Ontario universities face dramatic shift to performance-based funding

Ford administration is blind to incompatibility of statistical metrics and quality teaching, academics warn

April 20, 2019
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Ontario’s government is accelerating a performance-based funding system that many faculty fear could further hobble their institutions, three months after budget cuts were announced.

The proposal by premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario would subject some 60 per cent of all university funding to institutional performance on a yet undefined set of metrics.

The government has also proposed steps to prevent older staff from both drawing pensions and receiving regular salaries, in what many regard as an attempt to accelerate the use of younger, lower-paid instructors.

While largely untested in Canada, the idea of performance-based funding has been tried, in various forms, in most US states, with mixed to negative results. It replaces per-student government allocations with payments tied to outcomes such as graduation rates, job placement rates or student retention rates.

“Overwhelmingly,” the centre-left US thinktank Third Way said in a report last October, “the empirical research on performance funding suggests that in most current iterations at the state level, the policy fails to improve degree completions and graduation rates.”

Ontario faculty have little reason to believe the Ford administration will have any better luck, said Gyllian Phillips, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

“Real education is a deep slow transformative complex process, and it's very hard to put a number on that,” said Dr Phillips, associate professor of English studies at Nipissing University.

Employment-based standards also tend to reward fields of study that train students for relatively immediate career prospects rather than prepare them for career-long success, she warned. As an English professor in a relatively low-income part of the country, Dr Phillips found such a prospect especially threatening. “Actually having governments understand what universities do, and what they're for, and how education works – that's a pretty tall order for our government,” she said.

Larger institutions may feel less fearful. The University of Toronto issued a statement promising to help the Ford administration develop its metrics. “We welcome the opportunity to work with the government to identify the appropriate way to capture these results,” said the university's president, Meric S. Gertler.

Canadian higher education consultant Alex Usher wrote that “in principle it’s a good idea, to be applauded”, but that there were “some enormous devils in the details”. Although institutions would be judged mainly on common metrics, they would “not be held to a common standard on each metric”, but instead given “some kind of target based on past performance” on measures such as graduation rates or graduate salaries, he suggested.

A spokeswoman for Ontario's Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities said the 60 per cent of grant funding is only about 22 per cent of total operating revenue for universities and about 28 per cent for colleges. The emphasis on outcomes, said the spokeswoman, is meant to encourage the institutions “to be more efficient, specialised, and to focus on what they do best”.

Performance targets will be based on an institution’s historical data and its own benchmarks, meaning the institutions will be measured against themselves, not each other, she added.

Ricardo Tranjan, a senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said that while taxpayers have a right to expect accountability, they should not expect government officials to do a better job than education professionals in assessing educational quality.

And some of the most important skills gained at college – the ability of students to write well, think critically and develop new insights – are virtually impossible to measure with statistics, Dr Tranjan said.

Before Mr Ford took office in June 2018, Ontario had a Liberal-led government that took some tentative steps in the direction of performance-based funding. It created a set of “strategic mandate agreements” with universities that pushed each institution to develop some performance-based measures.

By the planned third phase of that process, around 2020, “we were expecting some kind of tie between metrics and funding” if the Liberals had remained in power, Dr Phillips said. “But absolutely nothing like what the Conservatives suggest,” she said, referring to Mr Ford’s plan to tie performance measures to 25 per cent of provincial funding for institutions in 2020, rising to 60 per cent in 2024.

Earlier this year, the Ford administration issued its annual budget, cutting funding to institutions via a 10 per cent reduction in tuition fees.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

Academics and university leaders will discuss how universities can encourage innovative teaching and learning practices at Times Higher Education’s Teaching Excellence Summit, which is taking place at Western University, in London, Ontario, Canada, from 4-6 June

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