I had the opportunity recently to participate in a conference panel for members of the Boards of Governors of Ontario universities. Our panel was charged to opine on the question of whether universities are meeting the needs of students and the public and, if there is room for improvement, what has to change.
The conference organizers imposed the intelligent constraint that we had no more than 3-5 minutes to answer the questions (as an aside, this is a constraint that is badly needed at many academic conferences). When you only have a short time to make a case, it forces you to crystallize the essential points and present them in memorable ways.
In the 3-5 minutes it will take you to read this blog, I will let you decide whether my comments are reasonable, clear and memorable.
For more than 20 years, the Canadian higher education system has organized and managed itself to improve access: to increase participation rates and to grow. The results of this policy imperative have been spectacular. Over the last 20 years, enrolment in Canada’s postsecondary institutions has grown from 1.3 million to 2.0 million. The results have been particularly impressive in Ontario. From 2003-2008, for example, enrolments in Ontario universities grew 29% from 302,000 to 389,000 and in colleges 11% from 181,000 to 201,000. Postsecondary participation rates in Ontario rose from 33% to 36% and Ontario can boast one of the highest postsecondary attainment rates in Canada, if not the world.
The problem, however, is this. The strategies governments are using to promote this growth and the strategies postsecondary institutions are using to accommodate this growth are leading to a continuing erosion of the quality of the postsecondary experience: larger classes; less engagement with students; student complaints that they do not know any professor well enough to obtain a letter of recommendation; public narratives questioning the value of a postsecondary education, especially university; etc. Concern over quality is reinforced by current research on literacy. A nontrivial proportion of Ontario postsecondary students may not have the literacy skills to participate adequately in higher education and only a minority of students graduating from Ontario institutions appear to have achieved literacy skills beyond an international standard of basic literacy.
The Ontario government recognizes that it is time for policies that promote quality to complement those that privilege only growth. That is why they are beginning to pursue policies, like differentiation, which other governments are also using to optimize quality. Now we need to get the job done and the essence of my comments at the meeting was how we should think about this shift from managing for access to managing for quality.
The shift to managing for quality will not be easy. First, there is the human nature problem identified so beautifully by John Maynard Keynes that: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” But, the shift to quality will encounter more impediments than simply moving away from things we did in the past.
The first challenge is that of measuring progress. It is easy to measure whether one is being successful when the objective is to increase enrolments – you simply have to know how to count and if the numbers go up you are making progress. A fundamental challenge to a shift for quality is that there is controversy about how to measure quality. Yes, there are some surrogate measures that some think may be useful – student satisfaction, NSSE scores [especially some subscales], employment rates, rankings, standardized tests like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, etc. But, we would all be more confident and enthusiastic in a shift to quality if there was better agreement on direct, reliable and valid measures of higher education quality.
Some conclude from the current lack of consensus that quality cannot be measured and therefore we should abandon any attempt to manage for quality. I suggested that quality was too important a problem to ignore, especially given that the public, students and governments are now demanding evidence to back up the assertions by administrators and faculty about the quality of their institutions. Measuring educational or academic quality is no more intractable than measuring research quality, a challenge the academy has solved and one it spends much time measuring.
The problem of defining quality in higher education and creating reliable and valid ways of measuring it is one of the most exciting and significant areas of research in postsecondary education. That is why so much of the HEQCO research agenda is devoted to this problem. This issue is not going away. We need to come up with good solutions to the challenge of measuring educational quality or other jurisdictions will force their answers on us.
The second impediment to managing for quality is that it shifts the locus of blame for failure. If we fail to meet an access target, institutions claim that it is primarily the government’s fault because if the government allocated more money to institutions they would take more students. History suggests that this is indeed the case. In contrast, if we fail to meet a quality objective, the primary culprit is the institution. We do not want a government policing and managing quality – this is a quintessential responsibility of the academy because that is where the experts are who can evaluate claims of quality and be sensitive to different definitions of quality in institutions with different mandates or disciplines of different cultures and practices.
Nonetheless, there are some who will still blame government for a failure to meet a quality agenda because funding was insufficient. While I know there is some relationship between resources and quality, the simple argument that more money will improve quality does not wash. After all, it is during that period when Ontario provided more resources to the postsecondary sector that the concerns of quality got more acute. Managing for quality requires a shift from the focus of how much money the government allots and the institutions receive to how the government gives out public money and how the institutions spend it.
The third impediment to managing for quality are the challenges and discipline it imposes on those who manage our institutions. When you are managing for access the bias is to say yes to as many students you think you can accommodate. Managing for quality requires people to say “no” to some important decisions – no, we cannot take more students because it will diminish quality; no, you are not good enough to be hired, get tenure, or be promoted as a faculty member; no, you can’t offer this new program because the quality level is not high enough; no, you cannot continue these programs and courses because the quality level is just not sufficient. Saying “no” is a requirement for managing for quality and some institutions find it is hard to do – it is not fun and makes one few friends.
Quality is the metric by which the world assesses the worth, value and competitiveness of our postsecondary system, institutions and graduates. By shifting and attending to a quality agenda, Ontario has the opportunity to uplift its postsecondary system and, as noted by the Expert Panel we convened to assess the Strategic Mandate Agreements submitted by Ontario’s colleges and universities, position Ontario’s postsecondary system to world-leading status among public systems. Wouldn’t we all benefit from that?
This blog has gone on long enough. If any of the arguments made here resonate, one of the questions that should come to mind is how one actually changes from managing for access to managing for quality? Fortunately, there is a large literature on how to promote and manage change and I will talk about this in a forthcoming blog. If you want a head start, read John P. Kotter’s book, Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1996).
Thanks for reading.
-Harvey P. Weingarten