I admit it: as of yet, I simply haven’t mastered the art of skimming through a large policy report and producing a polished blog post within the same week. But now that I have a few moments free, I want to draw your attention back to the recent Ontario government paper on reforming the provincial PSE sector (PDF here). The report’s scope includes not only universities but also colleges and apprenticeship programs, indeed one of the goals is to solve serious problems involving credit transfer (“mobility”) between different parts of the system. Other policy solutions raised include shorter (three-year) undergraduate degrees, year-round learning and increased use of online education.
The Ontario Liberal government uses this paper to set out an overall “vision” for PSE in the province, which is worth quoting in full:
“Ontario’s colleges and universities will drive creativity, innovation, knowledge, and community engagement through teaching and research. They will put students first by providing the best possible learning experience for all qualified learners in an affordable and financially sustainable way, ensuring high quality and globally competitive outcomes for students and Ontario’s creative economy.”
There is much to comment on here – but it’s clear, from reading the paper, that “innovation” is the core solution for PSE in Ontario. Not only will colleges and universities “drive” innovation, they will also be improved by it: “Increased innovation in the PSE sector will improve student learning options, meet the needs of lifelong learners, enhance quality, and ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the sector.” Thus innovation will create further “productivity” in the Ontario economy and also within PSE institutions, allowing them to perform more efficiently.
The emphasis on online learning is a good example of how the logic about innovation and efficiency is employed (and its context) – and it fits well with the post I wrote last week about the same issue. Lectures, it is said, are an antiquated form of teaching; they do not provide enough student engagement, since the professor is simply broadcasting the same information to a sea of sleepy faces. Online learning, on the other hand, can allow new forms of engagement between professor and students, including personalized attention that improves learning “outcomes” – without reducing class sizes. What’s interesting is that in this PSE paper, “efficiency” is denigrated as a simplistic model (larger class size = reduced costs), while the online learning model is “innovative.” But it looks like this argument seeks to replace one form of “content delivery” with another, and faculty will still need to take the time to create these new and improved connections with students that are, supposedly, missing in traditional lectures (and now miraculously possible through technology).
Lastly – and in some ways, most importantly – with regards to the participation of “stakeholder” groups in the policy process, the paper states that “it is the government’s intention to generate responses to this paper that recognize global trends in PSE in addition to addressing the local priorities of acceleration, productivity, technology, quality, and student choice”; “a number of stakeholder consultations and opportunities for input will be made available.” The participation process has been framed within a particular context, and contributions will be assessed accordingly. But since such a strongly-framed “vision” has already been presented in this paper, creating involvement from students, faculty, staff, and other groups must be crucial to the government’s program of consultations. The best way to do this is through really listening to what various groups have to say, and not by merely checking the communicative boxes.
The larger context of this document is that it’s been put forth at a time when tuition is a major issue in many countries around the world and also in other Canadian provinces such as Quebec, with its highly visible and effective protest movement. Significant policy changes in England, for example, are being watched carefully here in Canada, with some already proclaiming the “success” of the extreme measures being taken in that system. Ontario’s government is also using as a touchstone the Bologna Process being implemented by the European Union, which is how an explicit connection is made to the international acceptability of 3-year undergraduate degrees.
In order to construct its argument about systemic change to PSE, the Ontario government is drawing carefully not only on arguments made elsewhere but also on its own past record of PSE policy programs, right up to its most recent budget and the platform from last October’s election. This method is a double-edged sword, since how participants view that record will affect their receptiveness to the deeper kind of systemic change that is on the agenda.
This is important because the kind of transformation that occurs will depend on actions taken by people at every level in every part of the system – that’s how change actually works. It has to be enacted by participants. How the government solicits, responds to, and draws on feedback – both positive and negative – as well as how policy is implemented, will help shape the attitudes, feelings and behaviours that we all bring to these changes, and ultimately the success of the policies introduced.