In any policy initiative, it is important to distinguish between goals and strategies. Goals are things you are trying to achieve – the outcomes you are seeking. Strategies are processes and actions that can be employed to achieve these desired outcomes.
Strategies are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are tools. Strategies have no inherent value – they are neither good nor bad. Their worth and value are determined by their effectiveness in driving changes that lead to achievement of the desired goals. It is the goals you really care about and that provide the framework for the selection, design and use of strategies.
A good example of confusion between strategies and goals is the discussion paper that accompanied the recent Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities task force led by Sue Herbert to develop a new postsecondary funding formula. That document identified four goals the government was hoping to achieve with a new funding formula – enhanced quality of the student experience; support for greater differentiation; greater financial sustainability of the postsecondary sector and increased transparency and accountability.
At best, only two of these – enhancement of the student experience and more financially sustainable institutions – are actual goals. The other two – differentiation and greater transparency and accountability – are strategies that may or not be effective in achieving desired goals. In fact, even the funding formula itself is a strategy — a powerful strategy if its design and incentives are properly shaped. But in and of itself, a new funding formula is only useful if it leads towards the goals we have for the system. One of the raw deals handed to Sue Herbert’s team was the lack of clarity around the outcomes the government hoped to achieve with a new funding formula. In the absence of this, it is impossible to design a new funding formula.
The lack of a clearly articulated, limited set of desired outcomes and goals in Ontario for the public postsecondary system (dare I say a vision statement?) plagues postsecondary planning and decision making in Ontario. What are the government’s goals for postsecondary education? It is hard to tell, because there appear to be far too many (some of which contradict others) and their relative prominence seems to vary from one government decision to another. This is not a good state of affairs because it is impossible to have a set of coherent, integrated and mutually supporting policies, or a new funding formula, or a purposeful plan, until the desired goals are agreed upon.
There is little appetite, nor in our view a need, for a grand visioning exercise. Based on our analyses of the Ontario postsecondary system and the rumblings, actions and various policy statements from government, we at HEQCO suggest the following three goals for the Ontario postsecondary system:
- More equitable access and success for all students.
- Higher quality outcomes: On the education side, ensuring that students acquire the knowledge, skills and competencies for personal and professional success and on the research side ensuring that the scholarly output of our institutions has impact and is internationally competitive and recognized.
- Greater financial sustainability of the system and its institutions.
We believe these goals are eminently achievable. In fact, as our Expert Panel reviewing Ontario postsecondary institution’s Strategic Mandate Agreement submissions opined, achievement of these goals, especially on the student learning front, could propel the Ontario postsecondary system to world-leading status. More importantly, achieving these three goals would result in a more robust, healthy and internationally competitive Ontario economy, better jobs for Ontarians and a higher quality of life in Ontario. Who wouldn’t want that?
If we agree that these are the goals we seek, then the task becomes one of designing strategies to achieve these goals. Goals are aspirational. Strategies are grounded in reality. And, as Sue Herbert’s report observes, we simply have to do a better job of data collection and analysis to describe realistically where we are now and where the opportunities for improvement are to be found.
Of no surprise to HEQCO followers, we continue to believe that a policy of greater institutional differentiation is a powerful strategy to achieve the goals identified above. In fact, we cannot imagine how those goals could be achieved unless we embrace, more vigorously and more strategically than we have to date, the idea of greater institutional differentiation. We would be delighted to elaborate on this point at any length you can stand if you invite us to do so.
Differentiation by itself is unlikely to be a sufficient strategy for achieving the goals we believe Ontario wants. There are other potential strategies – including a new funding formula, an amended mandate for the college system, greater public disclosure of meaningful data, etc. However, those we select, and how they are designed and used, must be assessed and tested against their utility and probability of achieving the goals we want. Fortunately, there is evidence from other jurisdictions on which might have the greatest potential to improve Ontario’s postsecondary system.
It all starts with a clear statement of goals for the postsecondary system. Without such a list we do not know what problems we want to solve or what success looks like. Some will call this a vision statement. We call it good management.
Thanks for reading.
Harvey P. Weingarten