Making change sometimes involves an elaborate public discourse and preparation of affected stakeholders and in Ontario the discourse is towards getting people in the public sector to do more with less. The latest target was drawn to my attention by Alex Usher’s Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) morning bulletin, which featured the preliminary report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) on The Productivity of the Ontario Public Postsecondary System.
To summarize: “Ontario universities have received increased absolute levels of funding and funding per student since 2002. Nonetheless, they are teaching more students per full‐time faculty member with less money per student than all other Canadian provinces. They also lead Canada in research profile and output. A pilot
study of four institutions suggests that full‐time faculty teach approximately three and one half courses over two semesters. On average, faculty who are not research intensive, as defined by the universities themselves, teach a little less than a semester course more than those who are research active.”
So it would appear that the post-secondary sector in Ontario is doing more with less and is “already quite productive” but naturally we can do better so: “further critical information is required to better assess productivity and identify the most promising steps for improvement, including: measurement of the quality of education, especially whether desired learning outcomes are achieved; better information on graduation rates; more input from employers on their satisfaction with the knowledge and skill sets of postsecondary graduates; more detailed measurement of relevant information in the college sector, both within Ontario and across Canada; and greater detail on the workloads of university faculty.”
The workload issue is going to be a big one especially given that one of the tables highlighted by Alex Usher – Table 9 – attempts to compare faculty workloads at four institutions (Guelph, Queen’s, Laurier and York) according to whether they are in science or social science and humanities and whether they had research output (defined as a grant or publication in the 2010-2011 period). What they found out was not particularly illuminating to me though Alex Usher felt it raised a question of what all the non-research active professors were doing. (He also asks why Quebec gets 39 percent of research council grants - that is a more interesting question but I'll let Alex Usher try and answer it at some future date).
The Ontario government would like to generate even greater future productivity increases by changing “the design of the Ontario postsecondary system and how it is funded. For individual institutions, the greatest productivity opportunities may lie in greater flexibility in the distribution and deployment of their faculty resources, particularly in the distribution of workloads of individual faculty taking into account their relative contributions to teaching and research.” I think the Ontario government would like to see an increase teaching loads, but in a redistributive fashion so as not to harm its lead in research productivity. That is: it would like universities to raise the loads on “non-productive” faculty and either maintain or perhaps even lower them a bit on “productive” faculty. I am also assuming that means more than simply saying something like all research in Ontario is going to be done at the University of Toronto and everyone else must teach more.
However, before you can do anything, I think you seriously need to beef up the data given what I think the ultimate purposes of the Ontario government seems to be. You cannot just compare the average teaching loads in science and humanities and social sciences across four universities. True, they say this is preliminary but the fact is these preliminary tables, figures and statements have a way of sticking around in popular memory and then become stylized facts that generate “policy changes”. You need to do much better than that.
So, my points specifically with respect to universities and the measurement of productivity:
- You need to have data on teaching and research on all the Ontario universities and not just a few.
- You need to have data on teaching and research across all disciplines and faculties at the university and not just a few.
- You need to measure faculty research output for more than just the last year – why not the last seven as SSHRC does?
- You need some type of standardized measure of research output by institution/discipline/field as well as its impact via citations. (Ask Alex Usher about this. I’m sure he will recommend something based on Google Scholar. The report uses HESA H-index numbers to compare Ontario universities to other provinces so I’m sure it can be done).
- Research grants and funds for sponsored research are not research outputs. They are inputs. Over the long term they are indeed correlated with research success in those fields that require funding to accomplish research but they are not an output. They are increasingly being considered an output measure because universities are desperate for cash and generate revenue by taxing grants and contracts.
- Simply comparing course loads per faculty member is misleading. You will need to incorporate some measure of class size also. A half-course difference in teaching loads can be significant if the class has 300 students.
- Workload is not just research and teaching anymore. Just ask any anyone who has gone thorugh a "provincially mandated" quality assurance review in order to justify quality.
And remember, in the university sector, the assorted bureacratic infrastructure for measuring productivity in itself often involves increasing faculty members workloads so we can kill two birds with one stone! Now that's productivity! Enjoy!