originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.

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