Reforming Ontario’s Universities
I have just finished reading a 2009 book entitled Academic Transformation:Â The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario.Â The book, written by Ian Clark, Greg Moran, Michael Skolnik and David Trick, has received a fair bit of attention among post-secondary (PSE) wonks.Â Â While I find itÂ informative, I am uncomfortable withÂ the book’s central feature:Â a proposal to reform Ontario’s PSE sectorÂ with the main goal of bringing aboutÂ substantial cost savings.
The followingÂ trends are outlined by the authors:
-More students are going to both university and community college.Â Total enrolment in Ontario’s PSE system, measured by FTE student positions, has increased roughly sixfold since the late 1960s.Â During that time, the total number of university students in Ontario has increased from roughly 100,000 to roughly 400,000.
-Federal funding for PSE is decreasing.Â Between 1985-1986 and 1998-1999, annual federal cash transfers to Ontario for PSE (in constant 2007 dollars) decreased from roughly $1.4 billion to just under $300 million, and then rose to just under $1 billion by 2007-2008.Â During that same 22-year period, PSE enrolment in Ontario increased by more than 60 percent.
-Class sizes are increasing.Â TheÂ ratio of FTE students per full-time faculty member at Ontario universities increased from 17Â to 25 between 1987-1988 and 2007-2008,Â representing a 45 percent increase.Â During that sameÂ period,Â FTE enrolmentsÂ per full-time academic staffÂ at Ontario community colleges almost doubled.
-Federal funding for research is increasing.Â Federal research funding to universities increased fourfold between 1997-1998 and 2007-2008 (from $733 million to $2.9 billion).
In terms of the direction in whichÂ the authors feel OntarioÂ should be heading, the followingÂ arguments are made:
-With rising enrolment, it is “financially unsupportable” to have all course instructors engaged in research. (The authors do not explain howÂ exactly they arrived at the conclusion that substantially increasing governmentÂ funding forÂ PSE is “unsupportable.” I wonder if they also find Canada’s race to the bottom on taxation levels–for both corporations and individuals–to be “unsupportable.”)
-Though Ontario universities currently realize cost savings by having more part-time contract faculty teach courses, the authorsÂ argue that “the increased militancy of the unions that represent contingent faculty” will likely erode much of that “financial advantage” in coming years.
-The authors cite research which they claim supports the notion that “instructors who are not active researchers are no more or less effective in the lecture hall or classroom than their tenured colleagues.”
-The authors point to Germany’s fachhochshulen model.Â At aÂ Â fachhochshulen (which is like a university, but not quite a university), the teaching load of a full-time faculty member is more than double that of a full-time faculty member at one of Germany’s universities (i.e. 18 hours per week of teaching over 34 weeks in the case of the former,Â asÂ opposed to eight hours a week of teaching over 30 weeks in the case of the latter).Â Also, the average faculty salary at a fachhochshulen is roughly 20 percent less than at a German university.
-The authors argue that Ontario should change the way it teaches undergraduate students.Â In addition to encouraging more undergraduate students toÂ pursue three-year degrees (rather than four-year degrees), they argue that new Ontario institutions should be created where faculty teach 6-8 course equivalents per year (rather than the current norm of 4).Â One of the advantages of making this happen in new institutions, rather than at already-existing institutions, is that newly-created institutions would be “unencumbered by their history, institutional culture, and contractual relationships.”
While I found the book to be quite informative on the whole, I have three concerns about the authors’ proposal.Â
First,Â I worry about something that rarely gets measured:Â teaching quality.Â In proposing thatÂ fewer professors be engaged in research and that fewer years be requiredÂ for a student toÂ obtain an undergraduate degree,Â the proposalÂ seems to amount to a watering-down of Ontario’s current system.
Second, I worry about supply.Â To undertake a PhD today, one typically has to incur personal debt, make personal sacrifices (with respect to child rearing, for example), rely on family for support, and then, after obtaining the degree, spendÂ several years working for low pay before finally/maybe/hopefully obtaining a tenure-track faculty position.Â (EvenÂ under the current system, roughly 50 percent of people who start a PhD in North America don’t ever finish.) I’m puzzled by the implicit suggestion that youngÂ people would beÂ just asÂ eager to pursueÂ a PhDÂ if the light at the end of the tunnel consisted of: a) doing considerably more teachingÂ than professorsÂ currently do;Â b) getting to doÂ virtually no research; and c) being paid substantially less than current faculty members.Â
Third, I worry about demand.Â Enrolment has been rising at Ontario universities.Â Most observers regard that as a positive thing.Â Would this trend continue if university were to change to the point where it began toÂ be perceived asÂ simplyÂ an extension of high school?
Nick Falvo is a Calgary-based research consultant. He has a PhD in public policy.