University Report: Strengthen system quality, sustainability and accountability

How can Ontario’s universities improve access, quality and international competitiveness while ensuring a system that is both sustainable and accountable?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 – While several of Ontario’s 20 universities are internationally ranked, pressures on the postsecondary system are palpable. Increased enrollment is jeopardizing the range and quality of programs while a changing labour market demands postsecondary credentials. How can Ontario’s universities improve access, quality and international competitiveness while ensuring a system that is both sustainable and accountable?

A new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) says universities should set measureable goals based on their strengths, and the provincial government should base new funding on
whether those goals are met. The results, according to The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sectorwould produce a postsecondary system that is more cohesive, more fluid, more sustainable and higher quality.

HEQCO president and CEO Harvey Weingarten, with report co-author and HEQCO research director Fiona Deller, embraced the provincial government’s challenge to explore whether a more strongly differentiated set of universities would help improve the overall performance and sustainability of the system, and help Ontario compete internationally.  With input from student groups and university and college leaders, the report builds on HEQCO’s research and best thinking on the postsecondary sector.

Student-centered and grounded in financial incentives, the report challenges universities to be accountable based on their mission and priorities.  “Students should have clearer choices from a larger number of higher quality programs,” says Weingarten. “They should have greater clarity on which institutions best serve their career and personal aspirations. They should have more mobility within the college/university system.

“For government, funding universities in areas where they can excel would encourage greater differentiation of the system,” says Weingarten.  “It’s one of the most powerful levers available to achieve the goals of increased system quality, competitiveness, accountability and sustainability. Differentiation would change the way government funds the system.  It doesn’t necessarily mean more money; it means that money is spent differently.”

A cornerstone of the differentiated approach is a comprehensive agreement between each university and the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, identifying the expectations and accountabilities of each institution including target enrolment and student mix, priority teaching and research programs and areas for future growth and development.

“New funding to an institution would be aligned with its mission” says Weingarten, “and annual progress would be evaluated using an agreed-upon set of performance indicators. Institutional funding would be continued or removed based on progress towards agreed-upon goals and targets.”

He notes that the university system is already somewhat differentiated.  “In many cases, program specialization is underway on an institutional or regional basis. But we can go further.  Each of our 20 universities and 24 colleges has distinct attributes and strengths.  We have breadth and depth in the postsecondary system but not all institutions have to look the same. Many other provinces and countries have started down the differentiation road; we need to, as well.”

The HEQCO report describes several postsecondary models both within and outside of Canada. The international models were chosen for their innovation in reforming or addressing stagnation in their respective systems (UK, Germany), their historical leadership in differentiated institutional mandates (California), or their relevance to Ontario (New Zealand’s attempt to address its geography and the problem of regional diversity).

“We don’t propose recreating what they are doing; we have different systems, different demographics and are starting at a different place,” says Weingarten. “But we need to adopt the attitude, the mind set.”

Weingarten cautions that a movement towards greater differentiation will succeed only if it’s clear that the government is placing equal value on several key university functions including teaching quality and research excellence.  “That commitment to equal value must be more than rhetorical; it must be reflected in funding as well.” 

The authors hope the report will fuel debate and discussion – potentially shifting the focus from framework to implementation.  Weingarten says that if embraced, the differentiation approach should have tangible results in three to five years.

“A more differentiated university system offers students a wider variety of unique and quality programs at both graduate and undergraduate levels,” he says.  “It encourages institutions to build on institutional strengths and niche areas of expertise, to recognize the value of teaching and learning activities, and to reap the rewards of competitive innovation and entrepreneurship activities. We’re already on the road. It’s time for the next big steps.”

 About the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario is an arm’s-length agency of the Government of Ontario dedicated to ensuring the continued improvement of the postsecondary education system in Ontario.  The Council was created through the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario Act, 2005. It is mandated to conduct research, evaluate the postsecondary education system, and provide policy recommendations to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities with a view to enhance the quality, access, and accountability of Ontario’s higher education system.

For further information, please contact:

Susan Bloch-Nevitte
Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario
Executive Director, Communications
(416) 212-5242 / Cell (416) 434-7311