Last week, student leaders and faculty members sounded off against the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities’ (TCU) handling of the recent Strategic Mandate Agreement process.

The Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) process was a province wide initiative introduced this summer by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. Its goal was to lay down the groundwork for radical transformation in Ontario’s post-secondary system. The process mandated that every university or college submit a document, no more than eight pages in length, that included a vision statement, strategic mandate, and three priority initiatives.

What has enflamed members of the academic community is the fashion in which the provincial government imposed this process on academic institutions. Universities and colleges were not aware of the program until mid-August, a timeline that gave them less than two months to brainstorm ideas, consult with community, and draft the document. Furthermore, many view this process as an exercise in coercion given that the ministry has stated that the content of each institutions SMA will be tied to future funding allocation and program approval.

On Thursday, Trent Central Student Association President Brea Hutchinson condemned the SMA procedure as “grossly inaccessible” to the majority of the student population and criticized the government’s disregard for due-process. “It took Trent University nine months to draft and approve its vision statement,” she commented, “and the province now wants us to plan a strategic mandate and three priority initiatives, both of which are much bigger tasks, in 60 days.”

Prof. Byron Stoyles, who teaches in Trent’s Philosophy Department, expressed similar discontent with the SMA process and added that, for many faculty, the problem stems not only from SMA process but also from the government’s overarching vision of the future of Ontario’s post-secondary education system.

This barrage of criticism came during the same week that the Trent University administration held its Open-Information Sessions on the recently released draft SMA.

Speaking during Wednesday’s session, Trent University President Steven Franklin acknowledged that there is some concern within the administration as to the government’s motives in the process. “In some ways [the process is] vaguely threatening,” he said. “If it’s the case that the SMAs are submitted and not considered acceptable [by the Ministry], then [the Minister] may feel as though he has to take a stronger hand to deliver on their desired policy objectives.”

Although he did not elaborate on what exactly that “stronger hand” might entail, President Franklin did explain that a major motivation behind the government’s current higher education policy trajectory – including the SMA process – is the search for “productivity gains” within the post-secondary system. “[Essentially] they are looking for money that they can save,” he stated, “just like they did with the doctors, just like they did with the teachers.” The provincial government, in their June discussion paper, has already made known that increased online learning, three-year degrees, and a full-year schedule are some policy changes that they are currently examining.

He also mentioned that there are still questions surrounding the province’s $30 million Strategic Mandate fund. The Ministry of TCU has promised this money to institutions who demonstrate “leadership” and “innovation” within their Strategic Mandate Agreements, however it remains unclear where these funds will come from. Some administrators fear that the $30 million could constitute money repurposed from the existing post-secondary budget, a move that would actually create “loser institutions” whose funding would be cut by as a result.

In the meantime, members of the Trent community used Monday’s and Wednesday’s Open-Information Sessions to inquire into the finer details of Trent’s own draft SMA.

Although attendance for the sessions was relatively sparse, administrators, faculty, and students questioned President Franklin on the direction of the document and  on the way that it will shape the future of the university. For his part, President Franklin reiterated that the document was rooted in the spirit of the university’s previous planning processes, notably the 2011 Integrated Plan, the 2011 Academic Plan, and the 2006 Endowment Lands Master Plan, and that the administration would be working to amend the SMA based on community feedback before its submission to the ministry on September 30.

In regards to what some of those changes might be, TCSA President Brea Hutchinson expects there to be significant revision to the third priority initiative, the proposed Trent Centre for Aging and Community. She noted that the student union submitted a report to President Franklin on Thursday, September 27, listing recommendations they would like to see incorporated; many of their suggestions centred upon that initiative. “We wanted to look at that priority in particular and see how we could make it more fitting to Trent and more fitting to the Peterborough community,” she explained. “We are hoping for a bit more holistic language [in the final draft] and that the proposal can better reflect aging in its truer sense: complete human life-cycle.”

Hutchinson said that despite the disconcerting nature the SMA process, Trent’s draft does represent a step forward for university and that she will be writing a letter of commendation that will accompany the submission.

She also joked that the whole ordeal might even have forced the university to take a tentative step towards that defining its ever-elusive institutional identity. “It may be good that someone’s finally holding Trent’s feet to the fire,” she quipped. “Someone’s finally saying: Trent, you’ve got 60 days figure out who the hell you are.”

Whether or not that is true remains to be seen, but what seems clear is the fact that the province can expect significant backlash if they continue to push ahead with their reforms in the current manner.