In the preface to his book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes wrote: “The ideas which are expressed here…are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds”.
I have no comment about Keynes as an economist (full disclosure – I never took an economics course, although some of my best friends are economists). However, he was a great psychologist who understood that the real challenge to change is liberating oneself from the way one habitually thinks about problems, thereby making it possible to implement new ideas and more suitable solutions.
There are many expressions of the desire for change, if not transformation, of Ontario’s postsecondary system. For example, for some time now, the government has indicated its wish to move beyond the dominant influences of increased enrolment and growth to the achievement of other desired outcomes such as preparing students better for today’s jobs, more sustainable institutions, higher quality education and research, etc. The government appreciates that it has powerful levers to effect these changes. But, will it design and use these levers in new ways to promote change or will the attempts at redesign stay captive to the old ways we have thought about these issues in the past?
For the past several decades, Ontario’s funding formula for colleges and universities has been driven almost exclusively by enrolment – incremental funding has been tied to enrolment growth. Recognizing that this mechanism no longer serves the province’s needs, the government is committed to reforming the formula. We face a critical choice point. Will reform amount to tweaking the legacy corridor funding model and reinforce the status quo? Or, will the revised formula provide drivers aimed at critical objectives beyond enrolment, such as improvement in student learning outcomes (as recommended by the Herbert Report) and institutional sustainability?
For many years, Ontario’s philosophy has been to treat all institutions (at least within the college and university sectors) the same. It has now committed to a policy of institutional differentiation — supporting institutions to pursue their distinctive strengths, thereby maximizing their contribution to the overall system. These differentiation contracts between the government and each institution are captured in Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs); the next round of SMA negotiations is expected in 2017. Will SMAs continue to treat every institution more or less the same or will we see a bold attempt to truly capture differing strengths and contributions of institutions by establishing a different set of expectations and performance measures for each institution tied to funding?
In the past, the Ontario government has taken a largely hands-off approach with its universities (relative to other jurisdictions), less so with its colleges. Recent government statements suggest that it is considering changing its position on the autonomy-accountability continuum. As it seeks to discharge its legitimate role as a steward of public funds, l, will the government be more willing to impose a more robust performance and accountability regime for postsecondary institutions, perhaps akin to what exists in the health care sector, and modify the decades-old policy for colleges to acknowledge their desire for an expanded role?
Another quote attributed to Keynes is: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Surely, the facts of public higher education in Ontario are different now than they were in the last half century. We have new ideas and solutions that are obvious. The question is whether it will be possible to escape from the old ideas which, as Keynes predicted, still “ramify… into every corner of our minds.” We’ll see.
Thanks for reading.
Harvey Weingarten is president and CEO of HEQCO