Ontario should fund universities less on student numbers how many new students they get and more on the quality of students’ experience, according to a government-commissioned report to be released Thursday.
If it’s adopted, Ontario would be among the first to try to actually measure the quality of a university education — from undergrad satisfaction and retention to proof that students actually learn soft skills employers seek, such as communication, teamwork, critical thinking and organization — and financially reward schools that do a good job, said former deputy education minister Suzanne Herbert.
She led a five-month consultation into modernizing the 50-year-old university funding formula, resulting in a report, “Focus on Outcomes, Centre on Students.”
“The current system has done a terrific job increasing access to university education,” she said. Some 32 per cent of Ontario adults now hold a university degree, up from 24 per cent in 2002. But the prime student cohort, 18- to 24-year-olds, — the cohort most represented in university classes — is expected to flatline over the next decade.
“But it’s time now to take a deep breath and focus on the quality of the student experience” as part of a more transparent, accountable way of divvying up the $3.5 billion the government spends annually on 20 universities. Calling the system “dense and almost impossible to decipher,” Herbert’s report suggests introducing an “outcomes-based” model in 2017.
It also suggests pushing universities to specialize more and duplicate each other less, by tying funding to how well they stick to their specialties, as stated in “strategic mandate agreements” with the province.
“The whole exercise is based on students and how we can increase the quality of their learning experience, so we see these recommendations as a good roadmap for designing a new funding formula,” said Reza Moridi, minister of training, colleges and universities.
Moridi said the new model would not alter the total money earmarked for higher education, but will encourage differentiation between institutions and measuring the quality of undergraduate learning. He said the government’s next step is to consult with universities on how to design the new funding formula.
In the report, Herbert recommends tying spending to how well each university addresses the undergraduate experience, from student satisfaction and chances for “experiential learning” to how well students gain the often elusive “soft skills” employers seek, such as communication, teamwork, critical thinking and organization.
A four-year pilot project into how to measure students’ learning in nuanced skills such as critical thinking and organization is underway at Queen’s University and should be accelerated, said Herbert. While some universities in the United States base funding on such “learning outcomes,” they focus more on simple graduation rates, said Herbert.
Ontario should consider tracking the acquisition of more detailed, subtle skills over the course of a degree, such as working with others and communicating ideas, she said.
This kind of tracking would require sweeping new data collection from students, and would likely take several years to organize, said Herbert, who consulted with universities, colleges, parent groups, employers, students and others.
Contrary to what some expected, employers did not call for more labour market-based or technical courses at university, but stressed the need for graduates strong in the broader skills of problem-solving, teamwork and communication.
Highlights from the report
- While Ontario universities are independent, they get about 40 per cent of their operating revenue from tax dollars. The Herbert report suggests beefing up accountability by giving the province more clout as a “steward” of the system with more say over planning and monitoring finances.
- Ontario needs to start measuring how well its universities are helping students succeed, says the report. It can start by tracking factors such as graduation rates and the time it takes students to complete their degree, labour market readiness, student satisfaction, retention and how well students learn problem-solving and critical thinking.
- To discourage universities from trying to be all things to all students — which is expensive and not efficient — Queen’s Park asks them to spell out their areas of strength in “Strategic Mandate Agreements.” The Herbert report suggests adding a financial reward for sticking to those contracts.