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Academic reform: tread carefully

Ontario’s system isn’t broken, just stressed. Before we try more radical fixes, why not encourage a robust college-university transfer system?


Every so often, Canada goes through a period of time when it is in vogue to criticize universities and the role they play in society. We seem to be in one of those cycles right now, where hardly a week goes by without some article in the media commenting negatively on how universities are managing research, teaching, academic freedom, or commercialization and innovation. Some of this is generated by the annual release of university reports by Maclean’s and the Globe and Mail. On the whole, these reports present Canada’s universities in a very positive light, even while highlighting areas where they can improve. Perhaps it is inevitable that more critical commentary is also published, just in case those of us who work in universities become too complacent.

However, there are also times when there are concerted efforts to question the fundamental structure of Canada’s university system. Because it is decentralized, these critiques usually focus on specific provincial systems. Having spent most of my professional career in Nova Scotia and then six years in British Columbia, I am all too familiar with the cyclic attempts to question and fundamentally reform the university systems in those provinces.

Today, it seems to be Ontario’s turn to be subject to such scrutiny, with the publication of Academic Reform, in November 2011 (excerpted in University Affairs’ December 2011 issue). Like its 2009 prequel, Academic Transformation, this book contains a great deal of valuable information and insightful analysis, especially its review of university systems worldwide. Where the book falls down is in its attempts to make bold recommendations for radical changes in Ontario public policy towards higher education. Academic Reform proposes the creation of a number of “new universities” focused on undergraduate teaching and very limited research, as the answer to meeting the educational needs of the growing population in the Greater Toronto Area in a manner that is cheaper than the “traditional university.” Yet this radical proposal is based upon a combination of questionable assumptions and simplistic analysis of the options.

Two basic assumptions running through Academic Reform are that the Ontario university system is broken and that the quality of education in the system is declining. Yet when I look for evidence to support these assumptions, there is precious little to find. The notion that the Ontario university system is broken derives from Academic Transformation, which concludes that the research university model is too expensive and the current funding framework is unsustainable. That funding framework is based entirely on significant growth and as we move towards a demographic environment that does not support such growth, there is no doubt that the funding approach will have to change. But that does not mean that the whole system is broken.

Indeed, the Ontario university system has responded very successfully to virtually all of the policy demands of the provincial government in recent years. This includes increased access, increased opportunities for first-generation students, higher rates of retention and graduation, higher rates of employment after graduation, and increasing student satisfaction with their educational experiences. Not bad for a broken system!

The issue of quality seems to come down to one specific issue related to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) – a survey that is used widely by North American colleges and universities to measure how engaged students are with their learning experience and that is mandatory for Ontario universities. The specific issue is that on average, Ontario universities, and Canadian universities in general, score lower than American universities in certain key quality-related questions, including student-faculty interaction and the level of student engagement.

The United States has a much different postsecondary system than Canada, with a diverse mix of public, private non-profit and private for-profit institutions. Also, for the past two decades, per-student funding in the U.S. has significantly exceeded that in Canada, and Ontario lags behind the rest of Canada in that category. Now that the financial crisis is having severe impacts on the funding of public universities south of the border, with some state institutions facing bankruptcy, it will be interesting to see if these changes have any negative impacts on NSSE scores in the future.

Many of the best U.S. universities charge tuition fees that are eight to 10 times higher, or more, than the Canadian average and have considerable wealth from endowments. Their huge variations in funding, costs and quality are very different from the situation in Canada, where those factors are relatively consistent across the country, despite some provincial variations. Yet, based on these few average NSSE scores, Academic Reform seems to be mesmerized by the U.S. system and proposes emulating it with the creation of a number of U.S.-style, four-year baccalaureate institutions in Ontario. Unfortunately, these are often the very institutions that constitute the lower echelons of the American system.

There are two other important factors in the NSSE survey that also reflect quality: rates of student retention and of graduation. In both categories, Canadian universities perform significantly better than U.S. universities overall. Interestingly, the authors of Academic Reform ignore these data, and if they hadn’t they might have noticed that U.S. undergraduate institutions have some of the worst retention and graduation rates. Buying a bad education with a second-  or third-rate credential, or not even completing a degree, is not the same as buying a bad meal – it has severe, long-term implications and comes at great cost to the individual. We do not want to move Canada into the realm of creating universities that cannot meet the same standards of high quality that are currently the hallmark of our university system. And we certainly do not want to make such a move without very rigorous and detailed analysis.

In comparing operating costs of the proposed new universities with those of a new campus of a traditional university, Academic Reform uses a simplistic financial analysis that excludes a whole host of critical factors that come into play when creating a brand new institution. These include setting up an entirely new administrative structure and team; new academic infrastructures and supports; recruiting and hiring the entire professoriate; and developing and getting approval of completely new curricula for every program on offer. Ask anyone who was involved with the creation of the University of Northern British Columbia how much it costs to set up a brand new institution and how many years before the new university is in a position to admit even a single student. By comparison, when establishing a campus of an existing university the provision of all of these administrative and academic support services are incremental, building on the existing infrastructure in which taxpayers have already invested, and the academic degrees and programs of the existing university can be offered immediately.

Creating a brand new institution from scratch exponentially increases the costs compared with building a new campus of an existing institution, and Academic Reform ignores this in its analysis. Furthermore, a 2003 national study (PDF) comparing instructional costs in the U.S. found that 80 percent of cost differences are accounted for by discipline and program mix, and that comparing institutions with similar program mixes shows no appreciable differences in overall unit instructional costs between research universities and baccalaureate colleges. This study is not referenced in Academic Reform.

Also, the authors claim that by offering the same salaries as existing universities, the new institutions would compete for faculty on an equal basis with traditional universities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Faculty hired by these new universities will be highly qualified scholars, most having PhDs. They will want to do research and will not be satisfied with working in an institution that does not support them conducting a reasonable amount of research and establishing themselves as credible scholars. Most of them will be constantly on the lookout for positions at a “real” university, but in the meantime they will work diligently to push the university administration to provide them more time to do research, administrative support to compete for external funding, and financial support for engaging their students in their research activities.

I lived through the latter period of the B.C. experiment with “university colleges,” and that is exactly what happened to those institutions. As they expanded and developed their own degrees and identities, hired excellent faculty who wanted to teach undergraduates and conduct research, and competed with traditional universities for students and resources, they grew out of the legislative box that the government had placed around them and demanded that they be treated as real universities.

Today, the university colleges are no more, having evolved into regional universities (except Okanagan University College, which was split into a separate college and a university campus of the University of British Columbia) that are teaching-focused, primarily serving undergraduates but with scholarly research activities that, while limited by their mandates, support and enrich the undergraduate student learning experience.

So, is there a better approach for the Ontario government to consider? Rather than create costly new institutions, it would make much more sense to use the existing postsecondary infrastructure by identifying a number of colleges in the GTA to offer two-year arts and science programs that would articulate directly into third year at any Ontario university. Such an approach is mentioned in Academic Reform, but is dismissed, sadly, in favour of the “new universities” proposal. Increased upper-level capacity at existing universities could be addressed through the government’s expansion of graduate education, as those professors hired to teach and supervise graduate students would also teach upper-level undergraduate courses.

By adapting the successful B.C. transfer model, Ontario would finally create a credible college-university transfer system, and give real meaning to the recently established Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer. This new council is an attempt to emulate the B.C. approach, but the lack of university-level academic programs at Ontario’s colleges means that only limited transfer and articulation will occur. But, if the provincial government identified a number of colleges in growth regions for the establishment of first- and second-year university arts and sciences, and had those programs developed in collaboration with Ontario’s universities to transfer directly into third year at any Ontario university, then the province could develop a real and meaningful college-university transfer system.

Transfer students would complete their upper-year courses, where exposure to the research-learning environment is especially important, at recognized universities, and all Ontario universities could compete for those transfers and contribute to the solution of how to address the GTA population growth. This would address a key issue raised in Academic Reform about the costs of simply expanding the current model, and it would deliver on a goal of the Ontario government to create a more integrated postsecondary system. Why opt for a risky and expensive approach of developing U.S.-style, four-year, teaching-only institutions when we have another more viable option that is based upon a successful Canadian approach to postsecondary education?

Successful undergraduate-focused universities exist in Canada and elsewhere, but the bottom line is that the new institutions that Academic Reform proposes are not universities, and just calling them universities won’t make them so. Universities teach in a scholarly environment that is informed, stimulated and enriched by research. That fundamental principle is also what lies behind successful liberal arts colleges in the U.S., and it is that same principle that has made Ontario, and Canada generally, internationally recognized as having a consistently high quality of universities, from the smallest to the largest. That is not something that we want to put at risk.

Peter Ricketts is provost and vice-president, academic, at Carleton University.

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  1. Jill / January 9, 2012 at 19:50

    A number of 2 year colleges in the United States act as lower cost (to the students) feeder schools to the larger universities. Their colleges are formatted differently from ours, but this would still be a good place to start looking at what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer will not try to re-invent the wheel.

  2. Richard Van Loon / January 12, 2012 at 10:10

    Comments on Peter Ricketts, “Academic Reform, Tread Carefully” Part 2

    Well, Dr Ricketts says, in any event faculty will never be happy in the kind of undergraduate teaching universities we propose because they won’t be able to do research. But apparently faculty at BC regional universities are content because they can engage in “scholarly research activities that, while limited by their mandates, support and enrich the undergraduate student learning experience.” As it happens this is exactly the kind of research we proposed in our book for the undergraduate universities we think should be part of Ontario’s future.

    Dr Ricketts does come upon a good idea towards the end of his article: the use of a two year credential in Ontario colleges which would lead to admission to the third year of an undergraduate degree in universities. But he claims that, while we mention it, we “sadly” dismiss it in favour of undergraduate teaching institutions. We are glad to see him adopt an idea from the book but saddened to see such evidence of inattention to what we actually said.

    In fact the third and fourth of our summary recommendations are:

    “Two-year academic credential

    4. The government should announce its intention to create a new two-year college credential that will prepare students to enter the third year of university, modeled after the associate degree found in most North American jurisdictions.

    5. The government should convene a working group on a two-year academic credential, which includes representatives from the Council of Ontario Universities and Colleges Ontario, to develop a model curriculum for the credential.” (p. 234)

    Our book has have several pages of description of the Alberta and BC transfer systems which we set out as a model which Ontario might well emulate. These are found at pp. 197ff and 204ff. And we note with favour (and considerable analysis) the very extensive use of two-year credentials in the United States, and Great Britain.

    If Dr Ricketts did not see this chapter of our book, he might have noticed our article to this effect on the front page of the Observer section in his local newspaper. (“It’s time to build better bridges between colleges and universities,” Ottawa Citizen, November 4, 2011)

    So, on the desirability of a two year college credential we are thoroughly in agreement with Dr Ricketts but we would have appreciated his recognizing our advocacy.

    Overall, then, while we welcome attention to what we are saying, we would be even more appreciative if it were clear that the reviewer was thoroughly familiar with what we actually wrote in the book.

  3. Richard Van Loon / January 12, 2012 at 10:12

    Comments on Peter Ricketts, “Academic Reform, Tread Carefully” Part 1

    Unfortunately, Dr Ricketts comments do not reflect a careful reading of our text or even of the sources he himself cites.

    He claims that the two basic assumptions of our book are that the system is “broken” and that the quality of undergraduate education in the system is declining. The word “broken” appears exactly once in the text, on page 239, referring to the breaking of ground for the construction of York University. Moreover, our first point in “Our Argument” on page 2 of the book is “By several measures Ontario currently has a good higher education system”. But we do not think it is able to provide a high quality of education to an increased load of undergraduate students given the current fiscal situation in Ontario and we do think it lags far behind many of the other systems we examined in measuring the quality of undergraduate education. So, yes, it can be far more efficient while doing a far better job of teaching undergraduates.

    Dr Ricketts greatest concern is our proposal for the founding of several 4-year undergraduate teaching institutions. He claims that in the US these are most often second or third rank institutions and that their graduates will be condemned to a poor education. This would surprise students in the Minnesota state system or most of the campuses of the State University of New York or that egregiously second- or third- rate set of institutions known as California State Universities. It will equally surprise graduates of such undergraduate universities as Mount Allison, or Acadia, or Saint Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia (where Dr Ricketts tells us he worked for several years) or Mount Royal in Alberta. These are the sorts of undergraduate teaching institutions we mean, and we think they already do a good job with their students.

    Well, what about the costs of these new institutions? Here Dr Ricketts accuses us of “a simplistic financial analysis” and then goes on to list an array of costs which we are assumed to have overlooked in our analysis. This is just wrong. All the overhead costs are built into the analysis and in any event, most of them would apply to a new campus of a research oriented university, together with the de-emphasis of undergraduate teaching which we seek to avoid.

    Dr Ricketts cites a 2003 study as follows: “Furthermore, a 2003 national study (PDF) comparing instructional costs in the U.S. found that 80 percent of cost differences are accounted for by discipline and program mix, and that comparing institutions with similar program mixes shows no appreciable differences in overall unit instructional costs between research universities and baccalaureate colleges. This study is not referenced in Academic Reform.”

    This is, at best, a very partial reading of the study Dr Ricketts cites. The study found that, “In general, research and doctoral institutions tend to have the highest instructional expenditures, as do programs that offer the doctorate.” The reason (no surprise) is that faculty at these institutions are expected to do more research, and so additional faculty must be hired to meet instructional demand. Within a given discipline in a university of specified size, “student credit hour production, magnitude of faculty workload, and faculty size are the most important predictors of instructional costs.” (p. 26)

  4. Ian D Clark / January 12, 2012 at 14:50

    I would like add to the comments below of co-author, Richard Van Loon, by addressing Dr Ricketts’ statement that our book contains “precious little [evidence]” to support the “assumption running through Academic Reform … that the quality of education in the system is declining.”

    In our view, the results of the National Survey of Student Engagement do support the conclusion that much needs to be done to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of undergraduate education in Ontario. It is true that universities in Ontario have been slower than those in some other jurisdictions to embrace measures of learning outcomes that would provide better quantitative evidence about education quality. Indeed, our book recommends that Ontario universities move quickly to apply proven tools for measuring learning outcomes, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

    But the two primary sources of our concern about education quality are 1) simple logic and 2) the judgment of people with relevant experience.

    Simple logic would suggest that if the quality of education is influenced by the time and effort that professors put into teaching, then it cannot be good for education quality to have, as we describe in our book, fewer professors per student, teaching fewer courses per year, with fewer classes per course.

    We have discussed the ideas in Academic Reform with many, many colleagues who are, or have been, senior academic officers in Ontario universities. Most would agree with Harvey Weingarten’s conclusion in his Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario blog (October 18, 2011) entitled “The Diminishing Quality of Ontario’s Universities,” that “Inflation is a reality. Compensation changes are a contractual obligation. So, the only place to compromise is on quality. In short, the sad but inevitable consequence of the way we now manage and fund public postsecondary education in Canada is an erosion of quality.”

    Few if any of those we consulted believe it necessary to increase faculty compensation substantially faster than the Consumer Price Index in order to attract and retain superb professors. Most if not all believe that education quality could be enhanced by more use of teaching-stream faculty. Few if any believe that Ontario’s contribution to world knowledge would noticeably decline if professors who are judged to be less than average researchers were to take on more teaching duties. Most if not all believe that a better organization of academic resources within the system could produce better education quality. Such near-consensus views of colleagues with long experience in Ontario academic administration suggest how much there is yet to be done to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of undergraduate education in Ontario.

    Although my co-author does not mention it in his comments below on what Dr Ricketts says we say and don’t say in our book, Dr Ricketts asserts that we did not cite a 2003 report on instructional costs in US institutions in Academic Reform. The report in question is part of the well-known National Study of Instructional Costs and Productivity, based at the University of Delaware, which we reference in footnote 103. As Richard Van Loon shows, the report tends to support the analysis in Academic Reform.

    Ian D Clark


    School of Public Policy and Governance

    University of Toronto

    [email protected]


  5. Peter Ricketts / January 16, 2012 at 08:59

    (Part 2 of 2)

    So let’s consider the two-year Associate credential. In my article, I propose using the BC model of Associates of Arts or Science for the purpose of addressing a particular challenge for Ontario, that being the predicted population growth in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). This is quite different from proposing that the BC system of college transfer be applied across the entire Ontario provincial post-secondary system. The BC system was designed on the basis of having regionally distributed colleges, providing the first two years of university-level arts and sciences, and then feeding students into the third year of a small number of universities located in the two major urban areas of Vancouver and Victoria. Even with the evolution of that system over time, and the establishment of some regionally located universities, there are still vast areas and significant populations in the BC interior that are not physically served by a university. The Ontario post-secondary system, on the other hand, was designed to be the geographic opposite of BC’s system, with each region of the province having at least one university and one community college. Why would the Government of Ontario spend precious new resources increasing the capacity of all community colleges to offer Associate credentials when most of them are in regions where the population projections are either flat lined or declining, and the regional demand for degrees can be managed by the existing universities. Far better to apply the BC model to address the specific demand issue in the GTA, and then, when Associate credentials have been developed and approved, they could be used to address other specific challenges facing Ontario. For example, the college-based Associate credential could be developed in certain colleges as a valuable pathway to increase access and success for aboriginal participation in university education. However, simply overlaying a BC system on top of the existing Ontario system just doesn’t make any sense.

    We do not need simplistic policies that would disrupt the existing post-secondary system in Ontario. Rather we need carefully thought out and nuanced approaches that build upon and complement the existing strengths of the current system and adapt it to meet the evolving needs and challenges of strengthening Ontario’s economy and society in the 21st century.

    Footnote: I apologize for missing the reference to the Delaware Study buried in footnote 103 on page 257. I would note that the study is not mentioned in the text of the book, nor is it listed in the references or the index, and is only referred to in the footnote in the context of funding formulae but not cost comparisons.