It was in 1962. I was a Grade Eight student in St. Catharines, when Bill Davis, then minister of education, visited our school. There, in front of a group of 13- and 14-year-old kids, he talked about initiatives the Ontario government was about to introduce to expand and promote postsecondary education.
He was engaging, inspirational and spoke so passionately that I knew then I wanted to go to university. In fact, that passion he instilled in me that day remains today.
Since, postsecondary education has been an important part of my life, from guiding me in fulfilling my personal ambitions, to recruiting top minds during my professional life, to my recently completed role on the Western University board of governors.
Today, I cannot help but reflect that our sector stands at a pivotal point – and this was true well before the global pandemic upended all our lives.
While more students than ever are knocking on our doors and our level of teaching and research continue to punch above the weight of our population, we face a myriad of challenges: shifting societal demands, rapidly changing industries in response to technological disruptions, ever-tightening budgets, and most vividly these days, the unfolding impact of COVID-19 on all aspects of university life.
All this – and more– conspires to create a very uncertain environment. But these challenges also present great opportunity. For postsecondary institutions, the possibilities to pursue new knowledge, enhance learning, and serve society in creative and innovative ways are extraordinary.
It is in times like this that leadership is paramount.
Good governance means good outcomes
An important dimension of that leadership comes through governance. Ontario universities operate under provincial jurisdiction defined within each institution’s act. In those documents, roles and responsibilities are spelled out – but, importantly, lines of accountability as well.
It is not an overstatement to say that accountability is a cornerstone of our democracy, with its most fundamental expression being the accountability of a government to its citizens. Equally important within the sphere of universities is the accountability of governing bodies.
For most Ontario universities, we are talking about university senates on the academic side and boards of governors on the business side. Each body helps deliver on the mission of our universities.
Good governance is about roles and responsibilities, and the accountable execution of those roles and responsibilities. Throughout my career, I have seen time and time again that good governance and good outcomes go hand in hand.
Our university governance structure is designed to be a means to an end – the end being good outcomes for Ontario university students, their parents, the Ontario economy, and indeed our collective place in the global economy.
Equally important, many institutions, including universities, are set up with a degree of independence, or autonomy. Why? Because the role of government is to set the strategic policy direction for the delegated authority to then carry out day to day.
A current reality of those day-to-day demands is certainly the need to recognize that this is a time when university funding models are under intense scrutiny and constraint. Yet, in fact, this funding pressure underscores the importance of good governance and stewardship of our universities – both to ensure a positive return on the use of increasingly scarce taxpayer dollars and to meet the growing funding needs through other revenue sources, including philanthropy.
Ultimately, universities are accountable to government through their governance structure. But to function efficiently and effectively, and to attract the dedicated volunteers with the skill mix we need, senates and boards must be able to exercise the full scope of their delegated authority.
We’re talking about responsibility for the well-being of our students, setting operating and capital budgets aligned with strategic priorities, academic excellence, human resource and other university policies, risk management, performance assessment, security, and so much more.
On the budgeting side, consider Ontario’s new outcomes-based funding framework for universities. (The government has temporarily delayed its implementation due to the pandemic. Alberta has a similar plan, also currently on hold.) Such a framework needs to be sufficiently flexible in its application so as to unleash the strategic, innovative thinking needed if we are to serve students in a manner they deserve. One size does not fit all.
But this also means that boards and senates must themselves be responsive to the demands and policies of the day by being strategic in their deliberations and actions, and by being clearly focused on their respective roles and accountabilities.
The need to be nimble and creative
Another core role of good governance and leadership in today’s uncertain world is having postsecondary institutions that can respond rapidly to changing circumstances and disruptive market forces. Responses to changing policies on executive compensation, tuition levels, student fees and freedom of speech, an accelerated pace of change across all labour markets and types of job opportunities, and now the challenges of COVID-19 require boards and senates to be nimble and creative in carrying out their fiduciary duties.
To stay vibrant requires leadership that can provide the collaborative and innovative thinking appropriate to each institution’s comparative advantage.
While I didn’t think about it in these terms as a 14-year-old, I now realize that in 1962 Mr. Davis was laying out the government’s strategic plan for postsecondary education looking well into the future. There is again a call for focused strategic thinking, supported by robust governance structures, if postsecondary institutions are going to fulfill their role and capitalize on the opportunities before us.
And for those opportunities to continue to open up as we come out the other end of this pandemic crisis, it’s imperative, as a country, that we work together to foster strong, sustained economic growth, supported by the role played by postsecondary education in developing our human capital.
Paul Jenkins is former Senior Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada, and past Chair of the Board of Governors of Western University.