Exploring Ideas for Transformation

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

In my previous blog “The Need for Policy Will”, I presented an initial response to Minister Murray’s 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 purpose of this blog is to provide some high level, personal perspectives into the eight “Ideas” that were reflected in the discussion paper. A full Algonquin response to these ‘Ideas’ will be presented to the Ministry and likely shared on this site at a later time. This blog is meant to provide personal ‘responses’ as opposed to a formal college position on the discussion paper’s eight Ideas.

1. Innovation to Drive System Transformation

The Ontario post secondary system requires systemic changes that are more focused on the needs of students and the citizens of Ontario. Unfortunately there have been few system changes in higher education in the province of Ontario in over 40 years (see comments from Carl Weatherell regarding my previous blog). System changes are difficult to execute for many reasons but one of those reasons is simply the fact that Ontario’s higher education system has had a successful history; one that is over 200 years old for universities and nearly 50 years old for the college system and is the envy of many jurisdictions around the world.

It is difficult to articulate an adequate response to this first Idea as these potential changes need to be expanded beyond the general statement that it could “include expanded credential options, credential supplements, a better credit-transfer system and year-around learning”. Notwithstanding this, it appears the Ontario government is seeking innovations that directly impact quality and perhaps more importantly, productivity. This first “Idea” is perhaps the most nebulous of the those presented in the discussion document and the concept of system transformation will likely only be achieved through a real commitment to numbers 2-8 below. To be successfully executed, Queens University Principal Daniel Woolfe wrote a very insightful piece that rightly suggests that successful change must be a “collective process“.

2. Expanded Credential Options and Supplements

Just over a decade ago, the Ministry granted authority to Colleges to grant baccalaureate credentials. Since that time, Colleges have delivered high quality, baccalaureate degrees across the Province… increasing access and making an affordable baccalaureate degree a reality for 1000s of Ontarians. This was insightful and forward thinking and much of the success likely can rest at the feet of people like former Humber College President, Robert (Squee) Gordon and Dianne Cunningham, former Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.

The time has now come whereby the Province must realize that other countries are leaving Ontario behind, particularly in the area of three-year credentials and their alignment to graduate degrees. We see these credentials being granted throughout the Europe Higher Education Region, India, China and Australia among others. It would be my hope that select colleges would be differentiated (perhaps those that are part of Polytechnics Canada and others) for the purpose of delivering these three-year baccalaureate degrees (as identified in the discussion paper).

However, along with this change is the need to afford certain colleges the legislative right to confer applied masters degrees. Quite simply, this is an idea whose time has come; an idea that can become real through the intervention by the Minister. It is an encouraging sign to see this perspective as part of the eight Ideas presented in the discussion paper.

3. Credit Transfer, Credit Compatibility, Student Mobility

This topic has been discussed for several decades. Ontario is quite simply, a laggard with respect to providing students the opportunity to move seamlessly between colleges and universities and have their credits and credentials recognized. The cost to the Ontario tax payers is millions of dollars annually and this lack of mobility and credit recognition contributes to lost human capital and lost productivity by forcing students to re-take course material they have already successfully completed.

If this issue of Credit Transfer, Credit Compatibility, Student Mobility is ever to be addressed, it seems clear to me that it requires political intervention. I personally have had discussions with colleagues in several of Ontario’s universities for over a decade and only in a few cases have we been able to establish effective pathways for students. In Ottawa, we have had some progress, and we need to go further. Provincially, we need political intervention in order to move the system into a more productive way of serving the students of Ontario’s public higher education system. The people who are negatively impacted as a result of non-action are the students and the Ontario taxpayers. Although there is some progress in this area, it is slow and small. This too can change with government intervention.

4. Year-Round Learning

Year-round learning is occurring in many Ontario colleges and universities and it is certainly is practiced at Algonquin College. It is expected that as more mature students require academic upgrading, the need for expedited learning solutions will be increased. The most obvious area of opportunity is an increase in more formal studies being offered and completed in the May-August time period. The difficulty with this Idea is that many students are quite simply not interested in being in class during the 2-3 months that weather is most favorable to be outside. Further, by taking classes in the summer period, most students are severely disadvantaged because they miss out on important and often scarce work opportunities. That said, more opportunities to study in the summer, to take advantage of underutilized facilities and to complete a program more quickly is an admirable goal.

5. Quality Teaching and Learning Outcome

Since their seminal article in 1995, Barr and Tagg have put higher education on notice that institutions do not exist for instruction, but rather they exist for the purpose of producing learning. Colleges have always been expected to deliver to clear and measurable learning outcomes. This will continue. However, the concept of quality is an area that is less easy to quantify and a definition of quality in education is vague and varied. KPIs, grad rates, student satisfaction are measures, yet they are not true indicators of the quality of learning. This is another area that is more difficult to understand, yet it is one that is hard to argue.

6. Technology-Enabled Learning Opportunities

The time has come whereby the adoption of technology (digital, mobile, simulation, online, OERs et al) has proven to be excellent supports to traditional classroom delivery. There are many myths related to technology-enabled learning and some individuals promote them as higher education’s panacea. This is naive. Technology has been part of higher education for hundred of years and fundamentally, their success always comes down to the effectiveness of their application by a professor in that individual’s efforts to support the learning process (they are used in teaching but their measure of success must be linked to their effective application to assist students learn).

I strongly support and honor the time-bound benefits of applied, experiential teaching and learning. These are now being supported through the application of 21st Century learning information communication technologies; ICTs that students simply expect to support their learning experience. Some of these concepts were explored in a previous blog.

Technology can also be used to enhance services and in doing so lower costs. Common ERP systems is just one area to be considered.

7. Creating a Tuition Framework That is Fair for Students and Institutions

Agree. Colleges and universities must have a better long-term understanding of tuition and grant revenues in order to properly plan for the future. However, as grants are effectively reduced (Ontario remains the lowest funded post secondary system in Canada), colleges must have more flexibility in determining tuition costs to ensure students continue to receive high quality learning experience and are provided the supports necessary for success. The government must be prepared to loosen the reigns that have been held more tightly in recent years. A reduction of funding requires colleges to be more entrepreneurial and not be bogged down by more restrictive policy practices. As an example, the proposed introduction of a tax on international student activity is but one example of a centralized policy that has real, unintended consequences; negative consequences. The Ministry must continue to listen to those operating within Ontario’s colleges and universities (which I believe those in MTCU are prepared to do). Working together, I am confident that the province’s partners in higher education (the government, colleges and universities) are able to achieve the variety of objectives raised within the discussion document.

One real improvement in the funding process is to move college baccalaureate funding to the same level as university baccalaureate funding. In fact, considering the type of teaching and learning that occurs at colleges, I could argue that the total funding for colleges should in fact be higher than universities if in fact, supporting students in achieving success is the ultimate goal. I have written about this notion in October 2011 and it reflects the fact that many students attending colleges come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Additional support is necessary to ensure we judge our success not on the number of students who gain access to post secondary, but rather the number of students we support through to graduation.

8. Entrepreneurial and Experiential Learning

Agree. Colleges have been the province’s leaders in this area for over 40 years and at Algonquin, the government can expect this to continue.

Algonquin, along with other public post secondary institutions will provide a fulsome response to these ‘Ideas’ before the deadline at the end of the September. It is hopeful that the input received will be acted upon so that students are the ultimate benefactors.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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1 Response to Exploring Ideas for Transformation

  1. Another excellent article. The one observation I have is that these are all actions to create new or improve existing approaches to PSE. Real change and real strategy also requires one to consider what the Academy needs to STOP doing. This includes asking really tough questions that reach to the core of the Academy. Topics could include Tenure, is it still relevant especially considering the global pace of change? And then of course what exactly is “Academic Freedom”, and does it have a place or is it even relevant today? Intellectual property rights; why do we have institution specific IPR policies? Why do individual faculty or an institution own these rights when the majority of the funding is from the public purse? The question of research vs teaching universities has been raised in the public forum but does need to be seriously considered.

    There are no simply answers but then real transformation will not happen if the tough questions are as a minimum put on the table.

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