Like hackers secretly modifying an operating system, provincial governments are surreptitiously reprogramming and repurposing our universities, trusting that the public is looking the other way.
Misdirecting their electorate with seductive talk of performance-based funding, both Ontario and Alberta have in reality proposed using indicators that sharply narrow the meaning of “performance” to labour-market, industry and economic outcomes. For example, included among the 10 indicators Ontario has implemented are “Graduate employment earnings,” “Graduate employment rate in a related field,” and “Research funding from industry sources.” Alberta has previously stated it intends on using similar indicators, but has not officially announced the final set of metrics it will employ. Now, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are each poised to implement their own similarly-focused funding frameworks, with New Brunswick and Quebec openly musing about following suit.
To some, this may all sound well and good – I mean, who is against performance? – but given the clear evidence, it is difficult to see the most profound policy changes to the postsecondary sector in decades as anything but ideologically based attempts to redesign the fundamental mission of our universities. The metrics coerce universities away from fostering critical, creative, and well-rounded citizens – while performing research in the public interest – and instead toward drastically retooled, narrowly conceived “outcomes” focused on serving the current labour market and performing corporate-styled research and development. In this struggle, what is at stake is nothing less than the heart and soul of our universities.
For starters, the rationale for using current labour-market realities to direct future postsecondary education funding is dubious at best. A case in point is Alberta’s optimistic investment in petroleum engineers 10 years ago and the reality of the job market those graduates now face. In a similar vein, 10 years ago few predicted the mushrooming demand for social media managers, engineers specializing in sustainability, and as my attention turns to headlines, I feel compelled to add epidemiologists.
That being said, what will be of no surprise to any observer is that the nature of work is changing, as highlighted by the federal government’s 2017 Expert Panel on Youth Employment. We are shifting away from manufacturing to service and knowledge economies with a greater emphasis on problem-solving, communication, interpersonal skills, and critical-thinking expertise. The report concludes, perhaps obviously, that “the world of work is transforming rapidly” and that the key to navigating such a future is to remain flexible and fluid; it goes on to state, “Some of the next job opportunities may not even exist today.”
It’s precisely in the fields of thinking and people skills where universities excel, with the main benefit being that such skills are portable and may be applied in many different and ever-changing and evolving contexts. They are flexible and global, rather than overly narrow and context-specific.
Let’s not rob our youth of options and choice of program of study. Nor should governments be judging or devaluing such decisions when students choose lower paying careers that they find to be more meaningful and fulfilling – especially when many of these professions are vitally important to the health of our communities and society. Moreover, given that students are increasingly asked to shoulder a greater percentage of the cost of their degree programs, tackling the growing cost of tuition would seem a much more useful direction for a policy re-boot to take. This is not to suggest that students shouldn’t be presented with accurate employment and income data for each program so they may make informed choices, but to judge or punish them or universities for fluctuating job market realities over which they have little control, is plainly misguided.
In fact, recent research that examined the outcomes of performance-based funding in 41 U.S. states that have adopted this model in one form or another confirms what many of us feared: tying student enrollments and their future employment to specific outcomes, as both Ontario and Alberta propose, would skew rewards towards institutions that enroll students with the most social capital and the best chances of being employed at the highest pay immediately after graduating, at the expense of prospective students from marginalized groups. This negates meritocracy as an aspirational ideal, since equally qualified, but racialized Canadians are hired with less frequency and less pay than their non-racialized counterparts, further sabotaging hopes for equity, diversity, and inclusion gains.
It is equally misguided to pressure institutions to seek out even greater industry-funded research contracts, and to reward them for doing so. Such an emphasis impacts society by directing scholars away from discovery-driven, community-based, and otherwise valuable research that cannot easily be measured or reflected by a simple financial calculus. Rather than uncovering groundbreaking ideas, following uncertain but innovative paths that become potential game-changers, or working in the service of the communities in which they reside, under performance-based funding frameworks scholars are incentivized toward targeted, often secretive, corporate-research, in a system that perversely prizes competition between researchers and universities over collaboration.
Universities must continue to be valued and upheld for their core mission, which is to be much more than mere entrepreneurial training centres to be patted on the back for performing short-sighted corporate-styled research and worker development. If our goal is a future where we can thrive and grow, our graduates have to be capable of envisioning and implementing a better tomorrow, and our scholarship and research approach must be as diverse as the creative imagination permits. Alarmingly, these proposed performance-based funding schemes appear to be more aptly labeled “malware.”
Marc Spooner is a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Regina.