Post-secondary in peril: why higher ed in Ontario is stuck in the past

Book Jacket: Academic TransformationAcademic Transformation: The forces reshaping higher education in Ontario

Ian D. Clark, Greg Moran, Michael L. Skolnik, David Trick

For the past six years, my beloved institution has been working toward enhancing the undergraduate student experience as its primary objective under the academic planning framework. A couple of weeks ago, I asked a room of about 40 relatively engaged students (residence dons) what they thought the top priority for the University has been. “Increasing graduate enrolment?” Nope. Though that is a newly established objective. “International student recruitment?” A priority, yes. But not the top one. “Research excellence?”  It took about ten tries.

When I asked them if they could name any changes they’d witnessed as a result of this priority in action, there were some snickers. A few good answers too, but lots of smirks.

Positive change on the student experience – both inside and outside the classroom – has been incremental here at the University of Toronto, despite a University-wide commitment and millions in new funding to kick-start new projects. As all higher education institutions focusing on the student experience have learned, there is no roadmap. Or, as George Kuh, former director of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) is fond of saying, “There is no single blueprint to success.”

There are lots of things we can do – and we have done – to improve undergraduate education. But many of the barriers to improving quality in higher education are persistent and systemic. So say the authors of this new book that takes both a wide-angled lens and a microscope to the issues plaguing higher education in Ontario.

The authors, three professors (two U of T, one Western) and a higher ed consultant, isolate the turning point in the 1960s when two key provincial policy decisions were made – the first limiting the role of the colleges, and the second giving institutional autonomy to universities. As a result, undergraduate education, until very recently anyways, was the exclusive domain of the universities in Ontario (a situation that is not the case in some other provinces.) This might be less than disastrous if not for the fact that virtually every university, in turn, has adopted that same model: the research university. And the research university is without a doubt, say the authors, “the most expensive type of post-secondary institution.”

Meanwhile, we’ve got increasing demand for undergraduate education from an increasingly diverse population. The result: an unsustainable model.

Academic Transformation is a very detailed, very thorough explanation of how post-secondary education in Ontario works – from the provincial funding model, to the production of knowledge, to access and accountability for undergraduate education. They tackle tough issues: are teaching and research truly compatible? Is the baccalaureate the appropriate credential for an applied program at a community college? Or could there be another designation? Does the mounting competition amongst universities for the “best and brightest” lead to more merit-based rather than needs-based aid? And what effect does that have for marginalized groups?

The books paints a bleak picture. The players – colleges, universities, government – are pretty entrenched in the status quo. But the authors do attempt to sketch a way out, prescribing a new system with differentiation among universities – and set of institutions focused on undergraduate education exclusively.

Academic Transformation will certainly open the eyes of most student affairs professionals in Ontario — both in the college and university sector — to the some of the intricacies of the higher education system. For me, it helped explain why progress on enhancing the undergraduate experience for  research universities seems to fall prey to the one-step-forward, two-steps-backward paradigm.

— Deanne Fisher

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2 thoughts on “Post-secondary in peril: why higher ed in Ontario is stuck in the past

  1. […] by McGill-Queen’s University Press. The book is a follow up to Academic Transformation (reviewed on CACUSS Reads last February), which provided a detailed account of why the research university as […]

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