The Ontario government has been quietly paving the way for radical change in the province’s post-secondary education system. Over the summer Glen Murray, Ontario’s minister for Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU), introduced a controversial discussion paper that proposes numerous reforms that could alter the way that higher education is both thought of and realized in this province. The discussion paper, entitled Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge was released on June 27 and promoted as a roadmap for transforming the province’s underfunded and inefficient post-secondary system. The release of the document was followed by a series of institution-exclusive discussion roundtables held throughout July and August that further expounded upon reform. The Ontario government is expected to bring forth legislation in the upcoming fall session.
At the core of Strengthening Ontario’s Centres is Minister Glen Murray’s desire to align the province’s post-secondary education system with the criteria set out in the Bologna declaration, a European education process with the stated goal of improving student transferability between member-countries. By aligning the province’s post-secondary framework with the Bologna process the government hopes to promote student mobility both within the province and abroad.
To align Ontario with the Bologna process, however, would mean radical change to the structure of the province’s education system. Most notably, the Bologna process adheres to a three year baccalaureate degree cycle and in order to comply with Bologna Ontario would be forced to switch to a similar three year cycle. Implementing this cycle would, according to the Minister, increase transferability while “allow[ing] students to earn their credentials sooner [and]… result in decreased costs [to the system].” Further, as a way to compensate for compressed degrees the discussion paper also suggests that year-round learning to be implemented in the province’s universities and colleges. Yet while Minister Murray seems convinced of the benefits of a harmonization with Bologna, the process has drawn mixed reviews from existing member-countries. A recent article appearing in a leading German newspaper, Der Spiegel, casts doubt on whether the changes brought on by the decade-long Bologna process have benefited the country at all. In the article Horst Hippler, head of the German Rector’s Conference, argues that “the current [Bologna] approach of hurrying people through their studies… is wrong.” He also points out that a university’s role is “to educate people as well as train them for a job [which is] something that doesn’t happen with the [Bologna] degrees.”
Here in Peterborough student leaders from the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) share Mr. Hippler’s view. Tessa Nasca, who serves as the TCSA’s Vice President of Student Issues, laments that “there seems to be no room for critical thinking in Minister Murray’s approach.” She also worries that because the document is so focused on emphasizing professional and market-oriented programs that some of the more critical disciplines could fall through the cracks. “One of the uniqueness’ of Trent is that we try to value [critical] knowledge systems,” she says. “For example our Indigenous Studies department is considered to be a very important department here. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be fitting within Minister Murray’s idea of what a commercial university should be.”
Prof. Jocelyn Aubrey, Trent’s Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences, also wonders if the ministry is leaning too much towards experiential and entrepreneurial learning. She travelled with the Trent delegation to the roundtable discussions over the summer and was struck by the types of discussions that the ministry was attempting to foster. “What was disconcerting… was that the questions we were asked to focus on related very much to productivity and the labour market,” she recalls. “I wondered whether, in Minister [Murray]’s eyes, the only good university graduate is the one that leaves the academy with a degree in one hand and a well honed business plan in the other.”
Prof. Aubrey thinks that when it comes to advancing experiential learning in the province, perhaps the ministry could take a lesson from Trent. “I made a point of describing Trent’s very unique contribution [to experiential learning] represented by the Trent Centre for Community-Based Education (TCCBE),” she says. “The ministry representative had never heard of this or any other programs focused on providing opportunities for students to become involved in community organizations.” Another area of major transformation outlined in the discussion paper is an overhaul to the way that course content is delivered to students.
According to a CBC report and a source inside the roundtables, the ministry plans to mandate a dramatic increase in the amount of online courses offered in Ontario universities and colleges to as much as 33% of total course offerings. The discussion paper makes it clear that this change will be driven by a desire to cut the costs of course delivery saying that it is part of an “innovation-focused approach” to cost savings. Prof. Aubrey, however, calls the government’s assumption that more online courses will mean dramatically lower costs “mistaken.” “In reality,” she says, “online courses are probably almost as resource-intensive as face to face [learning].”
Aubrey further suggests that a more realistic solution would be to better integrate aspects of online learning into the current face-to-face delivery model. Faculty from institutions across the province have been much more severe in their condemnation of the government’s discussion paper. In one example, a public email from Donald Abelson, president of the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association, states that the province’s changes could prove to have “devastating consequences for how [professors] teach and conduct research.” As a response to the paper, University of Western Ontario hosted a school-wide town hall meeting during their orientation week.
Here at Trent, however, there has been little discussion involving the broader university community. In his summer report, Trent University President Stephen Franklin makes reference to the discussion paper but does little more than acknowledge its release. Further, since the document’s release in June there has been no news release or statement issued by the university’s news service. Both Prof. Aubrey and Ms. Nasca agree that this is a discussion that should involve the larger Trent community, including students and faculty, especially since the government’s reforms will fundamentally alter the system for all stakeholders.
For her part, Ms. Nasca says that the next step for student unions across Ontario, including the TCSA, will be to look at any proposed legislation and figure out ways to support students through the transition. What remains clear to all, though, is that across Ontario, post-secondary administrators, educators and students have their eyes locked on the provincial government as parliament resumes. The discussion paper simply marks the first move in the government’s post secondary “revolution”. How they build on this move going forward now becomes the critical question.
Notes: An attempt was made by this reporter to contact the office of Vice President Academic Gary Boire for comment. Unfortunately Dr. Boire was unable to meet before the publication deadline.
SEPTEMBER 22 2012: Clarification: Dr. Boire did agree to meet for an interview which was conducted on September 12. Unfortunately this response came after the publication deadline and therefore could not be included in the article. A transcript of this interview will be posted as soon as possible.
Further Information & Reading: UWO interview with Ministry of CTU spokeswoman