Student and faculty groups in Ontario don’t like what the government has in store for the future of post-secondary education.

In response to a recent discussion paper by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU), several groups say they do not agree with Minister Glen Murray’s proposed reforms.

Key issues raised by student leaders include government intrusion in post-secondary education, tuition hikes, a rapid shift toward technology-based education and incentivization of entrepreneurial learning.

The Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario (CFS Ontario) and the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) are among those concerned about a perceived ‘unprecedented intrusion’ of government in the post-secondary sector.

“People who are in the best position to determine what’s best for students are students themselves, faculty members and university administrators,” said Graeme Stewart, communications manager at OCUFA. “We want to keep decision-making power with [those parties].”

The MTCU’s discussion paper, entitled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge” was drafted this past summer. To the dismay of student leaders, the paper was written without student consultation and publicized in late August during the back-to-school rush.

The paper comes on the heels of a controversial leaked policy paper in February, tentatively entitled “3 Cubed.” The leaked document suggested that universities should increase efficiency by offering more three-year degrees and allowing students to get more than half their credits online.

MTCU’s recent summer discussion paper acknowledges a rapidly changing post-secondary education sector and the need for Ontario institutions to respond.

Though the proposal outwardly rejects efficiency-focused strategies to curb costs, it also aligns itself with the trend of “high quality outcome-based credentials” becoming the norm.

The report says “cost reductions and the elimination of redundancies are essential parts of our government’s fiscal plan,” but these are not enough to meet the fiscal challenges.

In the long term, the Ministry sees “adopting innovation in the sector to drive productivity” as the other half of the equation.

One proposed reform, a simpler credit transfer system, has already been implemented in a recent partnership between seven universities and has generally been well received.

“Credit transfer, online learning, different experiential options – these are all good things. Our concern is that the government seems to be saying: we’re going to tell you what to do, when to use online learning, when to use learning technologies, when to do co-op,” said Stewart.

There are several shared concerns put forward by CFS Ontario and OCUFA, showing overlap between student and faculty reactions to the Ministry’s proposal.

 

Underfunded Ontario PSE sector

Respondents pointed to the fact that Ontario’s post-secondary sector is the least funded in the nation. Per-student funding currently stands at $8,349, which is 34 per cent below the national average, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada report.

“The underfunding problem is decades old in Ontario,” said Stewart, who cited Ontario’s per-student funding as the primary reason for a higher student-faculty ratio.

By 2009, Ontario’s ratio of students to full-time faculty was nearly seven per cent higher than the national average, according to a separate report by Stats Canada. Today, there are roughly 27 students for every professor in Ontario.

“This means students can’t have the same face-to-face interaction, professors aren’t as available, students find themselves in larger classes and they have fewer course choices. It also means universities don’t have the money to restore their older buildings,” said Stewart.

 

Higher rate of tuition increase

“When the government allows per-student funding to decrease, that puts pressure on institutions to increase tuition fees because they have to replace that revenue,” said Stewart.

This year, tuition fees across the nation have risen at more than three times the rate of inflation. Student and faculty representatives argue that this would create a more elite system and diminish accessibility to higher education.

“I don’t think we can say that right now, or even a couple of years ago, tuition fees were at the right place and we should increase rates with inflation,” said Sarah Jayne King, chairperson of CFS Ontario.

“Tuition fees are beyond the point where we can simply freeze them and be happy with that,” said King.

CFS Ontario has drafted two tuition fee proposals for the most recent provincial budget that would have tuition fees reduced immediately by 25 per cent.

 

Emphasis on performance-based funding and incentivization

CFS Ontario criticized the proposal’s emphasis on ‘entrepreneurial learning’ and the practice of subsidizing private sector research via the post-secondary education system.

In their response, CFS Ontario asserts that “promoting the creation of business incubators or incentivizing entrepreneurial education in the province’s public colleges and universities does not facilitate knowledge, innovation or creativity.”

OCUFA similarly criticized the provincial government’s ‘performance funding’ model, saying it “makes quality improvement impossible” and unfairly punishes students.

“I don’t think the minister has a totally clear idea of what he wants yet, but our concern is that the recommendations in the paper tend to push the [post-secondary education] system toward this kind of labour market focus,” said Stewart.

 

Using technology as a cost-saving measure

“Students are concerned that online courses are going to be implemented as a cost-saving measure, when we know that to actually produce a high-quality online education is quite expensive,” said King.

There have been no concrete proposals put forward yet mandating that three out of five courses be online, said King, referring to the contents of the leaked ‘3 Cubed’ ministry document earlier this year.

However, she said there is continued concern among students that the education sector is headed in this direction.

 

The ministry asked that formal responses to the discussion paper be sent in by Sept. 30. Respondents include CFS (national), COPE, COU and OPSEU.

King and Stewart said they don’t know of any definitive timeline for a response from the Ministry, but representatives continue to be open to discussions with the government while awaiting a follow-up.

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