Reforming Ontario’s Universities

I have just finished reading a 2009 book entitled Academic Transformation:  The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario.  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.  While I find it informative, I am uncomfortable with the book’s central feature:  a proposal to reform Ontario’s PSE sector with the main goal of bringing about substantial cost savings.

The following trends are outlined by the authors:

-More students are going to both university and community college.  Total enrolment in Ontario’s PSE system, measured by FTE student positions, has increased roughly sixfold since the late 1960s.  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.  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.  During that same 22-year period, PSE enrolment in Ontario increased by more than 60 percent.

-Class sizes are increasing.  The ratio of FTE students per full-time faculty member at Ontario universities increased from 17 to 25 between 1987-1988 and 2007-2008, representing a 45 percent increase.  During that same period, FTE enrolments per full-time academic staff at Ontario community colleges almost doubled.

-Federal funding for research is increasing.  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 which the authors feel Ontario should be heading, the following arguments are made:

-With rising enrolment, it is “financially unsupportable” to have all course instructors engaged in research. (The authors do not explain how exactly they arrived at the conclusion that substantially increasing government funding for 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 authors 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.  At a  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, as opposed to eight hours a week of teaching over 30 weeks in the case of the latter).  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.  In addition to encouraging more undergraduate students to 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).  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. 

First, I worry about something that rarely gets measured:  teaching quality.  In proposing that fewer professors be engaged in research and that fewer years be required for a student to obtain an undergraduate degree, the proposal seems to amount to a watering-down of Ontario’s current system.

Second, I worry about supply.  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, spend several years working for low pay before finally/maybe/hopefully obtaining a tenure-track faculty position.  (Even 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 young people would be just as eager to pursue a PhD if the light at the end of the tunnel consisted of: a) doing considerably more teaching than professors currently do; b) getting to do virtually no research; and c) being paid substantially less than current faculty members. 

Third, I worry about demand.  Enrolment has been rising at Ontario universities.  Most observers regard that as a positive thing.  Would this trend continue if university were to change to the point where it began to be perceived as simply an extension of high school?


  • I like working at a university, I like universities as a place to be and as a concept. But I actually wonder whether the growth in university attendance has been higher than does anybody any good.

    I think the major reason driving this level of growth in university attendance is competition for scarce good jobs, and the reason university attendance helps get those scarce good jobs has far more to do with arbitrary credentialism than relevance of the qualifications to the jobs themselves. This same scarcity of good jobs makes it difficult for students to attend university for other reasons, such as because they want to learn things.

    Meanwhile, education in technical things, hands-on engineering and industrial study, has languished. There’s a lot more of that kind of education in places like Germany that still make a lot of stuff. It’s fallen out of favour in Canada and the US, where the business-school line of thinking treats all business activity as essentially interchangeable manipulation of money. Neoliberalism tries to annihilate specific industrial know-how in much the same way it tries to annihilate geographical space.

    If we pursued full employment, had an industrial policy, and emphasized education related to that policy, some of the unnatural strains specifically on the university system would probably ease a good deal.

  • My own perception, from a law faculty, is that increased enrollments arise at least in part from frustration with funding levels. Departments that cannot increase their tuition rates can still increase their enrollments, and sometimes get some temporary budgetary relief that way. Interestingly, the resulting deterioration in the student:faculty ratio does not seem to concern administrators so long as they feel that most students are focused on summer and permanent jobs. At our school, the formal coaching on job searches actually begins before entering law students even have their first classes, and they do not seem to question the competition for a shrinking number of classes, the constant focus on mainstream job opportunities, or their ballooning debts.

  • Reading between the lines one sees that in “transformations”, the authors are also want to side-step existing collective agreements to “better” regulate sector wages and deal with tenure, which they indicate is a real impediment to lowering unit costs. And then there’s the whole idea of talking about the issue in terms of unit costs.

    The other issue that I would point you to, Nick, is the dubious nature of the research that the authors cite when they argue, as they are want to do, that research and teaching are not positively correlated. Those that have tried to measure the degree to which teaching informs research and visa versa, thereby improving the quality of both, have generally done a piss poor job of it, extrapolating from the current context, where research earns awards (and teaching release), and teaching is hardly ever noticed. And this is to say nothing of the problems around the NSSE, which are legion, that have hardly been picked-up upon by any scholarly outlet (or very well studied).

    Yah, there is MUCH more to worry about in ‘Transformations’ than just the three issues to which you point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *