August 13, 2020

Is the provincial government on a quest to make college suck?

The way they hacked at the limbs of the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) last year, you might think so.

But new plans to upend how colleges and universities are financed leave no room for doubt.

By 2025, the Ford government wants to tie 60 per cent of funding for colleges and universities to their “performance,” a measure based on 10 yet-to-be-finalized metrics, such as graduation and employment rates, and graduate earnings.

Currently, just over one per cent of funding is tied to similar metrics — and we should think long and hard before we change that.

Marc Spooner, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina, recently released a paper looking at the effects of performance-based funding in other parts of the world. It was written in response to both Alberta’s and Ontario’s decision to pursue the policy.

What he found was an “early distant warning.”

“However they are operationalized, performance-based funding models lead to a narrowing of scholarship, of what is possible, both in teaching and research,” he writes.

In other words, one type of research or teaching will always be preferred over another under this system.

Which one? Well, the one that lures precious government dollars.

The humanities, for example, where research generally flows at a slower rate than the sciences, might start to look a lot less appealing to colleges, according to Spooner.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the humanities were thriving in our province, but that’s not the case. Stats Can shows the number of humanities majors plummeted by 19.7 per cent from 2013 to 2018, a loss of 16,152 students.

Spooner points out that other non-traditional research methods, such as Indigenous approaches, also risk being pushed aside.

But don’t worry, says our government. Performance-based funding will “incentivize success.”

In five years, 60 per cent of the public funds Conestoga College receives annually from the provincial government could be based on performance outcomes, like graduation rates, up from just 1.2 per cent. (Patrick Spencer / Spoke Online)

Of course, they’re right:  With most of their funding on the line, schools will have stress-inducing incentives to pump out graduates who they can trot in front of the province. Perhaps that’s not so bad, because, after all, schools should be worried about the success of their students, and Canada needs more people in its workforce pronto.

But outcomes-based funding could create perverse incentives as well. 

Manipulating graduation data could net millions. To ensure fairness in such a high-stakes game, the government would have to employ an army of auditors, and that could cost us as it has other countries, says Spooner.

He quotes one professor from the United Kingdom, where performance-based funding has been implemented on a national scale, who says it has cost around $1 billion to administer.

There is a philosophical question in all this, too.

 As a province, do we still value the idea of education for education’s sake, or is it all about how much money someone will make once they graduate?

Do we still applaud the odd person who, out of the desire to expand their mind, attends Rock ‘n’ Roll History 101 on a weekday night at their local college, or do we denigrate them for wasting their time because they’ll never get a high-paying job as a Rock ‘n’ Roll History professor?

Increasing the proportion of performance-based funding could be right for some schools. A polytechnic college like Conestoga, which focusses on applied skills and moving people into the workforce, could be the right fit.

The problem is the provincial government is painting all 45 of Ontario’s publicly-assisted colleges and universities with the same brush. What works for Conestoga College might not work for a small liberal arts university.

The next time they meet with the government, colleges and universities should deeply consider the negative effects performance-based funding could have before accepting such a drastic change.

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