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Margin Notes

A small shop doing big research to improve postsecondary education

A short visit to the offices of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.


I was invited to speak to the staff of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario yesterday at their offices in Toronto. The council is a fairly small shop – somewhere around 20 staff – doing very important and interesting work.

HEQCO is an arm’s-length agency of the Ontario government created in 2005 that, according to its website, “brings evidence-based research to the continued improvement of the postsecondary education system in Ontario.” Following the demise of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation and its research program back in 2010, HEQCO is basically the only government-funded agency in the country dedicated to research on higher education. As part of its mandate, the council evaluates the postsecondary sector and provides policy recommendations to Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, with the aim of enhancing the access, quality and accountability of Ontario’s colleges and universities.

I found it interesting to discover that HEQCO is essentially free to decide what sorts of research it carries out, as long as that research falls generally within its wide mandate (you can see its 2012-2013 research plan here). That being said, the agency still must be careful not to deliberately be a thorn in the side of government, nor to alienate the universities and colleges, whose cooperation is necessary if the agency is to be able to do its work effectively. That’s a tough path to negotiate. It would be ever so tempting for a government to see an unobtrusive place to cut a few million dollars and set the agency adrift. Very few people outside the postsecondary education sector would notice, but the province and government policy would be poorer for it.

I had a chance to sit down with HEQCO’s president Harvey Weingarten while there, and although most of the conversation was off-the-record, he said a few things that I think I can safely repeat because he has said them publicly elsewhere. Dr. Weingarten, a former provost at McMaster University and former president of the University of Calgary, said he believes changes must be made to Ontario’s postsecondary education system, although he is somewhat agnostic (my interpretation) about what those changes should be. Some changes might be better than others, he averred, but what’s important is that the government decide what type of system it wants, and then – most importantly – put incentives in place to get that desired result. With the right incentives, change will happen, he asserted.

Among HEQCO’s recent reports is one released on January 29 which examined the implications of expanding the number and scope of college-to-university transfer arrangements. The report, written by David Trick, concludes that a “2 + 2” transfer system – where students would do the first two years in college and transfer to university for years 3 and 4 – could lead to potential savings for students and the government. (Alberta and B.C. have the most-developed system of such transfer arrangements.)

One highly anticipated report – by me, at least – to be released sometime this spring, will look at the impact of graduate student expansion and the experiences of PhD grads and their labour outcomes (a hot topic examined recently in University Affairs).

I was invited to HEQCO to talk about my blog, Margin Notes. I took the opportunity while there to ask these bright minds what they thought were some of the key challenges and issues facing the postsecondary education sector in Canada. Here’s the list we cane up with, in no particular order:

  • Funding
  • Value of a credential and credential inflation
  • Credentialism vs. a culture of learning
  • Teaching quality and teaching with technology
  • System design and pathways (also related: the system “hierarchy”)
  • Labour market alignment
  • Under-represented groups
  • Quality assurance and learning outcomes
  • Student preparation
  • Financial literacy and student debt
  • Tuition
  • Global competitiveness
  • Data sharing
  • Uninformed policy-making by government

It seems as good a list as any, and fairly comprehensive. Graduate education was surprisingly left out, but that may be because we had already discussed it at length prior to the little poll. There was also no mention of institutional governance, which is a very hot topic currently in Quebec but seems to have less resonance in the rest of Canada.

Dr. Weingarten pointed out after the exercise that, of the items on the list – all of which he thought worthy – only two are regularly part of the narrow public discourse as reflected in the media: tuition and labour market outcomes. That’s too bad.

Any other challenges, or comments about the list, that you would like to add?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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