In a paper released today, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) reviews the performance of Ontario’s postsecondary education system in terms of access, quality, productivity, and social impact. It confirms what Ontario’s professors and academic librarians have known for years – our universities are efficient, productive, and accessible (though more work is needed to ensure participation for under-represented groups, such as Aboriginal and first-generation students). Unfortunately, the paper also furthers HEQCO’s tunnel-vision approach to narrow outcomes-based accountability regimes.
HEQCO argues that promoting quality is the “next frontier” in higher education. OCUFA certainly agrees that quality must be a focus of the provincial government going forward – we have been arguing for quality enhancements for the past two decades. However, HEQCO’s conception of “quality” is confined to poorly defined outcome measures. While outcomes – attainment rates, employment, and research output – are important, they are only one part of the quality picture. To really understand what is happening in Ontario’s universities, we must also consider inputs (such as public funding) and processes (such as student-faculty ratios and student engagement). Outcomes are useless unless we understand the resources and approaches that created them. Otherwise, continuous improvement is impossible.
The paper also continues HEQCO’s narrow focus on labour market outcomes. While the employability and labour market success of graduates is extremely important, job training is only one of the many important individual and social functions of the university. Followed to its logical conclusion, over-focusing on job training will distort our institutions and diminish their ability to educate and engage with students and their community.
This paper reflects HEQCO’s disappointing belief that improvements to quality must somehow be made in the absence of new government funding. This is problematic for three reasons: it ignores the transformative role that public investment has played in creating the current system; it posits fiscal constraint as an immutable fact, rather than the result of political choices; and it provides a convenient excuse for the provincial government to ignore the urgent financial needs of the sector by offering false-hope alternatives. OCUFA will continue to argue that the only way to ensure quality and accessibility is sustained and robust public investment. Anything else is just fiddling at the margins.