Harvey P. Weingarten – Quality: The final frontier

As Yogi Berra said, “Predictions are hard, especially when they are about the future.”

But if there is any issue that should dominate the future of higher education, it’s quality – quality of the student experience, quality of our graduates, quality of our postsecondary institutions and quality of our higher education systems. Ultimately, quality is the metric by which our students and institutions are judged and what determines their value and competitiveness.

Some will suggest that the dominant future issue is funding because you cannot discuss quality or improve the status quo without additional revenue or financially sustainable institutions. But two pieces of evidence suggest otherwise. First, universities in Ontario over the last decade or so have seen annual revenue increases of 7% or more. Yet it is exactly during this period of nontrivial revenue increases that concerns over the quality of education in Ontario have become more acute. This increased revenue has accommodated inflation, growth, wage settlements above the rate of inflation and increased support for research, and all of this has been exacerbated by the apparent reduction of teaching loads for full-time faculty. The last 10 years provide an instructive case study in the misguided belief that simply putting more money into the system as it currently exists would necessarily improve quality.

Second, a recent HEQCO analysis of postsecondary systems in Canada, Canadian Postsecondary Performance: Impact 2015, demonstrated that within the funding levels that currently exist, there is no correlation between the funding of a provincial system and its level of performance. As that report concluded, it is time to refocus the postsecondary discussion from how much money institutions get to what they do with that money and what outcomes are being achieved. This is particularly relevant to Ontario students, as Ontario is a top performer in access and value to society measures but below average on a basket of indicators related to value to students.

So what must we do to achieve a higher education system focused on quality?

It requires an articulation of what postsecondary graduates should know and be able to do. Consensus on desired learning outcomes is fundamental and ideally should be shaped by institutions, government, employers, the public and students. At HEQCO, we have promoted a taxonomy of learning outcomes that suggests four overarching but related categories: i) disciplinary knowledge, ii) basic cognitive skills such as literacy and numeracy, iii) higher-order cognitive skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking, and iv) transferable life skills such as resilience and time management.
A postsecondary world focused on quality also measures whether the desired learning outcomes are actually being achieved. This is a challenging question because we need reliable and valid measurements of relevant learning outcomes; we have these for some outcomes but not for others.

We need to do a better job of collecting and reporting relevant, meaningful information about higher education systems and institutions, including the knowledge and skills of their graduates, their performance and their outcomes – not for ranking or punishment but because meaningful measurement is a necessary pre-condition for continuous improvement. You can’t manage (or improve) what you don’t measure and, most importantly, what gets measured gets done.

So what about differentiation, system design, funding formulas, tuition – all of which you know as areas of research and policy analysis associated with HEQCO? These issues are important. But they are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are tools – powerful ones – that can help us achieve an improved and higher quality postsecondary system, an outcome that would serve our students, society and country remarkably well.

A longer version of this blog appeared in Educated Solutions magazine, volume 9, published by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

Thanks for reading.

Harvey P. Weingarten is HEQCO’s president and CEO.

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