The Ontario government recently released a discussion paper on postsecondary-education reform. Among the topics on the agenda: system transformation; a potential move in some programs to three-year degrees; greater use of "technology-enabled" learning; and a much simpler mechanism for transferring course credits between college and university.
Providing a backdrop to these high-minded goals is the need to save money in a sluggish economy within which public-sector costs are projected to outrun revenues for the foreseeable future. Apart from ongoing operating and deferred maintenance shortfalls, nearly every university in the province faces some form of pension deficit. And, as the experience of Quebec shows, tuition increases are a politically volatile issue.
It is clear that the current system of publicly funded postsecondary education is in trouble. (In fact, the term now in use for universities and colleges is "publicly assisted," since the share of operating revenues provided by provincial grants has shrunk to less than half of total revenues.) In Ontario, as enrolment numbers have dramatically expanded over the past decade, the hiring of faculty has not kept pace. There are competing pressures on universities to be "innovative" and to produce research discoveries that can be easily transferred to the private sector for commercialization. Accountability requirements have steadily increased as the public and students demand to know how their tax and tuition dollars are being spent. This means getting universities and colleges to focus less on the process of education and more on the results: Do students know more after they leave than when they came? Do they know the right things? Are they ready for employment? The value of education for education's sake is not resonating in an unstable economy as well or as widely as it once did.
Some of these proposed changes are scary for those of us in the postsecondary sector, but they are for the most part neither unreasonable nor unachievable. Contrary to popular myth, universities are not impervious to change or insensitive to external circumstances. They would not be around 800 years after the medieval church created the institution had they been incapable of both incremental, evolutionary change and, at a few key junctures, much more profound, fundamental transformation.
Change will happen, though it is likely to be slower than government or some media observers might prefer. Apart from internal consultations, we all need to listen carefully to the most important constituency here: students. It is not clear, for example, that there exists a big appetite for three-year degrees among Canadian students. If anything, the pattern of recent graduates seeking second credentials (master's degrees or college diplomas in an applied field) demonstrates that current employers are requiring more, not less, education.
There are plenty of interesting ideas for reform. The government's paper provides a good kickstart to this round of discussions. For it to generate good results will require compromise and negotiation on the part of government, students, faculties, university administrations and governing boards. It will require a combination of resolve and consultation rather than top-down intervention and centralized micromanagement of education. It will require us inside the academy to be willing to separate core activities from "nice-to-haves." It will require a collective will to treat our successful past less as an anchor and more as a runway. It will require those outside to understand what we do – and that we are not businesses, even if we must run our "shops" in a fiscally responsible manner.
Achieving fundamental change will be difficult and complex, but as the history of universities indicates, not impossible. And the consequences of doing nothing – continued decline in the quality of the classroom experience through incremental and marginal budget cuts and superficial gains in "efficiency" – are too depressing to imagine. Change will come. But let's do it right, not just right now.
Daniel Woolf is the principal and vice-chancellor of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and a professor of history.