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“Innovation” and governance: Ontario’s proposed PSE system overhaul

By MELONIE FULLICK | August 10, 2012

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.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Zarko / August 14, 2012 at 8:30 am

    Nested within its euphemism and rhetoric is the simple agenda of “universities should be more like colleges.” The majority of the document regularly employs the vacuous signifiers of “competitiveness” and “innovation” without specification – generally the script of neoliberalism. The report is also catastrophically lacking in balanced evidence, cherry-picking what further advances the agenda. Just as alarming as the client-side model of marketized education would be for the state of education itself might be the implied attacks against faculty. Note the curious paragraph on pensions. Note how the document does not acknowledge that faculty do innovate in their pedagogical delivery methods already. In essence, Glen Murray seems to want the university to model itself on the private sector. As a proposal for reform, it does not take into account the logistics of a rolling year, the costs this would have, the deleterious impact this would have on research time, the likelihood that this will result in even higher reliance on precarious labour, the technological impact on faculty, server space, etc., etc., and the plain fact that not all programs migrate so cleanly into the online format. And what of programs that do not fit into the government’s narrow idea of innovation (i.e., from research to commercialization)? Would these be shuttered? No word on the importance of social aspects of in-class attendance, no mention of studies that critique online learning, and zero consideration for the issues that arise from the issue of “mobile” credits across the entire Ontario PSE system as if all 1st and 2nd year courses are uniform in content and thus absolutely transferable. The questions for discussion sections are heavily loaded to steer the discourse in a highly constrained direction, not allowing for a truly open discussion. Ultimately, it would seem that the provincial government is attempting to transform universities into degree mills to push students in and out faster. When it comes to students, nothing is said of their needs (such as working in the summer, internships, field work, etc.). It shows little to no respect for the institution of the university even if these token gestures of “consultation” are being conducted.

    Some questions that might be posed to the Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities:

    Would the MTCU please provide detailed reports and statistics that indicate, in his view, a decline in educational quality in Ontario universities, the precise sources of the alleged decline, how this was calculated, and should there be no solid evidence for the alleged decline, please defend the apparent necessity of intervening in a campaign designed to “enhance” said educational quality.

    Would the MTCU explain how the cost challenges for a rolling year university trimester model will be met aside from tuition revenues?

    Would the MTCU explain, without resorting to generalities, euphemisms or vacuous signifiers, what is precisely meant by innovation, student experience, etc.?

    Would the MTCU explain how the proposed model honours the longstanding mission of academic institutions? Would this involve moving to a “client-side” model that might dismantle the primarily evaluative nature of the institution?

    Would the MTCU offer some measure of guarantee that the proposed model will not result in massive student flight to colleges, or universities outside of Ontario?

    Would the MTCU clarify how this proposed model would function given the significant differences between disciplines, understanding full well that each discipline faces its own unique challenges, and that a uniformly applied model would possibly work to the benefit of some while at the detriment of others? Will this apparent marketization only lead to the shuttering of programs and departments that are not considered “viable” in this economy-centric vision?

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