The Ontario government has signed a sweeping set of agreements with universities and colleges that will oblige them to choose areas of specialty and avoid overlapping programs with one another. The deals are a crucial step in the province’s plan to tailor the postsecondary system more closely to the economy, and save public money by avoiding duplication.

They also force the 44 institutions to accept that they cannot have everything. Some will get more graduate student funding; others will not. Some programs will be allowed to expand; others will not.

The three-year Strategic Mandate Agreements were negotiated for months between the Ontario government and the schools, and made public this week.

“Now is the time to focus attention on increasing quality of education in certain areas that our postsecondary institutions have identified as their strong points,” Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Reza Moridi said in an interview. “After expanding the system in length and in width, now is the time to expand the system in depth.”

The agreements identify five programs negotiated by the government and the schools that they want to expand, in a bid to get each one to focus on its strengths. The mandate agreements do not explicitly set programs sizes or funding levels, but government sources said they will serve as the guide when universities and colleges ask for money from the province to expand.

York University in suburban Toronto, for instance, wants to eventually open a medical school, but such a program is not on the list of expansion areas in its agreement with the province. This is because the province wants to steer York away from medicine in the near term and encourage it to instead look at expanding in other areas – engineering and digital media, for instance – that it has agreed to focus on.

The agreements spell out the number of graduate students the province will pay for in each institution, encouraging some to grow while freezing others.

York president Mamdouh Shoukri said the deals are a “welcome step” that will make the process for approving program expansions more efficient by sorting out ahead of time which universities will focus on which areas.

“This really serves as an affirmation by the government of its support for the priorities York has identified,” he said.

He said his university will still pursue its longer-term objectives, such as a medical school, but the agreement sets out what it will focus on expanding in the near term.

University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman said he was “really happy” with the process because it helped the university “sharpen focus” and highlight the things it is already trying to specialize in, including training for advanced manufacturing.

Despite the cheery response from these universities, Mr. Moridi’s predecessor acknowledged that getting all these institutions to sign on was no easy task.

“I’ll be honest with you: At the beginning when I looked at what we were trying to do, I wasn’t sure we would get it done. I wasn’t sure we would have agreement with all of them,” said Brad Duguid, who oversaw negotiations for most of the agreements before he was promoted in a cabinet shuffle a few weeks ago. “But at the end of the day, this is a mature sector and they get it. They get where we are fiscally; they get where we need to go.”

The province’s hope is that postsecondary spots will more closely align with the needs of the job market.

The cash-strapped government has also set an ambitious target to hold increases in postsecondary spending to an annual average of just 1 per cent, a small fraction of historic growth levels. The aim of the deals is to ultimately save the province money by curbing unnecessary growth in programs.

Toronto — The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Aug. 08 2014, 12:17 PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Aug. 08 2014, 9:04 PM EDT