By Tony Dean
The provincial government’s Aug. 7 announcement that Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) have been signed with all 45 publicly assisted colleges and universities is worth a closer look.
A government statement said the agreements “will help guide future growth by encouraging more focus on unique strengths, while avoiding or limiting expansion in academic areas where programs already exist.”
The goal was to ensure that the institutions are doing their best to connect students to experience-based learning through, for example, co-op programs, start-up incubators that foster entrepreneurship, and applied research. The institutions were also asked to show how they are contributing to job creation, innovation, and economic development, and collaborating with regional partners.
Another priority was a shift to a more evidence-based distribution of graduate spaces to reinforce distinctiveness.
The agreements are momentous in several respects. This sector has grown rapidly. Funding has increased by 80 per cent over the past 10 years, reaching $5 billion in 2014-15. While new spending has been associated with virtuous goals such as accessibility, affordability, better jobs and economic growth, it has not been accompanied by the rigorous government stewardship, strategic oversight, and metrics necessary to maximize quality and efficiency in the system.
The SMA’s were designed to shift the government from funder to a steward of a system that is now in some cases comprised of “silos of excellence.”
Why hasn’t this happened before now? It is partly explained by a historical focus on inputs such as student enrolment and money spent as opposed to clearly defined outcomes such as the quality of education and preparing students for jobs.
There will also have been some resistance to additional accountability requirements on the part of some colleges and universities under the shield of autonomy, or the more straightforward argument that the status quo worked for them.
Don Drummond’s 2012 report on public service reform was blunt in outlining the benefits of multi-year Strategic Mandate Agreements. He said differentiation has the potential to reduce inefficiencies and realize cost savings by minimizing further duplication of programs. He recommended that agreements be established and implemented by 2014 – so chalk-up another one on the Drummond scorecard for the Wynne government.
Also in 2012, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU) asked colleges and universities to submit SMAs. The results of this first crack at defining unique college and university strengths were apparently a little too generic.
TCU asked the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) to convene a panel of senior educators who produced a report in 2013 supporting less duplication and more specialization.
Against that backdrop Brad Duguid, then minister of TCU, and deputy ministerDeb Newman, decided on face-to-face talks between ministry representatives and each institution on mandate agreements.
Newman added some heft to the team by drafting in Francophone Affairs DM (and former Council of Universities CEO) Paul Genest as a special adviser and, the now retired, former Education DM Sue Herbert.
Duguid trusted the ministry team to get the job done, but was insistent throughout that encouraging universities, in particular, to make specific commitments to promote job growth, innovation and economic development was a top priority. This helped government negotiators persuade juggernauts such as the University of Toronto to be more specific about how it would measure its contribution to the broader economy.
In U of T’s case Duguid also wanted to get this done in a way that protected, if not improved, the university’s ranking as one of the top twenty in the world.
In a notoriously hard-to-influence sector, it would not have been lost on others that the government’s first breakthrough agreement was reached with U of T.
In essence, the agreements were the result of a conscious effort by the government to ensure that future growth of the post-secondary system is guided by provincial priorities, including sustainability and quality. This has had an impact inside government as well. A 2013 TCU “Differentiation Policy Framework” released just prior to SMA negotiations brought these policy priorities together in a holistic way for ministry managers and staff for the first time.
Putting a single lens on several policy initiatives previously spread across the ministry requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, which in this case was managed by a cross-ministry team. This worked well internally and also provided colleges and universities with a single-window into key ministry programs – something they would probably like to keep.
Additionally, the requirement for institutions to provide metrics and evidence to demonstrate their impact in key areas, and the use of more evidence in determining the distribution of graduate spaces, required the ministry to think more seriously about which outcomes should be measured, and how.
A lot of attention was focused on graduate studies and research. A “Priorities Envelope” of new graduate spaces was deployed to reinforce specific strengths at institutions, such that even a smaller institution like Nipissing benefited by gaining a number of doctoral spaces for its well-regarded Teacher Education program.
At the same time TCU made some tough decisions to reset existing allocations, with some institutions losing unused spaces while other institutions received higher allocations to reflect enrolment levels already realised. In other areas institutions were given greater flexibility to reallocate funding/spaces such as converting Doctoral spaces to Masters slots.
These agreements will provide a foundation for further reinforcement of differentiation through reform of funding formulas and in addressing risks to financial sustainability.
A big test for the government as steward of the system will come when the results are tallied down the road and some institutions inevitably fall short in delivering on their commitments. Observers both inside and outside of the sector will watch the government’s reactions very closely.
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