Change and Ontario Roundtables – Part I

It seems every day someone is espousing changes to higher education. Recently President Obama journeyed to the University at Buffalo to lament the academy’s current state of affairs including issues of cost, revenue and return on investment. Despite the President’s passionate plea, most analysts have countered with a restrained response. ImageFurther, several experts believe there is little real impact that he will have on the industry outside of changes to the federal Pell and student grant system.

This notion of required change in higher education is well documented. As an example, here in Ontario we have witnessed several reports over the decades including The Learning Society (1972), Vision 2000: Quality and Opportunity (1990), and Ontario: A leader in Learning or the Rae Review (2005). Most recently, the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (or the Drummond Report, 2012) was released with great fanfare. In fact, an entire chapter was dedicated to the challenges facing Ontario’s post secondary sector. Like the reports before it, the document resulted in little change.

Although these reports attract a frenzy of media attention at the time of their release, the reality is that they result in very few changes. In his 7th book, iconic researcher and preeminent thought leader, Bob Zemsky soberly suggests, “those of us in higher education really are living in an Ecclesiastes moment – change may be happening all around us, but for the nation’s colleges and universities, there really is precious little that is new under the sun”.

Roundtables, Change and the Expert Panel

If President Obama is unable to realize measurable change, one might wonder how change can take place at all on a provincial or state level. In Ontario, one mechanism to initiate change has been in the form of centrally led, government roundtables.

In the summer of 2012, Ontario colleges and universities were asked to rearrange their calendars in order to participate in ministry-led roundtable discussions. As an outcome of this process, each institution was expected to submit a Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA). The carrot to incent these SMA submissions was a share of a vaguely defined $30 million innovation and productivity fund.

Although the $30 million was never distributed, it was upon these SMA submissions that a report was prepared by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). This report was developed by HEQCO’s “Expert Panel” and was titled “Quality: Shifting the Focus – A Report from the Expert Panel to Assess the Strategic Mandate Agreement Submissions”.

In my view, the Quality: Shifting the Focus report could be regarded as underwhelming at best. However, fault cannot rest fully at the feet of HEQCO’s Expert Panel. Each college and university’s SMA submission was limited to an 8-page template and the Report stated this format “…did not permit the level of detailed scrutiny required for the Panel to be confident and/or comfortable with making a funding recommendation”.

When change is sought through centrally orchestrated efforts, there is little evidence that widespread, sustainable change will occur. This was certainly the case with the 2012 SMA process. The Expert Panel went so far as to suggest the process was at best good theatre. The report candidly stated, “some institutions perceived that this was an exercise in securing incremental resources, and the content of their SMA’s was shaped by what they thought would optimize their success in such a competition”. In other words, the Panel felt the SMA submissions were little more than an institutional ruse to collect much-needed additional revenue.

It has subsequently become apparent that there has been little value to the 2012 Roundtable process. However, the Expert Panel did state that their report’s greatest value was to “extract recurring and dominant themes from the SMAs and to provide commentary and advice to government based on these themes to advance the government’s thinking, directions and actions”. This is what their report attempted to do.

So What to Do

Based upon the realities and shortcomings of the 2012 Roundtable process, it seems to me that the Ministry had two choices. First, it could disregard the 2012 Roundtable / SMA process entirely. However to do so would be to concede that the millions of dollars in real and opportunity costs expended by the province’s colleges and universities were for naught.

Alternatively, the Government could recognize that there is much work yet to do in Ontario with respect to the province’s post secondary system. That is, perhaps the 2012 Roundtable / SMA activity could at least provide the foundation upon which to have more serious discussions about the future of higher education in Ontario. Of the two options, it was encouraging that Minster Duguid and the Ontario Government chose the latter; that they chose to implement a new series of roundtables in the summer of 2013 with a renewed effort to initiate change within a mature and change inept industry.

A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

Although there are many opinions about the changes necessary in the Ontario higher education system, there is one topic that most can agree; that costs are increasing faster than revenue. This financial reality, coupled with increased competition from around the world has created the perfect storm that money alone will not remedy. The question is, what to do to ensure a mature higher education market will sustain itself not in the short term, but into the decades ahead.

From Centralized to Decentralized

I have no doubt that change is required within Ontario’s PSE system. I also believe that there are institutions like Algonquin College that are both prepared and positioned to support our Government in this regard. However what I am equally convinced is that this change cannot be controlled from the central state. I contend that change can best be achieved by creating the opportunity for institutions to respond to market conditions as opposed to thinking long-term change can be orchestrated from some central source.

Over the coming months, Algonquin College will continue to push our own productivity and innovation agenda. Just one example of the leadership position we have taken is our move to replace hardcopy text books with eTexts. This Fall, nearly 40 full-time academic programs have eliminated costly, paper-based text books in favour of rich digital learning resources. Our partners represent the biggest and most progressive of textbook companies in the industry. A good overview of this initiative is reflected in our eText Video.

Algonquin College is ready to lead the way in Ontario’s complex higher education environment. We will be announcing new and exciting initiatives in the coming months. If afforded a real opportunity, the College will demonstrate its commitment to support the Government and our Ministry colleagues to implement effective, and sustainable change. It is the least we can do for the students and the communities we serve.

The Last Great Roundtable

As stated above, through the summer of 2013 a new series of roundtable discussions were launched. Although the outcomes of Roundtables 2.0 is not yet clear, in my view there are several initiatives that the Government of Ontario could examine immediately in order to begin changing a post secondary model that is fractured, unsustainable and out-of-date. One of these solutions is alluded to in a recent report by HEQCO titled The Diversity of Ontario’s Colleges: A Data Set to Inform the Differentiation Discussion. These and other solutions will be listed in my next blog, Change and Ontario Roundtables – Part 2.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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