Some of the least-funded provincial university systems have the best results, says a report released Thursday that looks at job, research and social outcomes across the country, in a finding that is likely to be embraced by provincial governments eager to hold the line on tight budgets.

The 93-page report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario is aimed at moving the discussion beyond issues of funding, said Harvey Weingarten, the president and CEO of the education advisory agency.

“We have to shift our attention from talking almost exclusively about money to saying what are the outcomes we expect, what are the outcomes we desire and how good are we at achieving those outcomes. … We can’t afford to drag the puck on education,” Dr. Weingarten said.

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario is funded by the Ontario government but is independent from the province.

Several provinces are currently trying to either reduce or redistribute the money they give the postsecondary sector as they grapple with deficits or budget shortfalls. The report’s findings suggest that universities can maintain and even increase quality on several fronts without increasing funding. (Not enough data was available on colleges to study their performance.)

The measures used to judge performance include student outcomes, such as job qualifications and earnings; access to education based on levels of student aid and debt; research funding and reputation.

“Some things may be more important to some provinces than to others,” Dr. Weingarten said. “We want it to be used as a tool for the development of effective policies that are tailored to a jurisdiction and that are focused on achievement and outcomes.”

Those in the university sector in Ontario, however, argue that the report shows there have been costs to increasing funding only to keep up with growing enrolment. While the province ranks highest on research funding and reputation, its faculty-to-student ratio is also the lowest in the country. Professors at the province’s universities focus on research rather than being in front of a classroom.

“It’s a positive report about our performance as a university sector. But if [the government] wants us to improve, there is a point where elasticity runs out, you gain your efficiencies and you make your trade-offs … at some point you can’t get a change in indicators unless you are making some investments,” said Bonnie Patterson, the president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities.

Provinces vary in their strengths, the report finds. Alberta, in spite of having the highest revenues, showed the second-worst overall outcome. Over all, Ontario and Nova Scotia are top performers even though their revenue per student is the lowest in the country. Ontario, however, has the lowest percentage of students whose education matches their jobs.

Ryan Hill, who is studying for a master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice policy at the University of Guelph, said he found his first degree in legal studies “as good as a high-school diploma.”

“I spent five years following my undergrad working at a call centre as a customer service rep. I hated every moment of it,” Mr. Hill wrote in an e-mail. He is thinking about pursuing a PhD now, a path he says looks better than many of the jobs available in southwestern Ontario.

Sean Madden, the executive director of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, cautions that the report should not be interpreted by policy-makers or the public to mean that universities’ success can be divorced from their revenues.

“No one should look at this and say low funding is not going to impact the performance of universities. It is,” he said.

Indeed, the report finds that Newfoundland’s intense investment in postsecondary education has paid off. University graduates in the province do better on a range of measures compared with high-school graduates.

The “question will be now that they are falling on a little bit of harder times, like any resource-based economy, what’s going to happen to that system?” Dr. Weingarten asked.

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Mar. 12 2015, 5:00 AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Mar. 12 2015, 5:00 AM EDT