October 1, 2014

Ontario students respond to Minister’s discussion paper

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OUSA (2012) Educated Reform: Striving for Higher Quality of Education at Ontario’s Universities Toronto ON: Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance

Ontario (2012) Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge Toronto ON: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities

The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance has produced a professional and thoughtful response to the Provincial government’s discussion paper calling for a transformation of the post-secondary system in Ontario. This is a very short and selected review of a detailed paper which is well worth reading in full.

I can do no better than quote from their executive summary:

There is much that can be done to improve the student experience without a large infusion of new funds from student tuition or government grants. Educated Reform proposes low-cost, cost-neutral and savings proposals that not only achieve the Government’s stated goals of improved productivity and innovation, but also addresses the responsibility of a creative economy to those being educated: a demanding, engaging, high quality student experience

While what they propose is not particularly new or innovative, they make some sensible suggestions that fit their criteria. In particular I have focused on three proposals that are relevant to online learning:

  • implement teaching chairs and gradually create larger teaching focused faculty streams
  • adopting the pan-Canadian protocol on the transfer of credits
  • finalizing a vision of an Ontario Online Institute.

The first two are first serves into the universities’ court. The balance between rewards for research and rewards for teaching is now so out of whack in Western Universities that it is becoming a cause for systemic failure. Students and taxpayers are paying more and more for less and less teaching from tenured faculty. This policy is entirely within the control of the universities, but unfortunately faculty self-interest is likely to override student needs. The faculty will just call the first serve out, even though it is perfectly good.

It is also hard from someone outside the province to understand why transfer of credits within the Ontario post-secondary system is so difficult. This is a cause of a great deal of wasted money, as students who have completed one or two years at completely respectable universities are often forced to start their studies all over again if they move to, or even worse, within Ontario to another university. BC and Alberta have for many years had a comprehensive and rational system of credit transfer that works really well, so it’s not as if there are not models that work. This is one area where the universities can and should give some ground. It would make a lot of difference to many students and would greatly improve the cost-effectiveness of the system, especially with respect to enabling students to complete degrees through taking online courses. To quote the OUSA report:

Given that Ontario already offers over thousands of online courses, the only thing stopping these courses from being mobile between post-secondary institutions is poor credit transfer arrangements. 

The third proposal made by OUSA on the Ontario Online Institute is more a return of serve back to the Minister. The discussion paper asks ‘How could a degree- and diploma-granting Ontario Online Institute interface with existing institutions?’ The students response is that ‘an organized collection of current Ontario online course offerings makes the most sense’, which is a proposal the Minister already had on his desk following system-wide consultation before the discussion paper was issued. To quote the OUSA report again:

Students put forward a vision for the Ontario Online Institute in 2010, which recommended that the institute be designed as a consortium of universities and colleges that would share online courses, resources and infrastructure. In this model, the institution that granted the majority of the credits would confer the degree, similar to the way the Open Universities Australia operates.

So far, game to the students. The quality of this report bodes well for the future of Ontario if it is in the students’ hands. I hope the universities and the Minister are listening.

More for less: why Ontario students are complaining

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Pin. L., Martin, C, & Andrey, S (2011). Rising Costs: A Look at Spending at Ontario Universities. Toronto: Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

This is another excellent and well-researched publication from the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, and this post is not unrelated to my previous post on British academics rejecting systematized training in teaching.

“Per-student funding increased more than $3,000 over the last five years due mostly to increases in government contributions and student fees well above the rate of inflation. Students wanted to know how much went to improving the quality of their learning experience,” said Sean Madden, President of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA). 

Good question, Sean. The report notes:

More than 70 per cent of the increase in funding from 2004-05 went to salary, pension and benefit costs largely for existing full-time academic faculty and administrators, as well as increased use of part-time instructors.

Paul (2011, p. 143) notes: ‘the continuing trend to higher faculty salaries and flat university funding is just not sustainable over the longer term’. Basically students (and taxpayers) are having to pay more for less.

There is now a pressing moral obligation on universities to improve quality and/or reduce costs by doing things differently – how about training in teaching for a start?

Ontario students’ vision for the Ontario Online Institute

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Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (2010) The Ontario Online Institute: Students’ Vision for Opening Ontario’s Classrooms Toronto ON: OUSA

OUSA have produced a superb document outlining their position regarding the proposed Ontario Online Institute. While strongly supporting the concept, OUSA raises a whole set of key issues that need to be addressed if the new Institute is to be successful. They also recommend a consortium model based on that used by Open Universities Australia. As well as identifying many of the issues that the Ontario government will have to address, such as quality assurance, credit transfer, student learning and advisory support, 24/7 services, student aid, the report also gives the best overview I have seen of the current state of online learning in Ontario, Canada’s largest province by population (13 million).

Comments

The consortium model is primarily a challenge to both the government, to put in place a governance structure and funding that will require existing universities to work together in a coherent and meaningful way, and to the Ontario universities themselves, who in the past have talked collaboration but in practice have done little. For instance, it is much more difficult to transfer credits between institutions in Ontario than almost anywhere else in Canada. Without agreement to accept automatically course credits from partner universities, any consortium model is doomed to failure.

The governance of the Institute will require detailed agreements about revenue sharing, program planning, quality assurance and student support that will require partner universities to yield much more autonomy to the Institute than any Ontario university has shown the stomach for in the past. I do hope the universities – or at least enough to make a workable consortium – will step up to the plate, because Ontario needs the increased flexibility and access such an Institute will bring if it is to have a hope of achieving its goal of 70% access to post-secondary education.

Lastly, the OUSA document makes a very important point:

it is important to note that many aspects of the Institute will depend heavily on the initial design, and many of the solutions presented in the following pages will only be achievable if a heavily integrated consortium model, such as the one employed by the OUA, is selected for the Institute….students wish to highlight that the Institute will have significant long-term effects on the post- secondary sector in Ontario, and that all stakeholders and partners deserve an opportunity to provide input into this process. With only a vague notion of what the Institute is meant to do, students have found it difficult to participate in these deliberations and are concerned with how little information is available months after the initial announcement. Moving forward, students urge the government to facilitate real input from all stakeholders.

I do anticipate that the Ontario provincial government will make an announcement early in the fall, as there is an election due on October 6, 2011, and the government will want to have something in place by then. However, this is a very short timetable for establishing what will be a major new development in online learning. Achieving the right balance between consultation and action will perhaps be the biggest challenge for the government.

In the meantime, congratulations to OUSA who have produced by far the most substantial public input to this process to date.