Ontario higher education’s year of living dangerously

Glen Murray was appointed Ontario’s new minister of training colleges and universities in October 2011, and for the next year the entire system would become preoccupied with a whirlwind of activity surrounding the minister’s unfocused initiatives and rhetoric about the rapid transformation of higher education in this Canadian province.

The Liberal Party, under Premier Dalton McGuinty, had just been re-elected and Murray inherited a long wish list of major commitments from a government that had worked hard to support and expand higher education.

The summer budget included commitments to further expand enrolment by 60,000 students and reach a post-secondary attainment level of 70%. It also announced that there would be three new campuses, an online learning institute, major improvements to credit transfer and a 50% increase in international student numbers.

Murray’s first job was to implement the government’s election promise for a major tuition rebate programme that advantaged middle-class families. The initiative was politically popular, largely regressive and very expensive, draining resources from a government that was now looking for ways of reducing its deficit.

Murray quickly developed a reputation as an ambitious politician who was far more interested in leading big changes than in listening to institutional leaders or the experts within his ministry.

He spoke about the accelerated pace of change, and the need for dramatic transformation, and derided the “risk averse university presidents, colleges presidents, and faculty association presidents who think that any change is pejorative”. Time was short and the system needed an overhaul to spend smarter and become more productive.

Some sense of the minister’s broad agenda became clear when Kristin Rushowy at the Toronto Star wrote a February 2012 story about a leaked draft discussion paper.

The document suggested that Ontario universities should move from four- to three-year degrees, offer courses on a year-round basis, and dramatically increase their online teaching activities so that all undergraduate students could take a large component of their programme via distance learning. Obtaining a degree should take less time and less money.

Reactions to the linked document were largely negative. The minister indicated that the document was simply one of several internal discussion papers, and it was never officially released.

But many of the ideas from the leaked document found their way into a toned-down discussion paper that was released in June. Rapid change was needed on a wide range of fronts, including the development of “revitalised, labour market-focused three-year degrees”, the use of technology and online learning, entrepreneurial and experiential learning, increased use of learning outcomes and year-round learning.

Hastily organised public consultations on the discussion paper began only a few weeks after its release. Seven roundtable sessions were held in July and August at locations across the province.

In parallel with the public consultation process, institutions were given the summer months to submit Strategic Mandate Agreements.

Each university and community college was asked to identify three priority objectives and discuss how each objective was related to enrolment, institutional differentiation, and issues of productivity and innovation.

The government noted that each submission would be assessed on the institution’s “ability to achieve significant improvements in productivity, quality and affordability through both innovation and differentiation”. Lead institutions would be identified and awarded special funding to pursue their strategic mandates.

The fact that both processes took place during the summer months further complicated things. Consultations within institutions were challenging because students had left for the summer and many faculty were on vacation. Boards and senates were on summer break, and some key governing bodies were unable carefully to review the agreements submitted by institutional leaders by the submission deadline.

There was little clarity on the direction that the system was heading, other than that reforms would involve “innovation” and “productivity”, but the minister indicated that he was about to begin sweeping changes.

For example, in a Toronto Star interview he said: “I would argue that we’re about to go through a decade-long transformation bigger than any we’ve had in 50 years – to modernise our education system and spend smarter.”

Garbage can decision-making

There were some quite productive outcomes of these processes. A number of innovative ideas for transforming the Ontario system were raised and debated.

There were arguments for the development of teaching universities, open universities and collaboration in the development of an online initiative. There were serious discussions on how to improve the quality of teaching and learning, and how to assess the quality of education and research within the system.

While interesting ideas were debated, the process was also a classic example of garbage can decision-making – where poorly defined problems became linked to a hotchpotch of stuck-together solutions.

As if the situation were not complicated enough, the government announced in mid-September that it was introducing new public sector wage restraint legislation in order to reduce government costs. The legislation would effectively constrain wage increases (and establish frameworks for collective bargaining) within the entire broader public sector, including universities and colleges. Unions and faculty associations were outraged.

Suddenly, in mid-October, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that he would be stepping down after nine years as premier, and he suspended the provincial parliament until a new Liberal Party leader (the next premier) could be selected.

On 3 November, just over a year after becoming minister, Glen Murray resigned his cabinet post in order to run for the party leadership. An almost audible collective sigh could be heard from the entire higher education system.

There now seems to be a growing sense that much of the flurry of activity associated with Murray’s call for big, fast reform has been a waste of time. An interim minister has been appointed, but the government is now in maintenance mode and there are no indications of interest in major changes until after a new premier has been appointed, and perhaps a new election has been held.

This year of living dangerously is a wonderful example of why so many systems have found ways of isolating higher education policy from direct political interference.

An entire system was disrupted by a misguided and largely ambiguous agenda for big, fast change, but there is also a sense of tremendous relief that the system has avoided what could have been a catastrophic intervention.

If there is a silver lining it is that the whirlwind of activity has left the system unfrozen, more open to possibilities, more interested in reviewing and understanding alternatives. Many would argue that there are things about the Ontario system that need to be addressed, and the public debates over the past year may have left the system more open to constructive change.

Thoughtful, consultative leadership could take the system forward after everyone has had a chance to catch their breath.

* Glen A Jones is the Ontario research chair in postsecondary education policy and measurement at the University of Toronto.

The push to reform Ontario's higher education system, and other government initiatives in Canada, the US and the UK, will be discussed at a conference, "Academia in the Age of Austerity", to be held in Toronto from 10-11 January 2013. Click here for more information about the conference, hosted by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.