Go Forth and Differentiate?

George Freeman, FAUW Past President

The Senate meeting of Monday, April 15 will live in my memory under the heading “kill two birds with one stone.” Unfortunately the two birds seem to have been institutional autonomy and collegial governance. Also, curiously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more examples of the prisoner’s dilemma or tragedy of the commons illustrated in a single meeting. That’s because we had a great talk by Prof. Keith Hipel of Systems Design Engineering on methods to analyse problems which otherwise might go down those unfortunate paths. Then we went down them.

The story actually starts a long way back with a peculiar organization known as the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario or HEQCO. In early April, it produced a report entitled “Quality: Shifting the Focus – A Report from the Expert Panel to Assess the Strategic Mandate Agreement Submissions.

Anyone wanting to understand the shortcomings of education and business leadership in Ontario must read this report, keeping in mind the credentials of the people whose names are attached to it. I promise you will be shocked, by the naked self-interest and by the lack of sound evidence-based reasoning.

The strategic mandate agreements were a bait-and-switch game foisted on university and college presidents. Under the hint of some new money, they were asked to summarize the strengths and goals of their institutions. As you might expect, there’s a strong similarity among the submissions and also a bunch of points of differentiation, such as cooperative education at Waterloo. The new money seems to have morphed into new cuts. However, differences can be amplified and marketed and that appears to excite both government and industry.

The apparent shift in “shifting the focus” is to an explicitly two-tiered system of university education (like that bastion of social equity, the United States). The big lie in “quality” is twofold in my opinion:

  1. That quality can improve under this kind of differentiation, except for a few of the privileged or lucky, and 
  2. That costs can go down.

The HEQCO report gives no evidence for any quality increase or cost decrease. What the report does indicate is that Ontario’s universities are already differentiated on everything the panel cared to measure. Yet, they repeat over and over a call to differentiate. Thus, maybe it’s useful to contemplate where the problems with university differentiation might exist, or be perceived to exist.

The main ones I could think of, off-hand, are location and faculty pay.

Location is important because Ontario has built huge settlements ringing Toronto over the past few decades but not sited enough universities within them. Also, the present universities, being close to uniformly good and close to uniformly diverse in program offerings, attract many students from their local areas. This saves a lot of money for a lot of parents (except in the huge new settlements). A recent proposal from government had three distinctly second-tier campuses being built to serve these areas. However, such a direct approach to making quality lumpy has obvious and negative bang-for-the-buck optics. In any case, Ontario’s universities are clearly too uniformly good even when badly funded.

Faculty pay is important because it’s the supposed key to a two-tiered system. The dream seems to be to have large numbers of students educated by less expensive non-research-active faculty teaching more courses per year. Let’s say on average one of these people costs $100k and teaches eight courses in comparison with a present-day faculty member who costs $130k and teaches four courses. Then, three faculty members costing $390k and teaching twelve courses could be replaced by one faculty member and one non-research-active faculty member costing $230k and teaching twelve courses.

On the surface, this would save about 40% of the 30% of the university budget which goes to faculty salaries, say twelve percent. In the university system, that’s about three to four years of inflation covered at the cost of both research diversity (including graduate courses) and research resilience dropping by 67 percent. About one third of the approximately 10% of space used for academic offices might be freed up (half a building or so at Waterloo).

This might buy enough time to fund the construction of a cheap campus or two (12% of the system budget is about $800m). It would be to the great benefit of any politicians who could announce it.
Of course, I doubt one could come anywhere near this level of transformation, so the actual potential savings must be much smaller. In any case, a system which gives a viable research opportunity to all faculty is, again, too good and too uniform to market effectively as sound bites.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

HEQCO’s financial survival depends on telling the government what it wants to hear. They especially like surveys of public perception and arguments involving performance metrics and system-wide control by outside, non-democratic and non-participatory agencies. Increasingly, university presidents and the Council of Ontario Universities seem to just fall in line, giving up their institutional autonomy and voluntarily playing the prisoner’s dilemma game while destroying the Ontario university commons. By Feridun’s description of the last COU meeting to Senate, there is zero chance of the university presidents cooperating against differentiation. Bird number one went down but the stone continued.

On further questioning, it emerged that Waterloo would consider shutting down departments as part of differentiation; perhaps those with not enough participation in graduate studies. The next natural question was about what kind of consultation might go on before (or while) proceeding with such a differentiation agenda at Waterloo. Apparently, the meetings around the mid-cycle review of the university’s strategic plan over the past year have given the administration a mandate to go in this direction. That, and the fact that other universities are already doing it. Bird number two, dead.

One might wonder what roles Senate, its Long-Range Planning Committee, and its Finance Committee play in this, especially if you read their legal responsibilities under the University of Waterloo Act and Senate Bylaws, in particular, the Act Section 22, Bylaw 3 Section 3, and Bylaw 4 Section 3. Apparently, their roles are deemed to be none, none, and none, except that the SLRP did assist Sallie Keller (former VPAP) with the strategic mandate agreement for Waterloo and Senate still gets to ask questions. SLRP will also review, in some sense, the strategic pl
an. FAUW members have some further leverage through Articles 15, 16, and 17 of the Memorandum of Agreement. Keep in mind, however, that the province does not respect such agreements or existing legislation very much lately.

The usual message is trotted out, that Waterloo might be a net “winner” in differentiation of teaching just as we appear to be so in the differentiation of research. However, in both cases, this is just in the context of everyone losing. The United Kingdom and Germany, strangely enough, were the touted models at Senate. The UK takes performance metrics to the limits of absurdity and seems to have completely abandoned the notion of the university as a social good. Germany is distinguished by having universities which are free but mediocre, according to The Economist last June. Not exactly the leaders I would have picked to follow.

Bottom line: If we’re so innovative, why would we seek to emulate haphazard social experimentation or mediocrity?

Addendum 1: A quick scan of the just-released strategic plan draft shows “cut” only three times, as part of the phrase “cutting-edge” and, although “different” appears seven times, it is never in the context of differentiation. Whatever mandate came from the consultations isn’t obvious in the plan.

Addendum 2: HEQCO must be rolling in money because reports come too fast to read. The latest from them claims that Ontario universities are efficient, productive, and accessible – then argues for a new accountability regime to improve what we do without additional funding. OCUFA characterized it quite astutely as “fiddling at the margins.” I feel so naive having worked here for 28 years without any notion of quality to guide me.

7 thoughts on “Go Forth and Differentiate?

  1. I looked at HEQCO's report. Anybody who knows anything knows that the only reason anybody goes to university is to get a job. Otherwise what's the point of learning anything? I have paraphrased what HEDCO is saying, and apparently they got these ideas from Ontario's youth in a student survey. As we know, the customer is always right, so our customers must be right! This one sentence sums up where we are headed: “There is a new generation of quality measures emerging in the form of learning outcomes and informed perspectives on employer needs.” Read just a little bit between the lines and you will understand what the government wants to do. This is the logic:Student:(1) Pay $ to go to university => “good job” => liberals re-elected + higher tax base = win(!)Government:(2) $ to a university and have “bad outcome” => reduce $ to that university (or maybe just close “bad” departments => save tax dollars and impress voting public)(3) $ to a university and have “good outcome” (see #1) => give more $ to that university (UW will typically assume we satisfy #1, so we are “safe”…mostly. Phew.)Brian Cozzarin


  2. So, how does it feel to know that a series of provinical governments, NDP, Conservative and Liberal, have outsmarted, outmaneuvered, and outright made a laughing stock of all Ontario university presidents over the past 20 years? Highly educated, leaders of institutions with some of the finest minds in the world to call upon, and we've been brought to this. As George mentioned, the Presidents will not, cannot, cooperate with oneanother for fear of one of their number (e.g. York U.) betraying the rest. Divided we fall. Haven't any of them read Machiavelli or Sun Tzu? Our Board of Governers, to a person, should resign in shame, but perhaps they will want to stay on until the destruction is complete. UW, as a business, will, I expect, continue. It will produce graduates that meet ISO 9000001,each will have a certificate of compliance (still referred to as a degree) but most will not be able to compete with people educated in, for example, Asia for the outsourced jobs at RBC. But, hey, their parents will be happy that their kids have a degree which, given how much they've paid for it, must be worth something.


  3. In response to an email forwarded by David Porreca, FAUW President.My article is an informed opinion piece not a question-and-answer summary of a Senate meeting. I have invested a lot of time on some of these things, such as a conference on academic metrics, a conference on challenges to academic freedom, many years experience with OCUFA for the Ontario system as a whole, many years of experience with CAUT for the Canadian system as a whole, and more than a decade of involvement with Waterloo administration and governance. I’ve read several HEQCO reports. I’ve talked face to face with a number of politicians and a number of industry people seeking to collaborate at uWaterloo. I’ve lived to see research become largely directed by industry-government boards with insufficient academic representation and a culture of stars. Now, I see the same thing about to happen to teaching. What I see being destroyed is the very thing people claim to want – better creativity and innovation. I have extremely high regard for Feridun and quite a few other senior administrators at Waterloo. They are not the problem. We, the faculty are, for not preserving the governance in collegial governance and the role of faculty in universities. That means being involved, and mindfully to the same extent we might put our minds to teaching or research, in understanding how the university does and should function.One difference between you and I is that I have placed my opinion out in the open for discussion and argument. If you have a counter-opinion, I invite you to do the same.


  4. Thanks, George, for taking the time to share your views in this excellent post. Colleagues may also be interested in the reaction of OCUFA to the HEQCO report: http://ocufa.on.ca/2013/heqco-releases-recommendations-on-ontarios-postsecondary-system-strategic-mandate-agreements/“OCUFA believes strongly that any reforms to Ontario’s universities should be developed through meaningful consultation with those who know the system best – students and faculty. HEQCO has so far embraced a model – both in its behavior and its recommendations – that depends heavily on advice solicited from outside the sector, provided by unaccountable panelists who develop their recommendations behind closed doors. This is not a model that will develop recommendations sensitive to Ontario’s unique challenges and responsive to its needs.” How have we been brought to this? Above, GR Heppler assumes that Ontario university presidents of the last 20 years intended to exercise leadership and advocacy on behalf of postsecondary education, but were outsmarted by politicians. I wish I could believe that, but I see no reason to think HEQCO is alone in pandering to its political and business masters. I agree that boards of governors have to take much of the blame, but as George Freeman writes, so must faculty.


  5. Thank you George for taking the time and effort to share your thoughts on what is transpiring. Like many other people I am deeply troubled by the direction things are going and am hoping it's not too late. To answer Kate's question we need to get involved and take an active role. I agree but is there a level of university politics that you suggest, i.e. the senate? I admit that I am guilty of not attending many of the university wide meetings but feel I should start doing that and probably more.Francis Poulin


  6. I have been stuck for two weeks trying to answer the seemingly simple question of “What should faculty members do?” Waterloo is a good place in many ways because many faculty members already do what needs to be done here and we have reasonably effective organizational structures in place. Where it really breaks down is between where Waterloo ends and Ontario government decisions begin. I'm still thinking about that problem and am being pressured to write something for the print FAUW Forum coming out soon.


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