OCUFA has taken a principled approach to its engagement with Ontario’s review of the university funding formula.

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) has been, and continues to be, an active participant in the Government of Ontario’s review of the university funding formula. The funding model is absolutely foundational to the quality and sustainability of the province’s universities. So, it was clear to professors and academic librarians from the outset that a sustained engagement with the process was necessary.

This engagement has taken many forms. Previous OCUFA President Kate Lawson made a presentation to a symposium on the funding formula in March of 2015. She and other OCUFA representatives also participated in the facilitated small-group discussions held throughout that event. In May of 2015, the Executive Lead of the review, Sue Herbert, was invited to OCUFA’s spring Board of Directors meeting to introduce the Review, present some of her initial thinking, and to take questions. OCUFA also attended all of the “Open Briefings” organized by the Review, on topics including the current design of the funding formula, performance funding, and funding models from other sectors. While we did not always agree with the perspectives being presented, the briefings were a useful way to engage with some of the key ideas being considered by the Funding Formula Review team.

OCUFA also had a series of one-on-one meetings with Herbert, who also has an article in this issue of Academic Matters. At these meetings we were able to provide the project with perspective from professors and academic librarians on the funding formula and potential areas of reform.

From the beginning, OCUFA’s work on the funding formula review has been shaped by a belief that any change to the existing model must support a high quality university system that meets the needs and aspirations of students, staff, and faculty. To achieve these goals, we articulated a series of principles that should guide the review process:

  • Adequate: Public funding for universities must provide adequate resources to support a high quality and affordable higher education sector.
  • Committed to core activities: A funding formula should protect and promote the two core activities of a university: excellent teaching and learning, and world-class research.
  • Student-centred: Funding must be responsive to the number of students in the system and the programs in which those students are enrolled.
  • Supportive of good jobs: Universities should receive adequate funding to support good jobs on their campuses. This means ensuring fair terms and conditions of employment for contract faculty and hiring sufficient numbers of tenure-stream faculty to maintain high academic standards and manageable workloads.
  • Stable and predictable: Mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that funding is stable and predictable to facilitate long-term planning and to avoid extreme fluctuations in institutional revenue.
  • Equitable: Funding should be allocated among institutions on a fair and equitable basis to protect against wide variations in quality across the system and to support student success at all universities. Any system that allocates or withholds funding on the basis of institutional performance or output measures will result in the creation of “winners” and “losers” and will penalize students at institutions that fail to reach their targets.
  • Transparent: Any formula for allocating funding must be transparent, simple to administer, and objective. It should not be arbitrary or open to manipulation or negotiations behind closed doors. Above all, university funding must not be subject to short-term political objectives.
  • Respectful of university autonomy and academic freedom: Universities and professors have rich practical knowledge of their institutional and pedagogical needs and strengths. Any funding formula must respect institutions’ and professors’ ability to pursue strategies that enable them to do what they do best.

With these principles in mind, we developed specific recommendations for the review. The full submission is available on OCUFA’s website, but our proposals fell into three general areas.

First, it is important that the funding model remain student-centred. That is, it must be sensitive to the number of students at each Ontario university and the program choices made by those students. This will ensure that universities continue to have the resources they need to provide high quality academic programs. At the same time, it is important to recognize that many universities have special missions and serve particular regions, and the social value of these institutions may exceed the revenue provided by a student-centred model alone. It is therefore important that the funding model recognizes and supports these important mandates.

Second, performance-based funding – where public money is distributed according to the ability of a university to meet certain targets – is not the way for Ontario. There is no evidence to suggest that such systems improve the quality or accountability of universities. In fact, growing research indicates that performance funding may actually harm the quality of education. Performance funding, by its very nature, creates institutional winners and losers. This ultimately hurts students. Institutions that fail to meet targets—even for reasons outside of their control—will lose funding. This in turn compromises the quality of education provided to students. After careful consideration, OCUFA has rejected performance funding as inconsistent with the values and purpose of a public higher education system.

Finally, Ontario is in need of a new higher education data system. While a large amount of data is currently available on universities, this information is not always easily accessible or available in a way that allows for system-level analysis. Moreover, there are many important things that we simply do not know about our universities. For example, there is currently no public data on the number of contract faculty teaching in Ontario’s universities. Such information is vitally important for making policy decisions about the future of our institutions.

Making more data available in more usable forms would serve the government’s broad goals of transparency and accountability. To administer this system, OCUFA has suggested the creation of a higher education data agency, modeled on the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). To be effective, this new organization must feature robust representation from sector stakeholders to ensure that the higher education data system evolves to meet changing needs.

As of this writing, OCUFA is waiting for the release of the Review team’s report on the consultation process. We will be viewing the report, and any subsequent recommendations and proposals, through the twin lenses of our principles and our key recommendations for an effective funding model. We look forward to continuing our work with the Government of Ontario to ensure the funding model works for students, staff, and faculty, while furthering the goals of an accessible and high-quality university system. AM

Judy Bates is the President of OCUFA and a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.