The past three decades have witnessed significant change in higher education in Ontario. Since 1980, enrollment has more than doubled in Ontario’s universities, and research activity—as measured by sponsored research funding—has increased by a factor of 12. Over that time, the university sector has also witnessed the emergence of new institutions and a host of branch campuses in many Ontario locales. The growth of the sector has been remarkable, and there is much to celebrate.

At the same time, however, the marked increases in the level of activity have spawned extraordinary pressures on many fronts, from putting the “bricks and mortar” in place to hiring enough faculty. Ontario’s universities continue to be faced with many challenges: increased enrolment, improving access for under-represented groups, playing a lead role in the federal and provincial governments’ innovation agendas, and acting as the catalyst for economic and social development.

With the province now facing considerable financial stresses, the likelihood of significant new investment in higher education is not high, although the McGuinty government has pledged to fund further increases in enrolment. Given the financial circumstances of both government and universities, it is not surprising to find considerable interest in proposals that might offer some lower cost options, hence the interest in Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario. The basic thesis of Academic Transformation is that the “present approach to the provision of baccalaureate education in Ontario is not sustainable and is in need of significant modification.” In support of the thesis, the authors argue that the current teacher-researcher model is expensive, provides insufficient variety and relies on part-time faculty. The authors also point to “statements from the universities themselves that they do not have sufficient funds to fulfill their mission….” The solution? The authors provide a set of suggestions that boils down to more government intervention, including the creation of teaching-focused undergraduate institutions, the expansion of college mandates, and an Open University.

The authors offer some interesting perspectives and opinions about higher education in Ontario but, at times, would benefit from the provision of more data. For example, the authors argue that the current model namely, the provision of “baccalaureate education exclusively through publicly funded universities in which faculty typically spend only 40 percent of their time on teaching” is expensive relative to other systems. Yet there is limited data to support the argument. Expensive relative to what? The college system, other models, other jurisdictions? Expensive to whom? The student, the taxpayer? The absence of some fundamental comparative indicators, such as the public investment in universities relative to provincial GDP, provincial tax effort, per capita spending, and relative “net” tuition levels would help put the argument in context. Statistics Canada, for example, reported in 2009 that combined public and private expenditure on university education in Ontario, expressed as a percentage of GDP, was similar to the Canadian average.

The authors’ argument about “insufficient variety” rests solely on the similarity of the degree-granting authority accorded the universities and “the lack of mandated institutional differentiation by mission, function, areas of study, educational philosophy or approach to program delivery.” Do the facts support the argument? A simple comparison of student enrolments by program by institution actually demonstrates considerable differences in discipline “mix” and the mix of undergraduate, professional, and graduate programs. Further analysis would point to major differences, by institution, in the composition of the student body, the ”character” of the institutions, and program delivery, not to mention the unique learning environments associated with the numerous affiliated and federated institutions that are an important part of Ontario’s university sector.

The increased reliance on part-time faculty is a reality. In some disciplines the use of part-time faculty is regarded somewhat more positively than the authors acknowledge—bringing the hands-on experience of practitioners to the classroom in a variety of disciplines such as law, business, engineering, fine arts, and education. Further, some part of the increased reliance on non-full-time faculty is also directly related to increases in doctoral enrolment in more recent times and the use of doctoral students as instructors, a normal part of the graduate education experience in many disciplines. Nevertheless, the increase in part-time faculty is regarded as a problem by the authors, and its cause they attribute to the “long-term shift among full-time faculty towards greater research responsibilities and reduced undergraduate teaching loads.” One could argue that the real issue is why the number of full-time faculty did not keep pace with increases in research activity and enrolment. That is, why have acknowledged changes in activity, sanctioned and encouraged by government, led to the greater use of part-time faculty rather than the hiring of more full-time faculty? And to address that question we turn to the adequacy of funding.

References to funding in Academic Transformation provide an assessment that essentially suggests two things: first, per student revenue has more or less kept pace with inflation and, therefore, the real issue is not revenue but costs; and second, the likelihood of increased funding is remote in light of the global recession and competing public priorities. The assertion that revenue has kept pace with inflation is technically correct but glosses over a number of realities. For example, part of the increased revenue was earmarked by government and/or by students for new activities, for the expansion of existing activity, and for qualitative improvements. These earmarked funds were therefore not available to offset inflation. At the same time, the significant increase in research activity, directly linked to federal and provincial “innovation agendas”, was not matched with adequate funding for either indirect institutional costs or the direct cost of faculty time, thus becoming yet another new claim on per student funding. In fact, if the preceding realities are factored into the funding equation, it is clear that universities have been faced with considerably more demands while receiving fewer real resources to meet those demands.

With respect to costs, faculty compensation has outpaced general inflation over the past decade or so, largely reflecting the basic law of supply and demand. The very rapid increase in enrolment that occurred from the late 1990s onwards resulted in major increases in demand for faculty. The federal government’s innovation agenda, coupled with programs to encourage more faculty positions (e.g. Canada Research Chairs), led to further demand for faculty and heightened competition. Yet production of Ph.D. graduates actually stalled during the latter part of the 1990s, a consequence of funding cut-backs that marked the mid-1990s. The effects on faculty compensation were predictable: increased starting salaries and faculty compensation increases that outpaced inflation.

As for the likelihood of funding being increased, governments have to make choices about the value of their investments. The research literature makes it clear that investing in higher education is a positive benefit to individuals and society. Nevertheless, Academic Transformation essentially rules out increased investment in higher education as an option, given competing public priorities and straitened provincial finances. The absence of any evaluation of the case for more public investment is a major shortcoming in the book, as is the lack of a serious discussion regarding tuition and other forms of private investment.

Turning to the proposed solutions, Academic Transformation calls for more direction from government: to mandate differentiation, to force collaboration, to expand college mandates, and to create new kinds of institutions. It is worth pointing out that the provincial government already controls tuition levels, the level and distribution of operating and capital grants, the funding of new programs, ancillary fees, the establishment of new institutions, and has legislative authority over the sector. Nevertheless, building the case for more central planning is a pervasive theme in Academic Transformation. Missing in this narrative is reference to the rather heavy-handed approach to collaboration imposed by the ministry and to the fact that, within a few years of the collaboration’s start, the government had to revisit the arrangements and add considerably more funding. Also missing is any discussion of alternative approaches.

In developing their argument in support of government-mandated differentiation the authors suggest “the one-size-fits-all funding mechanism…has militated against the kind of institutional differentiation that has evolved in many other jurisdictions….” Yet, one could just as easily argue that the basic elements of the core-funding mechanism served the province and Ontario’s universities reasonably well from the mid-1960s through to the mid-1990s. That mechanism had the flexibility to meet emerging needs, as evidenced by major new funding envelopes that recognized research overheads and expanded accessibility in the late 1980s, in addition to special funds for faculty renewal, equipment, and secondary school reform. The problem with the funding mechanism, one might argue, is that from the mid-1990s onwards it was ignored in favour of a series of targeted funding envelopes, which remain as constant reminders of the perils and pitfalls of central labour-force planning and “hands-on” government intervention.

The suggestion to expand the community college mandates seems to be premised on two beliefs: that there is not enough collaboration between the college and university sectors (forced or otherwise) and that college education is less expensive to the province. With respect to collaboration, while indicating a desire to continue with collaborative efforts, the colleges want to secure their own degree-granting authority. Yet, interestingly, according to a study released in late 2009, colleges in Toronto and Ottawa appear to have capacity problems meeting existing college program demand.

With respect to college costs, the only data offered in the book indicates a provincial college grant per student of approximately $5,000-$5,500 per year versus a provincial university grant figure of $3,100-$5,800 for students in general arts and science programs, first year arts and science honours programs, upper—year arts honours programs, and commerce, law, and fine arts. If the public investment in both sectors is relatively similar, it seems reasonable to ask if the return on investment is similar? Are graduation rates the same? Are employment rates the same? Are incomes the same for college and university graduates? Are loan default rates the same? Moreover, expanding the colleges’ mandate could, in fact, lead to arguments for more college funding. Since this particular piece of Academic Transformation‘s argument is based on “costs,” a more detailed examination of costs (and return on investment) would be helpful in assessing the strength of the argument. It would also be interesting to know how much benefit there would be if college mandates were expanded. Would access be improved? Would the quality of the learning experience be improved?

The authors’ arguments for expanding college mandates also slide over particularly tricky issues, such as province-wide collective bargaining for college faculty. The authors note, on the one hand, the existence of a college workload formula but make scant reference, on the other hand, to the impact of the workload formula on costs, college compensation levels, or the use of part-time instructors in the college system. In contrast, they devote a fair amount of time to these factors in the universities, thus leaving the reader with a rather one-sided view of cost drivers in the post secondary sector and the ostensible relative inefficiency of the universities.

Academic Transformation suggests that the creation of a “new teaching-focused university sector” would be less expensive and provide a better learning experience. Evidence for the “less expensive” assertion focuses on teaching loads; the assumption is that teaching loads would be higher in a teaching-focused university sector, so that the cost per course per full-time faculty member would be lower. The arithmetic suggests a teaching-focused university sector employing full-time faculty with heavier teaching loads would be less expensive than the current system, if the current teaching-research universities employed only full-time faculty (with lower teaching loads). But, in fact, the current system employs more than just full-time faculty. Therefore arguing that a teaching-focused sector would be “less expensive” than the current reality may not be the case. In fact, according to Maclean’s Magazine, it is clear that the “best” undergraduate institutions in Canada (Mount Allison, Acadia) spend as much or more per student than the so-called research universities in Ontario.

Perhaps a teaching-focused institution would provide a better learning experience, but that assertion deserves considerable scrutiny as well. What constitutes a better learning experience? Is there any evidence that the supposed teacher-focused learning experience in the colleges, for example, is better (or worse) than the university learning experience?

The idea of teaching-focused institutions is also premised on the assumption that research should be confined to a few institutions. Federal and provincial research initiatives over the past decade have already focused a considerable amount of resource-intensive research on a select group of institutions. But the reliance on peer-adjudicated competitions is a far cry from the government decree suggested in Academic Transformation. Moreover, the use of ”networks” and peer-adjudicated processes have helped ensure that all institutions (and faculty) are provided with the opportunity to participate in the innovation agenda. Perhaps encouraging those aspirations and focusing on allocation processes that pay some attention to excellence and quality is a strategy that, in fact, strengthens higher education and research and development.

There are alternatives to the central planning views espoused in Academic Transformation. In 1996 the Advisory Panel on Future Directions for Postsecondary Education argued that “excellence, differentiation and the effective use of resources are best encouraged in a less regulated environment than Ontario now has.” A decade later Bob Rae re-affirmed the importance of “self-government and institutional flexibility” in Ontario: A Leader in Learning. An argument could be made that the careful balancing of self-regulation, competition, and collaboration that characterized the development of the university system was (and remains) a better model than the heavier hand of government. That the provincial government has not often exercised its full authority to set mandates could, perhaps, be interpreted as enlightened public policy!

Throughout the past 15 years or so the postsecondary system in Ontario has been subjected to one intervention after another by both the federal and provincial governments. In the mid-1990s federal transfer payments were slashed, to be replaced within a few years by a suite of federal initiatives directed at individuals (student assistance, tax expenditures) and institutions (research). Though perhaps well-intentioned, the federal initiatives often turned out to have an unforeseen impact. Too often they involved squabbles between the federal and provincial government that focused more on turf than the well-being of students or the sector. Too often they were dictated with little consultation – a practice shared by the provincial government – and the subsequent implementation problems then had to be addressed and re-addressed, and re-addressed again. In the meantime, the province stepped up its effort to run the universities from Queen’s Park, unleashing a hail of targeted funds and severely restricting increases to core operating funds. In the absence of a coherent provincial or federal postsecondary policy, the interventions have meant that planning on campuses has degenerated to a term-by-term exercise, with attendant turmoil, tension, and anxiety.

The bottom line? Academic Transformation provides an interesting perspective on higher education in Ontario, and parts of it are thoughtful and provide some insight into at least some of the factors transforming postsecondary education in the province. To the extent that it helps spark debate about the level of investment in higher education, about the evolving role of Ontario’s colleges and universities in addressing access and research challenges, and about the intricate network of related public-policy imperatives, it will be seen as an important contribution to the literature. But its overemphasis on structural change risks deflecting attention from the real issue: the level of investment in higher education and the factors that truly matter to successful student learning and the success of the innovation agenda.

Ken Snowdon is the president of Snowdon & Associates. (