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Commentary / Questions about Ontario’s newly proposed metrics for universities

Commentary / Questions about Ontario’s newly proposed metrics for universities

By Marc Spooner

The proposed metrics to be used to determine the performance-based funding universities will be allotted under the newly restructured Strategic Mandate Agreement proposed by the Ontario government leave a lot to be desired.

Slated to determine up to 60 per cent of the total operating grant provided to Ontario universities by 2025, and as recently reported on, the proposed metrics will include:

Graduate earnings

Why does it matter how much a graduate earns if the person is perfectly content with trading earnings for personally meaningful employment? How is it bad to be less wealthy, but happy, healthy and fulfilled? Why not, rather, examine student satisfaction with program and program employment outcome?

Experiential learning

Are these paid internships and co-op placements? Is that possible for every area of study? Are libraries and specialized archives experiential learning for many humanities students? Would that count? Shouldn’t it?

Skills and competencies

Are these the standardized tests of numeracy, literacy, and critical thinking recently piloted by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario as part of their Essential Adult Skills Initiative? If so, do we really need to look any further than the mass high-stakes testing craze that has all but strangled sound pedagogy in so many public education districts within the United States and beyond for clues to what could go wrong by expanding standardized testing out of K–12 and into post-secondary? Besides, how could a few 45 to 90 minute, one-shot standardized tests promoted by HEQCO ever be compared to any degree program’s existing course and program requirements — each determined and assessed by expert professionals and subject matter specialists — is a question that perplexes? A standard four-year undergraduate experience likely includes 20 to 40 expert “second opinions” diagnosed by a wide variety of professors with a diversity of teaching styles and assessment strategies. Why would we now privilege one set of computerized standardized tests?

Graduation rates

What is considered good here? A high graduation rate with the thought that we are getting value for our investment with new grads filling societal needs by replacing personnel where there are gaps? Or would a lower graduation rate be considered good, since it might imply a rigorous program of study with high quality expectations? Perhaps the institution could explain how they view the statistics they are collecting? Why not look at metrics like student retention data between years one and two, proportion of expenditures on student services, how many are being taught by full-time faculty whose teaching is informed by cutting-edge scholarship? Additionally, we could ask who is graduating; for example, gathering data on the number and proportion of students from traditionally underrepresented groups, first-generation students, and students with disabilities for starters.

Graduate employment in related field

Why does related field matter? Again, would it not be better to ask if the graduate is employed? And perhaps pleased with their employment? Then there’s the whole issue of what counts as a related field? For example, what’s the related field for those studying classics, religious studies, peace studies, and so on, and why does it matter so long as the graduate is happy? Moreover, in a somewhat ironic twist, when it comes to professional fields in the public sector, e.g., teachers, doctors, nurses, etc., the provincial government itself is pretty much the one in control of how many are hired or even can retain their jobs.

Funding for research

Why is funding from industry given a separate indicator from funding through Tri-Council bodies? And why is it that only industry funding is considered “innovation” here? What of all the other types of funding that should be counted, including, non-profit, community-based, and potentially ground-breaking research that requires little, or no funding at all?

The collection of system-wide data is certainly not a bad idea on its own, but when it becomes as high-stakes as it is with the current proposition, it runs the real danger of perverting the very objects it set out to measure through over-emphasis and, frankly, “gaming” of one sort or another. The government of Ontario has the opportunity to work with the post-secondary sector to avert the damage that will surely follow from such a misguided policy. Now is the time for Ontario to engage in true consultations with the post-secondary sector, while seeking to enact thoughtful policies and not engage in further reactionary and damaging half-baked accountability crusades.
Marc Spooner is a professor of education at the University of Regina and co-editor, with James McNinch, of Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessa­rily CAUT.

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