The Ontario government must redesign the way it distributes $3.5-billion to the province’s universities to redress a decline in undergraduate education and demand clear and measurable learning outcomes, according to a series of recommendations that are expected to set the direction of the postsecondary sector for decades to come.

The recommendations are made in a report commissioned by the province as part of its move to review how it funds universities. Originally, the review’s mandate was to outline a funding formula that would reduce program duplication. But as a result of consultations with students, university administrators and employers, the report is now squarely focused on the student experience.

“We heard a lot about the undergraduate experience and concern with the undergraduate experience,” said Sue Herbert, who led the consultation group and is a former deputy education minister.

“Larger class sizes, too little contact between students and faculty, sessional lecturers and an increasingly strained student support service environment” were some of the issues identified in consultations.

Its findings and recommendations pose a particular challenge for Ontario’s research-intensive universities, like the University of Toronto and McMaster University. The report recognizes that research is important, but it also says the balance between teaching and research has become skewed toward the latter. Provincial money can be used as a lever to encourage universities to pay renewed attention to their teaching mission, the report states.

The government said it will begin work on how to implement the report.

“We are not going to sit on it and do nothing, we will act on it,” said Reza Moridi, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. Dr. Moridi cautioned, however, that change will not happen overnight. “This is a major exercise, we have to be very careful in how we implement. It’s going to take some time to come up with a formula that meets the needs of all the institutions,” he said in an interview.

Emphasizing teaching and undergraduate education was the right focus, he added.

“I have no complaint with regard to the quality of education in our institutions,” Dr. Moridi said. “But how can we increase the quality through a mechanism of funding where our institutions pay much more attention to the quality of education, so that our students are No. 1 in their experience and training in the world?”

Ontario is unlikely to ever adopt a funding model as radical as that pioneered by Tennessee’s “outcome-based” system. All of the public money given to postsecondary institutions in the state is tied to such outcomes as graduation rates, research intensity and how successfully schools help disadvantaged students earn a degree.

Ontario is currently one of only two provinces, along with Alberta, that have any type of performance-based funding, with 4 per cent of public money dependent on measures like retention or graduation rates. That’s not a sufficient percentage to drive improvement in the system, the report says. British Columbia has linked a quarter of its money for postsecondary education to training in fields that are demanded by employers.

It’s unclear if performance-based funding improves student outcomes. A 2014 study from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found very limited effects on such measures as degree completion and dropout rates in U.S. states that had adopted such formulas.

“If you choose the right groups of incentives with a consistent theme, then you have the right impact,” Ms. Herbert said.

University administrators could find their traditional independence challenged as the changes are implemented. The government is moving toward a “stewardship” model of governance, rather than the autonomy that institutions have enjoyed. But it is not clear how much guidance or control the ministry will seek.

For now, the government simply wants more information.

“In terms of data sharing, we have some information that is shared with the ministry and some that is not. We need to work more closely than before.” Dr. Moridi said. “We are both, universities and government, working for the same goal, for our young people.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015 5:00AM EST
Last updated Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015 5:00AM EST