Photo by Halley Requena-Silva/Courtesy the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario.

The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities is set to implement big changes to Ontario’s post-secondary education sector over the next six months. TCU minister Brad Duguid said he expects greater differentiation between institutions, more e-learning opportunities and easier credit transfers.

Duguid met with student and faculty groups over the summer to discuss reforms proposed by the ministry. The ministry has now entered the decision-making stage.

“My sense is that there is recognition among all student groups and faculty groups that, if we just go on the way we are now, given the fiscal environment, it’s not sustainable,” Duguid said.

The province is expected to make announcements addressing three key issues in the next six months.

Online education

The province has proposed an Ontario Online Initiative that would take a consortium or “centre of excellence” approach to providing more e-learning opportunities.

“I expect this fall we will be moving forward with a strategy that will help make Ontario a leader in this area,” Duguid said.

In February 2012, a leaked policy paper from the ministry, suggesting that students should be able to take three of five courses online, drew criticism from several student and faculty groups. Groups responded by raising concerns over reduced quality of education through e-learning.

“It seems now that the government has backed away from a degree-granting institution. Students pushed back on that very strongly,” said Alastair Woods, CFS-Ontario chairperson.

“Online education should only be pursued as a means to provide more access to distance education, not as a cost-saving measure,” said Rylan Kinnon, director of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Association (OUSA). “We feel the government understands that and is making progress.”

Kinnon said OUSA has recommended extended hours for online student support and online credit transfers.

“Having credit transfer is a central aspect of it–students need to know that their [online] course will apply to their program in their home institution,” Kinnon said.

Differentiation

Duguid said the province will continue to push for greater differentiation between Ontario’s colleges and universities “to stay competitive in the global economy.”

“We can no longer afford to have a system that is organically developing based on whatever preferences the institutions may have. We can’t have duplication in the system,” he said.

With greater differentiation, institutions are encouraged to grow preferentially in areas they already excel in, so that each institution can be assessed by specific performance indicators.

OCUFA, which represents 17,000 university faculty and librarians, released its response to the Ministry’s discussion guide, raising concerns over rhetoric and some proposed reforms.

“We don’t really know what ‘differentiation’ means,” said Kate Lawson, OCUFA president. “If it means students in any part of the province can access high quality aspects of education they want, we can support that. But we’re concerned that the government might look at it as a cost-saving mechanism.”

“From OCUFA’s point of view, universities in Ontario are underfunded and need reliable baseline funding,” Lawson said.

OCUFA has stated that it will not support using institutional performance against the goals outlined in the SMAs [strategic mandate agreements] to determine allocations of public funding.

“We believe such a system [imposes] a punitive hierarchy of “winners” and “losers,” OCUFA stated.

Credit transfer

While Duguid did not confirm or deny that the consortium established between seven universities last year will be expanded, he said a more fluid system is one of his priorities.

“I see no reason why, in the coming years, courses can’t be fully transferable across Ontario institutions,” Duguid said.

Kinnon said OUSA supports the ministry’s push for more course-mapping (institutions trying to match each other’s popular courses) as well as putting standards in place for appeals, residence requirements, and minimum grade requirements.

OUSA has also cautioned that rural and northern institutions should have a breadth of offerings since distance is a greater factor for those students.

“Up until now the ministry and the sector have done a lot of good work on college-to-university credit transfer. Now we need to focus on university-to-university transfer,” Kinnon said.

This article was also published on the Canadian University Press’s newswire

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