Martin Hicks – What difference a decade: the view from inside

Reflections on the ‘Rae Report’ 10 years and a few billion dollars later

Martin Hicks, Executive Director, Data and Statistics
Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

It’s Feb. 7, 2005. Bob Rae faces the Queen’s Park media and releases his report and recommendations for Ontario’s postsecondary education system: popularly dubbed the Rae Report but officially titled Ontario – A Leader in Learning. It’s a pivotal moment. Mr. Rae, his distinguished advisory panel and a lean and professional secretariat have spent seven months consulting broadly, thinking creatively, and then crafting forward-looking advice for a young and fresh McGuinty government.

The report’s release triggered a multi-year government investment and that was no accident. Premier McGuinty was already a believer when he asked for Mr. Rae’s help. The terms of reference were crafted inside the Cabinet Office, tucked up close to the political pulse. Mr. Rae tilled the ground before the lights, cameras and recommendations rolled, especially with the venerable Greg Sorbara, Ontario’s minister of finance; and the influential and thoughtful Gerald Butts, head of policy in the new premier’s office.

Ministry of Finance bureaucrats, a stern-faced lot whose job and pleasure it is to say no, didn’t have a chance on this one. The government’s spring 2005 Reaching Higher postsecondary budget initiative was spectacular in its scope and generosity. Higher education Minister Mary Anne Chambers and sector representatives danced on tables in the budget lock-up. The Council of Ontario Universities took a full and historic month off from lobbying for funding increases. Against a backdrop of challenging provincial deficits and competing expenditure pressures in other sectors, Reaching Higher’s investment commitment was sustained through its full five years and its momentum carried beyond. It’s been a great decade for higher education in Ontario.

It wasn’t just about money. The investment proposals were, in fact, carefully considered access and quality improvement initiatives. Mr. Rae described the results to be expected. He advocated for better information and meaningful accountability partnerships between institutions and government to ensure the money would be spent as intended, and the impacts evaluated.

Coming out of the gate post-budget with a fat bank account, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities faced a formidable challenge. The new funding was front end loaded, with the biggest of the annual increases packed into the first two years. Carry overs are not allowed inside government. MTCU had to spend fast or give it back.

But fleshing out the policy framework, designing the new programs, building data tools and monitoring progress, all in partnership with institutions that culturally resist “government interference,” takes time. Spending got a little ahead of the rest of the job.

Compounding the dynamics, the official communications tag saddled Reaching Higher as a “$6.2 billion historic investment.” This bewildering number was, in fact, the cumulative five-year tally of new dollars. It’s like pronouncing “my salary is $200,000” by adding up five years of a $40,000 salary. This further skewed expectations. Rae had proposed that the government move Ontario from 10th (and therefore last) place in terms of funding per student across the provinces to the midpoint. Ten years later, Ontario is still in 10th place.

The quick spend challenge also manifested itself out in the sector, not that anyone was complaining that the tap was too full on. In fact, some institutions became so quickly acclimatized to hefty annual increases that they became downright grumpy by year three, when top ups modulated, as planned, to just plain generous.

The 2005 budget papers, after enumerating the quality and access improvements to be anticipated, warned “the government’s expectation is that this historic investment will not simply be used to enrich compensation packages within the system.” But we also wanted labour peace, we wanted the world’s brightest, and the only change to the dynamics and structures of collective bargaining was the injection of a large new sum of money on management’s table. It’s been a great decade to work in the sector.

Lest this seem an insider’s lament (I was working in the ministry at the time), let me say that the Rae Report triggered some wonderful successes. Details please:

Mr. Rae urged us to make higher education affordable for students and their families. Ontario has done a terrific job with student aid over the past decade. The report proposed a shift in weighting from loan-based aid to grants; this has happened. It recommended income-sensitive loan repayment; OSAP now has that flexibility built in. A greater percentage of students than ever before participate in our student assistance programs and therefore in our postsecondary system. That’s what we wanted.

Mr. Rae proposed that fully 70% of Ontario adults should complete a postsecondary credential in our high-skills economy. The 70% target was adopted by government. Enrolments surged. Ten years later we are poised to surpass the goal. Today, Ontario is the best in the world on this measure.

Mr. Rae promoted institutional differentiation. He envisaged an environment where institutions and government forge bilateral agreements: the former define institutional priorities, establish enrolment targets and improvement plans; the latter commits to financial and policy support. HEQCO has followed up with evidence-based advice on differentiation’s quality and productivity benefits. In 2013, the government elevated differentiation as the key policy lever in support of recently inked Strategic Mandate Agreements with each college and university. On this front, we’ve only just begun and there is another decade of work to realize the full potential.

There’s more in the report and it’s a long list with currency and relevance: a funding formula tied to results, recognition of apprenticeship as an equal postsecondary destination, more meaningful contact with faculty, student mobility and credit transfer, better information on postsecondary opportunities and labour market outcomes. Now, a decade out and as the money slows, the policy side has a chance to catch up.

Lastly, I now work at HEQCO and it is a great privilege to do so. HEQCO was a Rae Report recommendation. Thank you for the opportunity, Mr. Rae.

Martin Hicks is HEQCO’s executive director of data and statistics.

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