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New kid on the block

Harvey Weingarten and the agency over which he presides, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, are trying to stir things up in Canada’s postsecondary education sector.


Harvey Weingarten’s view from his office, a 24th-floor aerie in downtown Toronto, affords him on this clear and sunny day a seemingly endless view of Lake Ontario. And when it comes to Ontario’s – and indeed Canada’s – postsecondary education system, the possibilities he sees are as boundless as that view.

The goal, he believes, is to transform the system into one of the best in the world. And as president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, an arm’s length agency of the Ontario government, his aim is to do just that. “It can be done,” he says optimistically.

Since his appointment last July, Dr. Weingarten, a boyish-looking and bespectacled 58-year-old with curly brown hair, has moved quickly to put his stamp on the council. He has co-authored a report that made waves in the province’s higher-education community. He’s made it a priority to spread the word about the council’s work. And he’s working to broaden the agency’s research scope and forge closer ties with other provinces and jurisdictions.

HEQCO, as the council is commonly known, holds a distinctive place in Canada’s higher-ed circles. Following the demise of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation last year, HEQCO remains the only government-funded agency in the country dedicated to research on higher education, a situation that Dr. Weingarten laments. “We’re the last person standing,” he says. “And that’s highly regrettable.”

The council was created by the province in 2005 in response to a recommendation by the Rae commission on higher education. The commission, led by now Liberal MP Bob Rae, called for an agency that would essentially take the place of the Ontario Council on University Affairs, a policy advisory body that had been eliminated by the previous government of Mike Harris.

Paul Axelrod, professor of education at York University, says that HEQCO was created in part because of the unique history of OCUA in the province and because Ontario’s higher education system – the largest in the country – can support it. Ontario spends more than $6 billion a year on postsecondary education. It has 21 universities (as counted by the Council of Ontario Universities) and 24 colleges with more than 500,000 students, accounting for 40 percent of all postsecondary students in the country.

With a modest budget of $5 million (reduced from $8 million in 2009), HEQCO conducts and pays for, often in partnership with the province’s colleges and universities, evidence-based research around three major themes: access to postsecondary education, quality of education, and the accountability of institutions. It also publishes policy papers and provides advice to Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. Since its inception, HEQCO has funded more than 100 research projects, 45 of them still under way.

Dr. Axelrod says the council primarily funds applied research because that’s what government is interested in: “It’s very directive in terms of what it wants answers to.” But that doesn’t make it less important, he adds. “I think anything that produces research on higher education is a good thing.”

Ross Finnie, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs and a recipient of HEQCO funding, says the council’s work helps fill a void left by the closure of the Millennium Foundation, especially in funding research on access to postsecondary institutions, a specialty of Dr. Finnie’s.

Although the council has an Ontario focus, its work is consulted widely by researchers across Canada, he says. “I think it’s well established as a place that’s doing interesting and important research which the whole country is benefiting from.”

Joy Mighty, director of the Queen’s University Centre for Teaching and Learning, whose research also is funded by HEQCO, says the council’s work has piqued the interest of education officials in other provinces. Within Ontario, it has helped spur research on teaching and learning. “That’s part of HEQCO’s influence. For us it’s exciting,” says Dr. Mighty, past president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Prior to his appointment, Dr. Weingarten spent more than 30 years in academia, initially as a psychology professor and then working his way up the administrative ladder – first at McMaster University, where he rose to the rank of vice-president, academic, and most recently at the University of Calgary, where he served for nine years as president and vice-chancellor. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and did his graduate work at Yale University. While it may be too soon to know where he’ll take the agency, observers say that Dr. Weingarten is likely to shake things up. “He’s a fairly outspoken character,” says Dr. Axelrod and “a bit irrepressible so I think you will hear from [HEQCO] more than in the past.”

Indeed, the first report that Dr. Weingarten penned since taking office ruffled a few feathers. Released in October and co-written by HEQCO research director Fiona Deller, the report called for more differentiation among Ontario universities and an overhaul in how institutions are funded; it recommended, instead of the current per-student model, one based on set goals such as enrolment targets, student mix, and teaching and research priorities. “Not all institutions have to look the same,” Dr. Weingarten wrote. A more differentiated system would offer students more program choice, encourage institutions to develop niche areas of expertise, better recognize the value of teaching and put the postsecondary system on a more sustainable path, he argued.

While some welcomed the report, others balked, calling it a plan for creating different classes of institutions and academics. Dr. Weingarten replies bluntly: “Yeah, so? You can’t create change without controversy.” Other provinces and countries are far ahead on this and Ontario runs the risk of being left behind, he warns. Doing nothing “is a recipe for mediocrity.”

York’s Dr. Axelrod predicts the proposal will encounter strong resistance, especially among smaller institutions, should the government move ahead with the recommended changes. “I don’t think it’s especially popular,” he says. But, he adds, at least HEQCO is trying to address the question of affordability.

Affordability is just one of the things on Dr. Weingarten’s mind. In a wide-ranging interview, Dr. Weingarten says another very critical issue in postsecondary education today is access of underrepresented groups: students from low-income families, aboriginal students, those whose parents didn’t attend college or university and those with disabilities. Canada, he says, has made great strides in increasing overall participation rates, but the number of students from these groups has remained stubbornly low, despite various financial aid reforms. This will continue to be among the council’s top research priorities.

Another will be accountability. “The system we have now is a model for diminished quality and mediocrity,” he insists. It may not become apparent for another 10 or 15 years but if left unchecked, the province’s postsecondary education system will end up in the same quandary that the cash-strapped and overburdened health-care system is in today, he predicts.

“Don’t get me wrong. Canada, for the level of investment that we put in, is actually doing pretty damn well.” But, other countries are doing much more to reform and improve their postsecondary institutions. Dr. Weingarten says a recent U.S. study found that the cost of graduating one student from the University of Arizona was equal to that of three students completing three years at a community college and then switching to the university for the final year, with essentially the same learning results. Canada, he warns, can’t afford to “sit still and be complacent.”

HEQCO’s impact on public policy in the province isn’t yet clear. Queen’s Park recently announced measures to make it easier for postsecondary students to transfer credits among colleges and universities, something the council has advocated. But overall it hasn’t had the influence one would have hoped for, says Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto consulting firm. Still, that could change.

“I think you are starting to see [HEQCO] pivot a little bit with the new leadership,” says Mr. Usher. The council is publishing much more than it used to and it seems to be taking a less Ontario-centric approach, he says. For example, it invited former BMO chief economist Tim O’Neill to speak publicly in Toronto about his controversial report on restructuring Nova Scotia’s university system.

Mr. Usher has a HEQCO contract to assess international trends in degree-granting processes, especially the trend to shorter degree lengths such as the three-year bachelor degrees that are becoming common in Europe. Ontario institutions can be risk-averse, says Mr. Usher, and having someone who’s worked outside the province for the past decade is helpful.

“It has not been a goal of HEQCO’s, until now, to make what we do accessible or used by other provinces,” Dr. Weingarten confirms. Now, the council plans to interact much more with other jurisdictions. For example, in May it plans to host a conference on how to measure educational quality, bringing together international experts, including Roger Benjamin. He (along with Richard Hersh) launched the U.S. Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test that tries to measure a student’s critical thinking abilities and how they are shaped by the postsecondary experience.

“There isn’t an institution that doesn’t say we want to graduate critical thinkers. [But] how do you know that you’ve done that?” Dr. Weingarten asks. “This is critically important.”

The council plans to issue policy papers – similar to the one on differentiation – on tuition policy and aboriginal education. If it’s approved, HEQCO would like to develop a longitudinal study to track a sample of Ontario students from Grade 9 through to their postsecondary studies or the workplace, to gain a better understanding of trends in participation rates and persistence, especially among under-represented groups.

The agency also plans research on early intervention strategies used in the U.S., to see if these hold any lessons for Ontario. A number of projects are under way to measure various aspects of teaching and learning; one at Queen’s University will look at the role technology can play in teaching large classes and another at Carleton University will assess the effectiveness of faculty orientation programs at Ontario colleges and universities. The council also plans assessments on reintroducing three-year undergraduate degrees, adding more teaching-only professors, improving mobility between colleges and universities, and e-learning.

But York’s Dr. Axelrod says that with a limited budget, the council isn’t likely to be able to do much more than it already does. He speculates that if there’s a change in government in the provincial election this fall, the council could go the way of the Millennium Foundation and OCUA.

Dr. Weingarten remains hopeful. The most frustrating thing about his time as a university administrator was the “inability and sometimes unwillingness” of institutions to change. But governments “can make universities dance,” he says, pointing to the much-heralded changes in the province’s K-12 system. Other countries like Finland have done it, and HEQCO is well placed to influence government’s thinking on this, he says. “It actually makes me incredibly optimistic.”

Research that’s relevant: some HEQCO highlights

  • Two reports, both co-written by University of Ottawa professor Ross Finnie, compared access, including access of under-represented groups, in Ontario to those in other regions. Among the findings, Aboriginal and disabled students are more strongly under-represented in Ontario universities compared with other regions. Across Canada, the single biggest obstacle to young people attending postsecondary institutions is having no family history of attending college or university. But, while the effects of parental education are consistent across the country, the importance of family income varies across regions, a finding that surprised Dr. Finnie. The study found that family income matters very little in Ontario and a lot more in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.
  • A study conducted by two researchers at York University came up with a statistical model based on a series of risk factors to identify students in danger of dropping out. Using this methodology, the researchers – Mark Conrad and Kate Morris – were able to identify 90 percent of first-year drop-outs and almost 25 percent of upper-year drop-outs. The authors said this approach could be used by institutions to identify at-risk students early in their postsecondary careers and to put in place interventions to keep them in school. The potential risk factors, says the study, are attending part-time, not attending on scholarships or bursaries, having lower high school grades and not declaring a major.
  • A study released in the fall of 2010 looked at the role that loan aversion plays in decisions about postsecondary education. Conducted by Social Research and Demonstration Corp., a non-profit research agency, it involved 1,200 students from 12 schools in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Participants were asked to make choices between various combinations of grants and loans for attending PSE. Between 10 and 30 percent of students in the study were unwilling to finance their postsecondary education with loans.
  • A group of researchers at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that offering students cash to improve their marks isn’t an effective strategy. Their study involved first- and second-year students at U of T Scarborough. Participants, all of whom received financial aid, were offered $100 for obtaining an average of 70 percent for each one-semester course and an additional $20 for each percentage point about 70. While the experiment was popular with students, it had only a modest impact on student achievement.
Rosanna Tamburri
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  1. Natalia / March 11, 2011 at 06:11

    This article was quite informative. I am from Ukraine and doing a research study on multicultural component in tourism vocation training. I would be grateful if you could share the Canadian experience on the relevant topic.

  2. Yves Gingras / December 9, 2011 at 17:01

    The Usual Empty rhetoric of the ‘New kid on the block’

    Though the HEQCO presents itself as an organization promoting “evidence-based” decisions, it is fascinating that its Director reproduces the usual empty rhetoric of “being the best in the world”, of “the risk of being left behind”, of the “unwillingness of institutions to change”, etc. Never are we told in what sense exactly could we be “the best”. In literacy? In critical thinking? In everything? And left “behind” what and whom? On what ground can one measure and decide whom we should follow? And change for what reasons precisely? To do what exactly? Where are the data showing that the system “is a model for diminishing quality and mediocrity”? Where are the data to prove that more differentiation would be good? Where are the data that all institutions look the same? That is patently false! Dr Weingarten believes that “a more differentiated system would offer students more program choice”. Where is the proof that there are missing programs for which there is a clear demand? Where is the proof that the “new” system would by itself create more programs instead of the same for which there is a great demand like business and management? Nowhere to be seen in this interview, where Dr Weingarten thinks it sufficient to boast that “you can’t create change without controversy”. Simple precaution would demand instead that before offering undefined “change” its organization should first try to identify clearly where the problems are.

    Obviously, behind the rhetoric of « evidence-based decisions » Dr Weingarten’s policy papers are just an expression of the personal ideological convictions of the new director who happens to think like politicians in general that talk of « change » is always good even though one is at pains to tell exactly what that means and to go where and how.

    It is a pity that such an important organization seems to be in the hands of a person more interested in talks of change for change, thus imitating politicians, than in trying to understand the real dynamic of higher education through careful organizational and sociological analysis.

  3. TK / March 28, 2018 at 19:17

    HEQCO was never anything more than ideological cost cutting masking as ‘evidence based’ decision making. Despite some good work looking at student access, most of the recommended strategies are resulting in a demoralized sector, lowered standards of student evaluation, dumb-down curricular changes, and ongoing strikes by contract employees in the precariate who rather not be exploited and have their financial security hang in the balance year after year after year ad naseum. It is clear the province down not want to pay for tenured faculty, but there is certainly a price to pay for that cost savings.