For the first time, Ontario has hammered out deals with each of its 44 colleges and universities that force them to bite the bullet and put in writing which 10 programs they consider their strongest and which five — and only five — they hope to expand.
These Strategic Mandate Agreements, made public Thursday after months of closed-door haggling between institutions and Queen’s Park — “We need money for more PhDs” “Let us expand our business program” — are a bid to end duplication and create a more specialized system.
They required the province’s fiercely independent campuses to answer a shopping list of government questions, from how they plan to help more grads get work to how they nurture student entrepreneurs, how they will reach out to more aboriginal and disabled students, how easy they make it for students to switch schools.
As the first step to more differentiation, the agreements show the province will spread funding for grad students among a smaller group of universities than before, with the University of Toronto winning some 580 new spots, but many getting fewer than they had hoped and York University not being funded for more at all.
The deals are more than just a first step towards systems like those in Alberta or British Columbia, where each school must focus on what it’s best at and not try to be all things to all students.
They mark a new power balance between Ontario and its historically autonomous campuses; a new “co-management” relationship in which the Ivory Tower must answer to a fiscally constrained government in unprecedented detail.
How much the province plans to link those answers to funding is not yet clear, but players on both sides admit funding can be used as a “lever” to get schools to toe the line.
Yet so far, the exercise is being hailed as a move towards transparency and accountability, rather than meddling or micro-managing.
“These aren’t things we’re dictating; we want to exercise stewardship over post-secondary system,” said MPP Reza Moridi, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, who noted the province has just come through a decade of record expansion in higher learning where funding grew by 83 per cent and 170,000 more students arrived on campus.
In contrast, post-secondary funding will rise just 1 per cent per year over the next three years.
“We cannot expand in the same way now given the reality of the day, so we have to work together to make sure the money we spend will benefit students. The bottom line is quality of education,” Moridi said, adding that while the system may not keep growing in breadth, “it can still grow in depth, in the quality of the disciplines.”
York President Mamdouh Shoukri welcomes the new deal as a “step forward” in coordinating programs across the system in which government makes a “significant investment,” and sees it as a chance to state publicly, with government endorsement, York’s commitment to social justice, its leadership role in French-language education and credit transfer deals with other schools, and its intention to grow, especially in science and engineering.
But Shoukri laments York was penalized in grad funding because not enough of its current graduate students are Canadian or permanent residents, the ones Queen’s Park counts in its measure of each school’s grad student ranks.
“On the one hand, the government tells us to take in more international students, then they don’t count them because they don’t fund them,” said Shoukri. “I’ll continue to advocate for that to change. I was one of those international PhDs here 43 years ago myself.”
Ryerson will receive funding for 256 more grad students by 2016-2017, including 138 more PhDs, partly because its focus on start-ups and innovation fits with the government’s desire for universities to develop their own brands, said one government source. It doesn’t hurt that it’s seen as a way to stoke the economy.
Ryerson President Sheldon Levy admits its “innovation incubator” zones where students develop ideas for inventions and meet possible investors, are becoming Ryerson’s brand, “just like co-op programs became Waterloo’s brand. It all goes back to our mission of being ‘relevant’ to the society we serve.”
Levy said the agreements “aren’t a bad strategy when you have a limited amount of money; you can use the information for a better strategy for investment than just spreading it all out.”
U of T, long a champion of differentiation among universities, was pleased the agreement recognizes its role as the province’s leading research powerhouse, said Provost Cheryl Regehr. As well as funding for 428 new master’s students and 152 new PhDs in the next three years, the government has allowed the U of T to convert its undergraduate teaching program to a master’s program, which will add yet another 502 grad spots a year.
George Brown College president Anne Sado supports the idea of differentiation “because if we have too many students in one area, it doesn’t serve our economy well.” The college will be funded for 218 more students in four-year degree programs in the next three years.
However, its agreement also notes that its first-year dropout rate is slightly higher than average, and Sado says it will need government funding to help fix that.
“If the ministry wants us to take more students — and we’ve doubled in size in the past eight years — some of those students aren’t always as prepared as they need to be and there are costs involved in providing more support.”
Seneca College president David Agnew said the agreements forced schools to have those “desert island discussions” about what their priorities really are.
“We have 150 programs and it was a challenge to name our top 10 and then pick three to five areas where we’d like to grow, and we had to be specific. We couldn’t just say ‘business’ or ‘health,’” said Agnew.
“If I had one criticism, it would be that we had to do this in isolation. If we had been able to have conversations with each other, even with other institutions within the GTA, it would have been helpful.”