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Time to say no to university growth, yes to quality

For more than 20 years, the Canadian higher education system has organized and managed itself to improve access: to increase participation rates and to grow. The results of this policy imperative have been spectacular. Over the last 20 years, enrolment in Canada's postsecondary institutions has grown from 1.3 million to 2.0 million. The results have been particularly impressive in Ontario. From 2003-2008, for example, enrolments in Ontario universities grew 29 per cent from 302,000 to 389,000 and in colleges 11 per cent from 181,000 to 201,000. Postsecondary participation rates in Ontario rose from 33 per cent to 36 per cent and Ontario can boast one of the highest postsecondary attainment rates in Canada, if not the world.

The problem, however, is this. The strategies governments are using to promote this growth and the strategies postsecondary institutions are using to accommodate this growth are leading to a continuing erosion of the quality of the postsecondary experience: larger classes; less engagement with students; student complaints that they do not know any professor well enough to obtain a letter of recommendation; public narratives questioning the value of a postsecondary education, especially university; etc. Concern over quality is reinforced by current research on literacy. A nontrivial proportion of Ontario postsecondary students may not have the literacy skills to participate adequately in higher education and only a minority of students graduating from Ontario institutions appear to have achieved literacy skills beyond an international standard of basic literacy.

The Ontario government recognizes that it is time for policies that promote quality to complement those that privilege only growth. That is why they are beginning to pursue policies, like differentiation, which other governments are also using to optimize quality.

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The shift to managing for quality will not be easy. The first challenge is that of measuring progress. It is easy to measure whether one is being successful when the objective is to increase enrolments – you simply have to know how to count and if the numbers go up you are making progress. A fundamental challenge to a shift for quality is that there is controversy about how to measure quality. Yes, there are some surrogate measures that some think may be useful – student satisfaction, NSSE scores [especially some subscales], employment rates, rankings, standardized tests like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, etc. But, we would all be more confident and enthusiastic in a shift to quality if there was better agreement on direct, reliable and valid measures of higher education quality.

The second impediment to managing for quality is that it shifts the locus of blame for failure. If we fail to meet an access target, institutions claim that it is primarily the government's fault because if the government allocated more money to institutions they would take more students. History suggests that this is indeed the case. In contrast, if we fail to meet a quality objective, the primary culprit is the institution. We do not want a government policing and managing quality – this is a quintessential responsibility of the academy because that is where the experts are who can evaluate claims of quality and be sensitive to different definitions of quality in institutions with different mandates or disciplines of different cultures and practices.

Nonetheless, there are some who will still blame government for a failure to meet a quality agenda because funding was insufficient. While I know there is some relationship between resources and quality, the simple argument that more money will improve quality does not wash. After all, it is during that period when Ontario provided more resources to the postsecondary sector that the concerns of quality got more acute. Managing for quality requires a shift from the focus of how much money the government allots and the institutions receive to how the government gives out public money and how the institutions spend it.

The third impediment to managing for quality are the challenges and discipline it imposes on those who manage our institutions. When you are managing for access the bias is to say "yes" to as many students as you think you can accommodate. Managing for quality requires people to say "no" to some important decisions – no, we cannot take more students because it will diminish quality; no, you are not good enough to be hired, get tenure, or be promoted as a faculty member; no, you can't offer this new program because the quality level is not high enough; no, you cannot continue these programs and courses because the quality level is just not sufficient.

Quality is the metric by which the world assesses the worth, value and competitiveness of our postsecondary system, institutions and graduates. By shifting and attending to a quality agenda, Ontario has the opportunity to position its postsecondary system to world-leading status among public systems. Wouldn't we all benefit from that?

Harvey P. Weingarten is president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. This blog first appeared on the Council's website.

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