Change and Ontario Roundtables – Part 2

Exploring Elements of Change

The desire to see change in higher education is not new.  This alleged need for change has been espoused for decades,  yet when we review the issues of the day, we soon begin to see that they are eerily similar to those of the past.  As an example, a report two decades ago declared the need for Ontario colleges and universities to address issues of Excellence – Accessibility – Programming – Accountability – Responsiveness. Ironically, each of these remain as current today as they did in the 1990s. The question we must ask is “Why are we still looking at the same challenges after all these years?”

In my previous blog, Roundtables 1.0, I suggested higher education costs are rising faster than revenues.  Expenses can be compared in several ways, including the Higher Education Price Index vs. the consumer price index.  Regardless of how they are compared, this revenue/expense delta is not exclusive to Ontario.  The real challenge we face across North America today is not simply to identify the problems facing higher education but rather it is to determine what to actually do about them?

More Money Please

The easiest way  to address these ongoing financial challenges would be to call for more funding.  Yet in Ontario, this once prosperous province is no longer in a position to provide materially more funding. Ontario’s fiscal reality was made clear in a sobering yet insightful and interesting article in the Windsor Star; an analysis that suggests things will get worse before they get better.  To be perfectly clear, there are funds available to invest in higher education, however there does not appear to be a resolve to shift funding from other consumption budget lines such as health to investment budget lines in higher education.

So if we cannot expect any [emphasis added] government to provide a short to medium-term funding solution, the question must still be asked, “What is it that we are going to do to sustain the exemplary reputation and quality of Ontario’s University and College systems?”

While we wait to see what impact Roundtables 2.0 may bring; as we participate in ongoing SMA and differentiation discussions, I believe there are areas where we can begin to take action now.  Below I provide five Elements of Change that I believe could position Ontario’s post secondary system for long term success.

Five Pillars of Change

1 – Get Serious about Information Communication Technology

Technology has been part of education for centuries.  More recently we have seen various information communication technologies (ICT) enter the academy and like emerging technologies in the past, there has been much debate about their efficacy and application.

This debate about ICT is an interesting one in that technology has been both revered and reviled over the years.  However, today when the emotion is removed and the philosophical debate ceases, it seems reasonable  to conclude that when used appropriately, ICT can in fact widen student access, enhance learning quality and lower operational costs.

ICT can be broadly defined, however one component that has dominated recent dialogue has been that of online learning.  Described as both a problem and a panacea, I tend to agree with Colleges Ontario’s (CO) perspective that Ontario has an opportunity to “…create the world’s most robust applied learning environment online and to use that environment to support student success at all stages of the learning journey”.

Others have suggested similar possibilities and yet in Ontario, we are far from this realty.  As the Ontario government has stated, there is “…significant unrealized potential in online education to increase the availability, quality and transferability of postsecondary education in an efficient manner”.

Hybrid / Blended Learning

At Algonquin we embraced hybrid (blended) learning years ago.  Today our full time programs have 20% hybrid programming and all new programs must achieve  a 30% target delivered in the hybrid format.  The results have been equal or even better performance in areas such as student completion and student satisfaction.  Further, Algonquin educates 3000 more students every year than the space we have available. That means we are are delivering on our mission as an open access institution while saving millions of dollars in cost avoidance, allowing Algonquin to reinvest funds in more programming and enhanced services for our students.

Other ICT Solutions

Beyond opportunities inherent within online and hybrid delivery, there are broader ICT applications available to us.  Open educational resources, collaborative tools, and emerging software applications can enhance learning and services for our students. They can also lower cost and increase quality.

Customer relationship management technologies can improve employee effectiveness.  ICT can provide colleges and universities with business intelligence; allowing us to make better decisions and significantly lower operational and future IT and infrastructure costs.  The full potential from ICT simply has not been leveraged as it has in many other industries.

Recommendation: Invest specific performance and outcomes-based funding in colleges and universities that are prepared to embrace measurable ICT goals and tasks that will lead to material improvements in access, quality and costs related to delivering post secondary education in the province.

2 – Student Pathways and Credit Transfer

As jurisdictions around the world implement strategies to enhance student mobility, Ontario remains a laggard in the lack of pathways for students to move seamlessly among colleges and universities.  Although Ontario has attempted to create a structure to make improvements in this regard, it is not good enough and there are many implications for this lack of progress.

At a time when Ontario is seeking ways to reduce spending, this lack of student mobility is  costing Ontario taxpayers millions of dollars every year.  Further, the opportunity cost and real financial burdens assumed by students who are forced to accumulate additional credit hours likely exceeds that what the public purse is wasting every year.

Increasing transfer opportunities among institutions can result in significant savings in the costs of program delivery without compromising program quality.  The current situation in Ontario is unfair and the economic impact on the taxpayer and students is significant.  The issue of credit transfer is one that has been examined for years (decades in fact) and the likelihood of substantive change anytime soon is very small.  It will not occur alone through the Ontario Credit Transfer Office. Substantive changes must be legislated from Queens Park. Some won’t appreciate this approach, yet its time has come.

Recommendation: Invest specific funding in colleges and universities that are prepared to provide clear and fair pathways to students.  Measure these and link performance funding to efforts that ease and execute better student transfer solutions. Alternatively, legislate a solution that will guarantee acceptance of credit between colleges and universities (note this is a reciprocal requirement).

3 – Drop Differentiation – Promote Performance

One of the most public discussion items emanating from the Ministry recently has been the alleged need for institutional differentiation within Ontario’s higher education system.  In my view, differentiation in the Ontario college sector context is  much ado about nothing; perhaps better described as a solution looking for a problem.

What I have observed is that much of the current focus on differentiation has been based upon the following Ministry statement: “For Government, greater differentiation …is one of the most powerful levers available, especially in times of resource constraints, to achieve public goals of greater quality, competitiveness, accountability and sustainability”.  This quote is attributed to a previous HEQCO 2010 paper.

What is missing in the government’s position statement on differentiation are four important words from the original HEQCO source. The actual statement made in the HEQCO paper stated “For government, greater differentiation of Ontario’s university sector is one the most powerful levers available…” (p. 2). This is a very important omission. In my view there is significant differentiation already taking place in the college sector and the Ontario college system continues to respond to the market realities of the communities they serve.

When I reviewed HEQCO’s position on differentiation, there was an obvious attraction to systems in British Columbia and Alberta. However, simply because a system has more differentiation does not alone suggest that the system is more effective or efficient. The examination of differentiation must be expanded to include analysis of other factors. As an example, does differentiation in BC and Alberta result in more access than Ontario? No. Does differentiation in BC and Alberta result in  higher quality programming? In my view certainly not.

As we hear more about differentiation, we must acknowledge that this whole conversation is really about lowering the cost of delivering higher education in Ontario. That in itself is not the problem because if we can can widen access, increase quality while lowering costs, that is an admirable goal. So therefore, let us ask the question, “Does differentiation in BC and Alberta result in a higher education system that is less expensive?”  Absolutely not.

Ontario already provides less financial support per student than any province in Canada. Both the BC and Alberta systems receive  greater funding per student than Ontario. If financial efficiencies are the objective, it it difficult to see how differentiation will actually accomplish that goal.

Recommendation: Unless there is some comprehensive evidence that demonstrates that a differentiated system will result in measurable enhancements in quality while lowering costs, drop the debate now.  I predict that if smaller universities are given a teaching-only mandate, there will be long-term implications. Talented faculty will be harder to attract and difficult to retain. The outcome could be a reduction in quality and ultimately the depreciation of Ontario’s long-established reputation.

Zemsky wrote an insightful book called Market Smart and Mission Centred. Universities and colleges must focus on both of these areas to best complete in a resource-scarce, competitive marketplace. A centralized state-managed system is antithesis to a market-oriented system. The best advice I would have is for Ministry leaders to cease the discussion on differentiation and move towards creating a marketplace in which colleges and universities can more easily react to market conditions. There are only so many areas of focus that a Ministry and a system can have. There are greater areas of priority than the distraction that differentiation discussions can cause.  Please move on.

4 – Fix the Funding

The current approach to funding universities and colleges is entrenched in history.  Undoubtedly, there are those who would simply prefer more funding than changes to the funding formula.  However, without changes, the current model will directly contribute to the unsustainability of Ontario’s PSE system.  Quite simply, the funding models in Ontario are broken, unfair and need a major overhaul.

The funding model also includes tuition paid by students. Ontario must decouple college and university tuition discussions. When the current cap on tuition was implemented, colleges made it clear that a 3% increase on college tuition and university tuition would further exacerbate the funding disparity between colleges and universities.  That is, a 3% increase on an average tuition of $2000 is significantly less than the 3% increase on a tuition of $6500.

Funding and Time-based Learning

With advances in information technology and the integration of ICT into the learning environment, the notion of time-based funding is no longer required. There are a number of elements that must be addressed in the funding model including a shift from time-based/seat-based funding to a model that at least in part, compensates institutions for competency-based approaches to program delivery.  I strongly support the incorporation of competency-based outcomes rather than time-based delivery in any future revised funding formula. To do otherwise would entrench Ontario in a time-based instructional paradigm as opposed to a more progressive student-oriented learning paradigm.

I have appreciated the recent discussions that have involved a focus on funding and performance outcomes.  HEQCO has expressed its admiration of outcomes / performance funding in the State of Tennessee. However this is not new in the Volunteer State. This republican state has experimented with outcomes funding since 1979 and in 2010 passed the Complete College Tennessee Act. HEQCO has made it clear that they are not advocating for a complete adoption of the Tennessee model in Ontario. Rather, they appear to be advocating for a step in this direction and I believe they are correct.

Recommendation – The funding model is broken and needs a major overhaul. We must conduct a thorough review of the current funding mechanisms and be prepared to redirect funding in the system to where it will have the greatest impact on system priorities. Further, Ontario should pilot and then align finances to a large scale competency-based outcomes model. Algonquin has visited and researched this model at Western Governors University.  We are ready to pilot this funding and learning model in an applied learning environment. Algonquin is ready and we applaud the efforts of those committed to a comprehensive undertaking of performance or outcomes-based funding with the view of enhancing the quality of education in Ontario.

5 – Embrace Innovation – Decentralize Control

In 2002, Ontario introduced a new charter for Ontario Colleges; one that was meant to launch a new era of autonomy and entrepreneurial behaviour.  Aligned with the Post-Secondary Choice and Excellence Act of a couple of years earlier, colleges appeared to be given the tools to embrace the benefits of a market-oriented environment.

Fast-forward a decade and the notion of institutional autonomy has become something of a pipe dream.  This reality was summarized by Arvast (2008) in her article, “The New CAAT: (Dis)illusions of Freedom and the New College Charter in Ontario“. Under the banner of greater accountability, colleges are facing a record number of centralized controls and regulations, have seen continued controls regarding revenue sources, and entrepreneurial activity is not only under tighter scrutiny, but has been converted into a revenue stream to help shore-up government coffers (i.e. a new $750 fee/tax is applied to all international students).

Through my own research and others, I am convinced that over-centralized government control stagnates innovation and reduces operational efficiency. Further, Acemoglu and Robinson speak of this in their excellent book Why Nations Fail. More recently, Niall Ferguson laments a centralized approach to planning and control in his wonderful book, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. In my view, both books should be required reading for those holding public service leadership positions.

RecommendationCentralized planning and controls thwart innovation and leads to a decline in productivity and efficiency. If there was one over-riding recommendation, it would be for Ontario to honour the intent of the 2002 Charter and remove the restrictive barriers that have been placed on college innovation and creativity. The path we are on will simply exacerbate the current challenges facing Ontario’s post secondary system.


If Ontario is to get in front of the ailments that are causing the system to be ill, it requires political courage at many levels.  It is not possible to do the same as in the past. To do so is irresponsible.  Once again, I commend the new Minister for his conviction to begin to tackle some of the challenges and problems of the current state.  I also commend the senior staff within MTCU. They are in a difficult position, yet continue to explore ways to protect and promote excellence in our system.

As I continue to reflect on what needs to be done to address the issues of Excellence – Accessibility – Programming – Accountability – Responsiveness, perhaps the five themes summarized above are best reflected in five simple worlds: “Lets get on with it”.



About kentmacdonald

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