On November 29, 2013, the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities Released its “Differentiation Policy Framework.” This document is the finalized version of the framework that was leaked in September and then made public on the Ministry’s website.It lays out the principles, components, and metrics that will guide the Ministry’s differentiation policy going forward, and is intended to inform the Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) currently being negotiated by university administrations and the government.
OCUFA has completed an analysis of the policy. Overall, it shows that MTCU has softened its top-down approach to differentiation, and is prepared to let universities chart their own course, with some limits. The policy framework is very high level, and does not contain an “action plan” for government. Crucial areas – such as a new funding model to support the government’s goals – have not been addressed. In discussions with senior MTCU staff, it is clear that an outcomes-based funding formula is favoured, but no model has been developed at this time.
The tension between competing goals of the framework, and the confusion within the underlying logic of differentiation remain in this version of the paper. On the one hand, the government insists that one of the central goals of differentiation is to ensure that higher education in Ontario maintains and enhances quality. On the other hand, the entire exercise is proposed against the backdrop of fiscal uncertainty and the pressing need for institutions to contain costs and “financial sustainability and accountability” are presented as a key priority for differentiation.
While cost cutting is never explicitly articulated as the overriding motivation, it is clear that the constrained fiscal context is driving the entire differentiation exercise. Cost-containment is often at odds with the imperatives of equitable student access and quality education, so we are concerned that the push towards differentiation may harm the quality and accessibility of higher education in Ontario.
OCUFA believes that Ontario’s universities are already highly differentiated. If implemented poorly, the differentiation framework may have the effect of stamping out meaningful, bottom-up diversity and replacing it with limited vision of top-down differentiation.
We are also concerned that the movement towards an outcomes-based funding model will harm students studying at institutions deemed by government to be “under-performing.” We are also worried that an outcomes-based model will politicize university funding, aligning it to the short-term priorities of the government of the day, rather than the long-term needs of Ontario.
The government has signaled that it is willing to work with stakeholders to achieve its differentiation goals. While they have under-delivered on this promise up to this point, OCUFA is prepared to work with MTCU to ensure that faculty interests are fairly represented in all policies going forward.