A New Mission for Ontario’s Universities

What is the purpose of the university? Judging by their mission statements, they define themselves as institutions of research and teaching, with varying degrees of emphasis on one or the other.  However, if you asked Janice Newson that question, co-author of a new study on the corporatization of the university, she would likely say that universities are more commonly perceived as “wealth-generators” and “career-builders,” much to her dismay. Love it or hate it, universities are increasingly seen as a career training ground for the next generation. That image is not going away any time soon, and, in fact, may be strengthened by the current review of the funding formula for Ontario’s universities. 

In April, the provincial government began the arduous task of assessing financial support for Ontario’s universities. The review is timely: the formula is outdated and relies heavily on student enrolment to distribute funding. With a projected decline in new students through 2021, the existing formula simply doesn’t work. On the surface, it would appear that this is just the standard operating procedure of modernizing an old policy that no longer functions. If only that were the case. Reading through the province’s University Funding Model Reform Consultation Paper, however, suggests that universities are going to experience some changes to the way they do business. 

The paper makes it clear that employment is one of the government’s top priorities. After all, “Ontario’s prosperity is tied to people who are employed and productive.” In itself, this thinking is nothing new. The current funding model already uses employment as one of its key performance indicators, collecting data on graduates six months and two years after convocation. The new funding model, however, is unlikely to be satisfied with the same data. In its proposal for enhancing quality and improving the student experience, the government wants to ensure that students have “the skills they need to actively participate in the 21st-century global economy.” Skills are quite different from knowledge, and with the inclusion of employers and industry groups in the funding process, for the first time, this could indicate a significant change for postsecondary education.

We have heard quite a lot about skills over the past few years, from the supposed skills-gap to the attacks on liberal arts programs, but at the same time the press has remained fairly quiet on the decline in employer investment in employee training. Daniel Munro of the Conference Board of Canada reports that participation rates in employer-sponsored training are mediocre and as of 2013, employer spending on training was down 40% from 2009. The burden for training shifted to postsecondary institutions, with employers reaping the benefits and asking for more. 

What Does This Mean for Universities?

At this early stage of the process, it is difficult to determine how strongly the reliance on skills and the involvement of employers in the process will impact how Ontario’s universities function. Proponents of radical reform, like Ken Coates and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, would see students shepherded toward degrees and programs that employers want, their own inclinations be damned. Students would take courses that emphasize core skills and competencies rather than broader knowledge and analytical thinking, while employability testing would determine workplace readiness. If universities were factories, and students our product, that kind of manufacturing-and-quality-assurance mindset might be acceptable, but we are dealing with humans, thought processes, and the business of learning.

Close ties with employers are an asset to universities. They serve as partners in research, mentors, co-op hosts, and, yes, as sponsors to events, services and development campaigns. Employers provide valuable information to our students about what they can expect in the workplace, and what is expected of them. They are the universities’ link to what happens after students leave campus, and while they may contribute to the learning process they are not professors or researchers. By all means, employers and universities should strengthen collaborations, partnerships and relationships for the benefit of all students, but leave the business of higher education to the educators. 

Catherine Maybrey is a career development practitioner with over 10 years' experience specializing in higher education, and the owner of CM Coaching Services.

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