Reviewing Ontario’s university funding

The rationale for reviewing and reforming the way we fund universities.

I hesitated when the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) asked if I would write an article on the University Funding Model Review for Academic Matters. The hesitation had to do with timing. I knew there would be a gap between submitting the article and the release of our report. There was also a strong likelihood that the timing of that gap would be a crucial one in the life of the project. However, I put my hesitations aside and decided to write about the consultation and the progress we’ve made so far.

Our consultation on the University Funding Model ended on September 1, 2015. After five months of broad-based consultation, we are working on a public report that will include what we heard, what we have taken from the consultation, and our thoughts about designing a new funding model. I am unable to tell you what those results are because we haven’t got to that stage at the time of this writing. By the time you read this, we should be nearly there.* Therefore, I’m limited to writing about the consultation process itself and what we have heard so far. If you’re looking for what the consultation’s recommendations will be, you won’t find them here.

In November of 2013 the government released its Differentiation Policy Framework. In it, the government referred to “a careful balancing act between government stewardship and institutional leadership, and a strengthening of transparency and accountability between the government, institutions, and the public.” This balancing act is needed for institutions to not only maintain and improve their quality, but to do so in a sustainable and effective manner. As part of their commitment, through the joint Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs), and as the next step in transforming the sector, the Ontario government’s funding model review began in April 2015.

I was asked to lead the design of a consultation, set up a team to lead the consultation process, and report on its results. The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) released a background discussion document, which can be found on the consultation website (www.tcu.gov.on.ca/pepg/audiences/universities/uff/). This document contains 12 questions that guided the discussion at our May 6, 2016 all-day event, which was attended by about 175 participants, including OCUFA.

The purpose of the consultations is to solicit comments and views on a new distribution design for the $3.5 billion MTCU provides to Ontario’s public universities. The current funding model is built on a total revenue structure that no longer exists. It is based almost entirely on enrolment and incenting enrolment growth. This mismatch between the formula and the current structure of the university system has resulted in many tweaks being made over the years, so much so that the formula has reached the point where it is no longer explainable or transparent. As we enter a decade of a declining 18-to-24-year-old population in all regions but the GTA, this is no longer a viable approach to funding our university system. We need to build a university funding model that is able to withstand demographic ebbs and flows, is sustainable, and is focused on students.

We developed an open, broad-based consultation approach. The design can be found on our website (www.tcu.gov.on.ca/pepg/audiences/universities/uff/about_consultation.html). We also identified key stakeholders that we wanted to meet with on an ongoing basis so that we could update them on the status of our consultation and to get their insight on what aspects should be considered as directions in the design of a formula. In addition to OCUFA, our key stakeholders include: Council of Ontario Universities (COU), Ontario Undergraduate Student Association (OUSA) and the Canadian Federation of Students—Ontario (CFS-O).

OCUFA’s Executive Director, Mark Rosenfeld, and I first sat down informally in May 2015 so I could get his advice on early approaches. OCUFA did a lot of preparation for the consultation, which we found very useful. We were pleased to be invited to OCUFA’s 146th Board of Directors meeting on May 9, 2015 and to be given a fair chunk of time on the agenda to make our presentation and answer questions. In support of our goal for this consultation to be an open and transparent process, OCUFA has been invited to and has attended all of our open briefings with other ministries.

We have also met with high school students, employer representatives, university leadership, student groups, and college representatives. As you might expect, there have been differences of opinion on the design concepts included in a funding allocation methodology. The government asked us to focus our attention on four principles: student experience, differentiation, sustainability, and transparency and accountability. And so, our consultation was organized around these four areas.

Our consultation revealed that across the system there are differing perspectives regarding the viability and advisability of outcomes-based funding; that there is anxiety about potential shifts in funding; and there are differing opinions about what the funding formula should emphasize. However, there are some consistent themes that can be shared at this preliminary stage:

  • The need for information, data, and metrics that are transparent, accessible, and validated in order to better understand what we are funding and what we are achieving.
  • A desire for an outcomes-based lens that is focused on student success and experience, particularly at the undergraduate level. Measuring learning outcomes came up quite often.
  • The importance of developing and providing more experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate students.
  • Support for increased differentiation as long as it is respectful of individual institutional strengths and missions. The SMAs were suggested as a vehicle for those discussions.
  • Strong support for a model that is predictable, flexible and understandable.

While I have presented a number of consistent themes, I would like to add a few more words here on the need for information, data, and metrics. This is one area that warrants explicit focus as our ability to move forward to continually improve the system is deeply rooted in it. My third blog (www.tcu.gov.on.ca/pepg/audiences/universities/uff/meet_exec.html) focused primarily on data and some of the shortcomings that currently exist. It would be unfair to say that there is a dearth of accessible data on Ontario universities. The Council of Ontario Universities provides access to data through Common University Data Ontario (CUDO) and financial data from the Council of Ontario Finance Officers (COFO). However, this data is not easily accessible or coherent, and lacks pertinent information—information that is needed for students to make informed choices, and to move the system forward. I know OCUFA agrees with this perspective.

Our goal is to provide a report for public release in late 2015. This report will outline the results of the consultation and our advice to the system about moving forward on a new funding model. In the meantime, there is a lot more information on our website. I hope you will feel free to visit it.

Sue Herbert is the Executive Lead of the Ontario University Funding Model Review.
* Editor’s Note: The final report of the University Funding Model Review is now available. It can be accessed at www.tcu.gov.on.ca/pepg/audiences/universities/uff/.