The problems of comparing Ontario to California

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Last week, former COU head Ian Clark published an article in the National Post calling for Ontario to adopt California-style university differentiation. Based on a larger research paper submitted to the Government of Ontario, Clark argues that Californian universities get more teaching and research for public dollars than Ontarian institutions.

In a recently published response, Ken Snowdon takes this argument apart (full disclosure: OCUFA did not commission this report or support it in any way). The full document is an important read, but here is an instructive excerpt:

So let’s be clear. There are a few facts about California public universities that seem evident. The California UC and CSU systems are different than Ontario’s university system. California funding per student (UC and CSU combined) is considerably higher – over $1 billion annually. The graduation rates at UC are similar to Ontario’s but considerably lower at CSU. On the research front, the UC system is an acknowledged research powerhouse and – according to a soon to be released HEQCO report – apparently Ontario compares very well with other jurisdictions in Canada. Just think if Ontario’s universities had a $1 billion more in operating funding! And imagine if sponsored research was funded properly in this country!

For the past few years Clark and his colleagues have been very successful at ‘spinning’ a story about too little teaching and too much research into an argument for greater differentiation. Greater differentiation – it is argued – is more efficient and therefore less expensive and therefore more sustainable. The fact is they have provided little evidence to support their case and, as illustrated by the California example, when evidence is provided the one indisputable fact is that it is clearly not less expensive on a per student basis.

Is it better? Well, it appears graduation rates are not better. And it appears that access to university is more limited. And it appears UC tuition is higher and CSU tuition is similar.

Snowdon also points out that there is great deal of evidence to support the claim that Ontario’s current university model has proved very successful in meeting the province’s needs.

Snowdon’s observations echo similar comments published by Academic Matters, OCUFA’s journal of higher education, and carry important lessons for policy-makers. When comparing jurisdictions, it is essential that the comparisons between “apples-to-apples” and not “apples-to-oranges”. Careful attention must be paid to the accuracy and comparability of data. Analyses should focus on inputs and outputs. And erroneous comparisons must not distract from urgent policy issues, such as the chronically under-funded research and teaching activities of Ontario’s universities.

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