Our appointments as CEO and Vice President just over a year ago turned out to be coincident with many things, some anticipated and others not! The need to develop a new strategic research framework to guide HEQCO’s activities for the next three years was top of mind for us; however the path to completion was very much informed by the constraints of the pandemic. Like many others, we embraced digital platforms and work-from-home strategies. Over our first several months in our new positions, we conducted extensive remote consultations with government, partners, postsecondary institutions, our Board and other stakeholders. We are pleased to share the result of this collaborative process: HEQCO’s Research Roadmap.
HEQCO’s long-established research pillars of access, quality, and sustainability and system design remain front and centre in our new framework. While these general areas of focus are listed separately as a reminder of their importance to, and impact on, the postsecondary sector, our research continues to illustrate that they are all interconnected. For example, it is impossible to examine the quality of a digital learning experience without also considering equity issues for students in remote areas or students who rely on campus support services to succeed.
Our framework includes a portfolio of projects with different timeframes and levels of urgency to inform policy development across the sector. As an example, work is underway to explore current environmental factors shaping postsecondary education in Ontario and internationally. Issues being researched include the effect of COVID-19 on students’ transitions to postsecondary programs; the persistent issue of disparities for women in academia; student skills development and transitions into the labour market; and measuring institutional performance in order to enhance public accountability. All of this work relies on partnerships with institutions and agencies to develop and access rich data sets.
Our planned work in the access priority area includes questions that extend HEQCO’s understanding of postsecondary access and equity: Who has access to PSE? What are the barriers to access and success? At what point in the educational journey do these barriers begin to occur and why? What mitigation strategies are in place and how well are they addressing the issues? Interrogating these questions is both important and urgent given that conversations are occurring in the sector and in society more broadly that will impact public policy.
Students, families, government and institutional leaders all benefit when quality indicators are clearly outlined, assessed and reported. Our work in this priority area will focus on various outcomes associated with a high-quality postsecondary education, including the transfer of skills from PSE to the workplace and the return on investment associated with postsecondary education in Ontario. The pandemic has presented a unique opportunity to evaluate digital teaching and learning as it pushed colleges and universities to accelerate the development of online capacity and expertise. We are interested in understanding how excellence can be defined in the digital learning environment and the ways in which institutions are embedding skill development into remote experiential and work-integrated learning activities.
System sustainability is a critical issue for the sector and for government. In this priority area, we will examine the roles played by differentiation and internationalization in system sustainability. We are undertaking a research project on the credential landscape across the sector with a view to understanding the demand for and supply of a range of postsecondary education credentials offered in Ontario. In addition to our interest in student demand and success rates, we will look at costs to students, institutions and government to test assumptions on matters of funding.
Our framework is ambitious and layered. Given the complexity of the issues and our interests, we’ve taken the following steps to help prepare for this journey:
- Increase HEQCO’s capacity and expertise. Over the past year, we have added new researchers and student interns. Our team brings a variety of professional experiences and perspectives to inform our projects and approaches. We are fortunate to have team members with expertise in data analysis, visualization and research design.
- Develop partnerships with sector colleagues. As we developed our new framework, we met with leaders from across the province to discuss shared questions and priorities. Our work depends on the partnerships we develop with institutions, agencies and community organizations. We look forward to continued conversations.
- Advocate for the development of a high-quality data infrastructure in Ontario. Data is at the heart of HEQCO’s work to develop evidence-based recommendations and analyses in the service of enhancing postsecondary education in Ontario. Accessing data in Ontario is an ongoing challenge. In order to best serve students, families, employers and government, HEQCO will continue to draw attention to the research opportunities that are possible when data is made accessible.
We invite you to check out our Research Plan and Strategic Research Roadmap for more details on specific projects and their timelines. And we hope you will continue to visit our website to read our blogs and reports.
Janice Deakin is president and ceo; Julia Colyar is vice president, research and policy at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.