One can’t help but be impressed by the boldness of the Drummond Report on Ontario’s economic future. After months of hype, it packed a policy punch when it was finally tabled on February 15th. Drummond proposes a new paradigm for policy implementation in Ontario. Every major sector would be obligated to rethink not only what it spends but how it decides what to spend in a relentless search for “efficiencies” and positive, measurable “outcomes.” Such rhetoric has been around government for many years, but Drummond recommends that the approach underlying it be systemically embedded in decision-making. Only then will the Ontario books be balanced in the absence of tax increases for which the government apparently believes there is no public appetite.

How would post-secondary education be affected by such a regime, and is Drummond’s approach advisable? York Provost Patrick Monahan has proffered preliminary answers to these two questions: badly, and no. Increasing enrolment by 1.7 per cent annually, while holding operating grants to 1.5 per cent, will compound the universities chronic financial problems and further erode the quality of higher education.  He argues, as well, that new “mandate” agreements between institutions and the provincial government will add a new layer of decision-making bureaucracy that will hamper innovation and efficiency in the system.

I agree with Monahan, but I also think that the prospects for a radical change to the policy-making regime in Ontario post-secondary education are limited. Historically, Ontario has adopted the following approach to university-government relations (I’m deliberately excluding community colleges from this discussion since they operate under a different regimen). In periods where growth is required, the government pours huge financial resources into the system, chooses the building projects that it thinks merit support (following furious lobbying by the universities), and distributes operating funds (never enough) through an allocation formula linked to enrolment levels. At times it has attempted to steer registrations into such fields as computer science or education when the demand for graduates appears high, but these initiatives are exceptional and not always successful since labour market conditions can change unexpectedly. For the most part, universities themselves decide on their program mix with limited government involvement. Ontario universities still have a high degree of institutional autonomy and have proven quite adept at responding to student demand.

At the margins, government has become more interventionist than in previous years. To meet supposed public demands for accountability, it requires universities to submit mountains of reporting data, much of which is unread and unused in informing policy decisions at the provincial level. It has imposed limited “performance indicators” on universities which cost a great deal to generate and offer very little insight into the workings of higher education. Drummond’s call for the system to produce even more such data seems costly and counter-productive.

So long as universities meet accessibility demands – in other words, so long as the government is able to say that all qualified students in Ontario can find a place in post-secondary education – the government is content to let the universities govern themselves. The province must also manage tuition policy, since it, rather than universities, is blamed politically if fees and student debt are perceived to be growing unreasonably. But the government does not want the task of picking and choosing winning programs, engaging the issue of class size, or involving itself directly in labour negotiations. (One exception to this might be teacher education where the province has announced its intention to establish a longer program). It expects universities to solve their own academic, political, and collective bargaining problems and to live within their budgets, and, there is no political gain in micro-managing those budgets. For this reason, notwithstanding the current campaign for differentiated university mandates (i.e., those that are teaching vs research “oriented”), I also believe that the government will leave this proposal on the back burner.

How, then, will the Drummond Report affect the university sector? Apart from encouraging the government to restrain spending, I anticipate that the report will have very little impact. Universities will be expected, as in the past, to teach too many students with too few resources. As always, concerns about quality will be expressed – though not usually by senior university officials who, in a competitive environment, have little incentive to draw attention to this issue. Ontario’s “autonomous” institutions will be expected to handle that problem, and most others, on their own.

This article originally appeared on On Ed.

Photo: Queen’s Park by gorbould on Flickr.