The Need for Policy Will

First Step – On the Right Track

Former Ontario Premier John Robarts stated, “It is almost a paradox that future growth in Ontario may be hampered because of skill shortage rather than by displacement of workers by sophisticated machines”.  Mr. Robarts made those comments in 1965 and I would argue that the skills shortage is as real today as it was a half century ago.  Although criticism of Ontario’s education system has a long and honorable tradition, I contend that the solution to many of our current economic and social challenges will be resolved as a result of those same colleges and universities.

Over the past century (…in fact longer), there have been 1000s of newspaper articles, books and scholarly papers that have asserted that education in North America is on the cusp of decline or implosion. This “crisis – crisis” is not real, nor is it helpful.  It simply serves as a symbolic act, gives false hope for change and often distracts us from addressing real challenges in a thoughtful and substantive way.  Let us remember that no institution in the West, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, has persisted longer than higher education institutions.  As an example, of the 66 institutions that have been in continuous operation since the early 1500s, 62 are universities.

Prof. Henry Mintzberg

So what do we make of these claims for radical change in these times of supposed crisis?  Well one of Canada’s great management thinkers, Henry Mintzberg, provides an interesting perspective when he writes, we are no more in a crisis today than in the past half century, but in creating a crisis “we glorify ourselves by describing our own age as turbulent”.

Policy Will – Not Political Will

What Ontario needs is not more turbulence.  What Ontario needs is not more political will.  What Ontario does require is the long sought “policy will” that will address many of the issues that we have failed to confront in the past; issues that we have chosen to ignore at the expense of students, the system and our communities.

However today, perhaps there is light before us.  This summer, I have been encouraged with the release of a new discussion paper; a government thought-piece that seems to reflect a more committed desire to start the conversation about where Ontario’s post secondary system must shift.  A conversation that may lead to a system that is more relevant, more effective, more innovative and more efficient.

This summer, Glenn Murray, Minister of Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities released his discussion paper titled Strengthening Ontario’s Centre’s of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge:  A discussion paper on innovation to make our university and college system stronger.  The paper provides context to some of the key issues facing Ontario and our post secondary system.  The paper articulates a vision for higher education in Ontario while most importantly providing eight thought perspectives or “Ideas to Drive Innovation and Strengthen Quality” in the province’s post secondary system.

In any document such as the discussion paper, there is simply not enough space to provide a complete overview of all aspects and challenges facing higher education.  Therefore, there are elements that are missing, simplified or not clear.   As an example, I have yet to fully understand what a knowledge economy is and wonder if it comes at the expense of an applied, experiential economy; an economy where there are real jobs like those of the trades that will not be outsourced to some country in the Far East.

Note:  As an aside, I declare my bias in that I am personally committed to restoring the honor of applied, experiential education; an education that produces an environment that educators know to be the most effective approach to teaching and learning.  This kind of learning goes well beyond trades-like training and is reflected in almost all programs being offered at Algonquin College.

A New Approach – A New Opportunity

Notwithstanding potential (and expected) shortcomings; deficiencies within the paper can be addressed by providing feedback to the Ministry.  Overall, Minister Murray must be congratulated and thanked for starting the dialogue.  He has grasped many of the issues quickly and it is a responsible reaction for education leaders to support his efforts to bring about necessary changes in Ontario’s higher education system.  Minister Murray’s discussion paper provides eight broad ideas that are meant to guide dialogue and encourage discussion.   These ideas are articulated in the discussion paper and include:

  1. Innovation to Drive System Transformation
  2. Expanded Credential Options and Supplements
  3. Credit Transfer, Credit Compatibility, Student Mobility
  4. Year-Round Learning
  5. Quality Teaching and Learning Outcomes
  6. Technology-Enabled Learning Opportunities
  7. Creating a Tuition Framework That is Fair for Students and Institutions
  8. Entrepreneurial and Experiential Learning

Over the coming weeks, Algonquin College will continue to prepare a forward thinking, progressive and pragmatic response for the Minister’s review.  We are clear about our role in higher education.  Our vision is to be a global leader in digitally connected applied education and training.  We have the plan to move us in this direction and we have the faculty and staff necessary to execute.

This is a time that we must support the Minister; support his desire for change, support his belief that we are good but can be better; support his belief that technology can widen access, increase quality and lower costs.

I am not so naïve to believe that this latest effort will result in massive, substantive changes to Ontario’s post secondary system.  It simply is not possible to radically change Ontario’s complex (and successful) higher education system.  Yet the effort to review our current practice is a noble one and the citizens of Ontario should expect that those working in its publicly assisted higher education system are going to challenge the status quo and put the needs of our communities first.   Minister Murray himself has stated that this change process could take as long as ten years, perhaps more.   Yet the first step is always the hardest one and Algonquin College is prepared to walk along side the Minister and his staff to ensure the people we serve receive the best college education possible.


Next Blog:   Examining the eight “Ideas to Drive Innovation and Strengthen Quality”


About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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7 Responses to The Need for Policy Will

  1. Thank you for an interesting piece. Can you provide the reference for the citation by Mintzberg, please?

    • Mintzberg’s The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (04) provides the full context. It is an excellent read. However, he also wrote an very good article published in the California Mgt. Review (03) that touches on the same perspective (and likely led into the 04 book) that was titled, “The Pitfalls of Strategic Planning”. Others have quoted the perspective including one of higher ed’s great writers, R. Birnbaum et al in a chapter within In Defense of American Higher Education that was edited by Altbach (Boston College) et al. I believe that book is about a decade old and provides a very good balance to many of the critiques related to higher ed today. Hope that helps. KMD

  2. Joe Banks says:

    It will be interesting in light of the current labour impasse, whether there will be the spirit of dialogue necessary to turn the minister’s words into actions. Moving these forward will require buy-in by faculty and support staff, as well as administrators. It’s one thing to bring a big vision to the table, and quite another to turn it into reality. That will be the role of the employees across the post secondary system. And for that, you need mutual respect of rights and process. We’ll hope the minister directs the College Employers Council to understand this at the bargaining table.

    • I agree fully with your perspective regarding the spirit of dialogue. The great higher ed institutions have established a two-way street of dialogue and respect… listening to diverse perspectives which in the end, results in a positive and stronger position; one that everyone feels they have at least had the opportunity to participate.

  3. My observations of this entire process from being in PSE for over a decade and involved from the outside for a further 15 years are as follows.
    Governments have been trying to instill change in PSE, primarily universities, for over a decade in efforts to decrease the labour productivity gap, address issues related to innovation and economic growth. However, there has been little Ontario wide or Canada wide change to address these challenges. A tiered approach to the university system in Canada was met with significant and rapid debate. Books and articles by Rick Van Loon and others suggesting a similar tiered approach (teaching only universities) have also been met with significant backlash. Some individual institutions are making remarkable progress, Algonquin being a prime example in the College side of PSE and Waterloo the university side. The lack of system wide change and the current economic realities have necessitated the governments to start pushing and in a way forcing transformation. Change is always hard, uncomfortable and creates significant resistance but it is especially difficult in institutions that are historically slow to change like PSE, in general where status quo is as predominant as academic freedom.

    Those institutions with great leaders will have little challenge with the “spirit of dialogue” Joe refers to above.

    Overall, I see this as a great opportunity for select institutions to come out on top and lead the way.

    • Your comments are absolutely correct. Thank you. Further, for all intents and purposes, this is an issue throughout The Academy. That is, the same can be said about the American higher education system and this was never more more public and obvious than the relatively recent Spellings Commission (for all intents and purposes, what started with much promotion and hype ended in failure. The final report was titled “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of American Higher Education” and it simply showed the intransigence within large, historic systems like higher education. Your comments are aligned nicely to those reflected in a book written by the only active faculty member on the Commission, University of Pennsylvania’s Robert Zemsky. Bob’s book is titled “Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education” and one author summarized his views of one of America’s great higher education thought leaders in an Inside Higher Ed article, “”.

      Finally… I agree fully that this made-in-Ontario process is a great opportunity for institutions that are ready to tackle the issues and work collaboratively to think differently about our craft. I am optimistic certainly about Algonquin’s future simply due to a decade of evidence that our faculty are prepared to think and act differently than most. Leaders must now create the environment that both you and Joe (comments below) have expressed and that is to ensure they create an opportunity for faculty and staff to be part of the participation… part of the solution. Management’s role is to support those prepared to take risks; to push the status quo.

      On another note, Zemsky is about to release a new book in the coming months that will not be favorable to the entrenched way of thinking through The Academy.

  4. Pingback: Exploring Ideas for Transformation | Kent MacDonald

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