Well Happy New Year! The start of the New Year is as good a time as any for reflecting on the state of things – including universities. As 2015 dragged to a close, a number of items came out which of course did not generate too much of a stir given the run up to the holiday season. The Ontario government’s final consultation report on its journey to a new funding formula for Ontario universities was released on December 10th. The report is too lengthy to appropriately paraphrase so I suggest if you are interested you go to the report itself. Nevertheless, some items that caught my eye.
The report is quite lengthy but the major theme is that it is time to modernize Ontario’s university funding formula by moving away from the current system based on enrollment and moving towards a “quality-driven, sustainable and transparent” formula. What does that mean? Well, based on what is in the report, the emphasis is going to be on tying funding to student outcomes and the overall student experience in universities even though it is acknowledged such things can be difficult to measure.
Indeed, in terms of strategic direction: “The ministry should apply an outcomes lens to all of its investments. Clarity about the objectives the ministry wishes to meet through the outcomes-based funding will be crucial. The outcomes lens should start with a focus on undergraduate student success – this work can start immediately.” (p.43). The ministry is seen as assuming a stewardship role to help universities achieve these goals and that “The ministry should strengthen its enrolment planning role in light of demographic changes, regional needs and institutional strengths.” (p.46).
At the same time, the existing differentiation process across universities was seen as needing support. To quote from the report:
Differentiation was framed in many ways by participants, including program specialization, community or student population served, pedagogy and geography. Some respondents said categorizing universities would be a good way to drive differentiation. A different formula could be used for different types or clusters of universities, such as comprehensive, research-intensive, specialized and regional. (p.17).
And of course, there were the additional themes of addressing financial sustainability, and increasing transparency and accountability. Indeed, among the things that came up were that student success was more than academics and the need to focus on experiential and other learning opportunities. More interesting were the following lines that came up in the consultations:
Hiring new faculty was said to be crucial to making meaningful improvements in teaching quality for students, diversifying faculty stream appointments and facilitating innovation in program delivery. Universities were seen as being heavily impacted by the elimination of mandatory retirement. This was attributed to structures and practices – tenure and progression-through-the-ranks – that are unique to the sector. The high costs associated with delayed retirement and ageing professoriates were seen by many as a potential challenge to maintaining quality in the system.(p.13)
New funding formula must recognize the integral role of sessional and non-academic staff in supporting quality teaching, learning and research functions of a university.(p.32)
The key items that may drive the modernization of the funding formula and what is coming are found on p. 46. Basically:
- Outcomes-based funding that grows overtime should be phased in.
- Outdated historical grant elements should be eliminated; progress on addressing funding per-student anomalies should be made; and separate envelopes for areas requiring different policy treatment should be created – possibly undergraduate, graduate and managed enrolments such as teaching and medical.
- Special purpose grants related to institutional circumstances – namely size, geography or specialization – should be consolidated into one envelope with a valid methodology.
What does all this mean? Ontario wants to increase the share of university funding tied to the undergraduate learning experience and its outcomes but does not want to much increase the overall dollars spent on the sector. The emphasis of the report appears to be on undergraduate education and teaching as well as an enhanced role for the ministry in policing what it wants the outcomes to be given my interpretation of the following statement as simply the ministry will manage universities if necessary but will not necessarily manage them:
Striking a good balance between ministry oversight and institutional autonomy should be part of the evolving conversation on stewardship. The role of the ministry is to set the stage for universities – it cannot manage the system and must stand aside to let the system experiment. A track record of good performance can be rewarded with more flexibility for some universities, while clear conditions should be maintained when the ministry does act. (p.46).
Or, it could be that some universities are going to be managed more than others.
I suppose that this is certainly a crucial time for any change to funding given that universities are facing the prospect of weaker enrolment growth if not absolute declines. Indeed, Ontario universities are facing the proverbial seven lean years given that enrolment in 2014 was down for the first time in 15 years and is not expected to start growing again til after 2020. Tying funding directly to bums in seats will generate a fair deal of funding instability for a number of institutions. Change is needed to the formula and it provides an opportunity to make other changes as well especially in terms of the program direction of universities.
At the same time, this report has generated some attention from the more research-intensive universities in Ontario given what seems to be a shift in emphasis on the part of the government away from research. As well, this report’s release coincided with an interesting article in the LA Review of Books on the evolution of undergraduate education and experiences, which you might want to peruse. I will let you all draw your own connections and interpretations.
My prediction for the future of Ontario’s university funding? The government will go ahead with its new student outcomes centered funding formula and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities will assume a more determined stance in getting its view of what university education should be when it puts the formula together. The end result will probably be modified to let Ontario’s research intensive places carry on with business as usual, but if not be prepared for the following. Ontario government grants to universities at present provide about 42 percent of their funding and government funding is not going to grow much. If the bigger and better endowed Ontario universities feel the government is becoming too intrusive and their share of funding is dwindling, Ontario may witness the dawn of a new age – a movement by one or more Ontario universities to try and break out of the Ontario system and go private. In the end, incentives matter.