In its most recent Throne Speech, the Ontario government, echoing an election promise, pledged to create 60,000 additional postsecondary spaces and three new undergraduate campuses. But what form should these new institutions take? Should they be primarily teaching universities? Should they include an online institute? How about satellite campuses of existing universities? Should they accommodate the needs of underrepresented students? Are they needed at all?
These are some of the questions that were debated at a conference held Feb. 7 at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Setting the stage for the discussion were Ian Clark and David Trick, two of three authors of a controversial book, Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario. The two argued that any new institution built in the province should be a primarily teaching university in which full-time faculty members would spend about 80 percent of their time teaching, compared to 40 percent at most traditional universities in the province. The result, they predicted, will be smaller class sizes, lower operating costs and, ultimately, lower tuition.
Since its release in late 2011, the book has generated much debate (as did the excerpt which ran in University Affairs). Critics have warned – and their sentiments were echoed at the conference – that the plan is unworkable because new institutions, regardless of their original mandate, eventually give way to internal pressures to introduce graduate programs, apply for research grants and otherwise behave like traditional universities.
George Fallis, economics and social science professor at York University, dismissed the proposal on different grounds. He said it would be “a major mistake” to expand Ontario’s higher education system, given that undergraduate enrolment is expected to “shrink substantially” over the next decade along with a broader decline in the 18-to-21 age group. Postsecondary institutions, particularly those outside the Toronto area, will be struggling to meet enrolment targets, he predicted. “It’s not about more spaces,” he said. (It may be worth noting that this prediction isn’t shared by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.)
Ontario already has more undergraduate spaces than it needs, he added. By his calculation, the combined college and university participation rate in the province is about 75 percent, much higher than other estimates. “Universal higher education has been achieved,” he said.
Instead of focusing on expansion, he argued, government and institutions should work towards improving retention and completion rates, program innovation and institutional differentiation and should pay more attention to graduate education, and – for underrepresented groups – earlier interventions in high school.
The conference also heard from senior administrators at two Toronto-area colleges – Seneca and Sheridan – who urged the government to transform a select few colleges into universities. Jeff Zabudsky, Sheridan’s president, said the college has already started down this path. Its board has approved the plan and it is currently working to introduce a senate, increase the number of degrees it offers and hire more faculty with advanced degrees.
Harvey Weingarten, president and chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, closed the symposium by noting that the current fiscal picture in the province makes it unlikely that three new campuses will be built anytime soon. Even so, he said, the proposal provides an opportunity to develop a new comprehensive postsecondary plan for the province, one that includes more diversity and differentiation among institutions and more innovation. “We shouldn’t be thinking about tinkering,” he said. “We should be thinking about something truly transformational.”