Ontario last week announced the signing of Strategic Mandate Agreements with each of its 44 universities and colleges as part of a move to “drive system-wide objectives articulated by the Ministry’s Differentiation Policy Framework.” Essentially, in a restrained fiscal environment the provincial government prefers to target money for new programs only where they can be differentiated and duplication avoided. Each university and community college has self-assessed itself and defined up to ten areas of current institutional strength and up to five areas of proposed program growth. What is more interesting is the statement in the preamble to each agreement.
“The Ministry acknowledges the University’s autonomy with respect to its academic and internal resource allocation decisions, and the University acknowledges the role of the Ministry as the Province’s steward of Ontario’s postsecondary education system.”
How am I to interpret this statement? The two key words here are autonomy and steward. Some definitions from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary www.merriam-webster.com):
Autonomy: 1: the quality or state of being self-governing; especially: the right of self-government 2: self-directing freedom and especially moral independence 3: a self-governing state
Steward: 1: one employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (as the supervision of servants, collection of rents, and keeping of accounts)2: shop steward 3: a fiscal agent 4a : an employee on a ship, airplane, bus, or train who manages the provisioning of food and attends passengers b : one appointed to supervise the provision and distribution of food and drink in an institution 5: one who actively directs affairs : manager
When it comes to “stewardship” I imagine that the intent of the provincial government is probably a cross between definition number 3 – fiscal agent – and number 5 – one who actively directs affairs. As prone to interventionism as it is, I don’t imagine the current Ontario government is interested in directly supervising the provision of food and drink at universities. Of course, the synonyms for steward also include flunky, lackey, retainer and servant, which could suggest that the province sees its role as a subordinate in this relationship and merely as a helper to the universities and colleges.
The definitions of stewardship that seem to apply here are both in conflict with the definitions of autonomy that stress self-government and self-direction. If the provincial government is the fiscal agent, then the golden rule applies – i.e., he/she who has the gold rules. And if the steward is really the “manager”, then the province has a pretty direct hand in running universities especially given the constant concern that universities and colleges produce employable graduates.
It’s the kind of phrasing that lets both sides pretty much continue with business as usual at least in terms of maintaining public face. The province can believe it is managing the system and the universities and colleges can believe they are autonomous. My belief here is reinforced by the metrics included in each agreement. There are two sets of metrics – one for the province-wide system and internal metrics specific for each institution – in each of the areas the province has set out for differentiation.
Take for example the metrics for “Jobs, Innovation and Economic Development”. The system-wide metrics include graduate employment rates and the number of graduates employed full-time in a related job. As for institutional metrics: the University of Toronto includes the number of new invention disclosures, the number of new start-up companies and the number of students enrolled in entrepreneurship courses. Waterloo includes the total annual earnings by students in coop work terms and the cumulative total of Waterloo’s start-ups over the last three years.
In both these cases, the universities are laying out their strengths in the internal metrics that they use. Of course this does lead me to wonder why my own institution in this category set out the ratio of students enrolled in Professional Programs to students enrolled in Arts and Science programs as a metric. Given what I know about the relationship between numerators and denominators, it means that total enrollment could stay flat or go down and the ratio could still go up. Or given that I am in Arts and Science, perhaps I should be worried. However, I digress.
In research and graduate education, the system wide metrics are more numerous and detailed. They include numbers of graduate degrees awarded, number of research chairs, research funding per faculty member, numbers of publications per full-time faculty member, citations and citation impact and position in global rankings. These are all what one would expect in this category. The larger and more research-intensive Ontario universities have institutional metrics that parallel and match these system wide criteria. The smaller less research intensive ones are shall we say, much more creative in how they define research success.
Where the rubber hits the road is the funding. The provincial government funds universities with transfer payments and they are seeking to limit their growth to one percent annually. When it comes to provincial funding, I think the provincial system-wide set of metrics will prevail which means to me that in the long run these agreements will not be business as usual. These agreements are another step towards more formal co-management of the university and college sector with the provincial government as the “fiscal steward” and with the goal being to make post-secondary graduates better reflect the needs of the economy. That is not a goal I disagree with. I just think that that is not the only goal of universities and I don’t think government always knows best as to where the economy and its needs are going. However, universities in Ontario will continue to celebrate their diverse autonomy in a multitude of ways.