On April 24th, faculty at Ontario’s 24 colleges of applied arts and technology (CAATs) will be making an important announcement on the current state of college education. According to faculty, the college system faces a mounting crisis in quality. Government under-funding, privatization, under-staffing, and increased student debt are challenging the very sustainability of higher education in Ontario. In launching their Report on Education in Ontario Colleges, faculty hope to “daylight” the many challenges now faced by teachers and students, and to propose changes that can revitalize post-secondary, and refocus it on student success.
WHAT: Which Way Forward? The Future of Post-Secondary Education in Ontario
WHEN: Thursday, April 24, 6pm to 7pm reception with light supper, 7pm to 8:30 pm panel presentations and moderated discussion
WHERE: The Sheraton Centre, 123 Queen St. West, Civic Ballroom
INFORMATION: email@example.com, 905-418-4843
The Report is partially a response to recent mandates from the provincial Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU). In 2012, Liberal Minister Brad Duguid released Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge, a “discussion paper” on higher education. The document laid out the government’s vision of a leaner, meaner, more competitive post-secondary system, in which continued provincial funding cuts would be offset by institutional “differentiation” and by a massive push toward online course delivery.
One of the key initiatives mentioned in the MTCU paper was Ontario Online – the expansion of the existing Ontario Learn online education consortium, and its transformation into a degree-granting body. Ontario Online includes all of the province’s colleges and universities, and will provide online classes that can be taken by students anywhere in the province. In the language of the MTCU, this will help avoid “duplication”, in which certain courses and programs are offered at several different institutions.
Since its release, response to the MTCU discussion paper from students and faculty has been less than enthusiastic. Both OPSEU, representing faculty at 24 CAATs, and CUPE, representing teaching assistants and sessional professors at several universities, criticized the differentiation model as an attack on the quality of education. The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), representing university professors, also weighed in with a critical response to the MTCU paper. OCUFA argued that the effect of “differentiation” strategies would ultimately be to reduce the autonomy and creativity of individual colleges and universities – sacrificing diversity in the name of efficiency and cost-cutting.
The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O) argued that differentiation wouldn’t address the issues that most impact student success. More full time faculty, lower tuition, and better grant programs would be most helpful to Ontario’s students. In addition, the CFS-O noted that online courses are no substitute for traditional, face to face instruction. Online delivery works for some student groups, but not for many others.
The Report on Education in Ontario Colleges argues that the MTCU differentiation proposal is just the latest strategy in a decades-old movement away from the colleges’ original mandate of publicly funded, accessible, community-responsive education. Since cuts began to public services in the 1980s, accompanied by slashed taxes for corporations and the wealthiest Ontarians, education has seen its level of funding steadily decline. Before the cuts provincial grants accounted for 75% of college operating revenues, whereas today they account for less than 50%. Today, Ontario invests the least per full time post-secondary student out of all the provinces, spending less than half per student than does Alberta.
The Report also highlights the massive challenge faced by college faculty who currently lack academic freedom. This means that faculty don’t have the power to determine what they teach their students, how they teach them, or how student work is evaluated. As cost-cutting pressure mounts among college management, faculty are now being forced to deliver courses online, to use corporate-produced “courses in a can”, and to cut back on more time-intensive evaluation methods such as essays and written projects. All of these changes dilute the quality of education, and risk leaving students less prepared for the workplace.
Increasingly, college faculty are seeing educational decisions determined more by cost-cutting imperatives than by academic and industry standards. This has led some faculty to speak out about declining program standards, but without academic freedom, they risk serious reprisals.
Another worrying trend highlighted in the Report is the increase in partnerships between public community colleges and private career colleges. A growing number of CAATs, including Mohawk, St. Lawrence, Cambrian, and Fanshawe, are opening subsidiary campuses that are actually run by private corporations. These private businesses purchase the branding of the public college, along with all of the curriculum that has been developed by its faculty. Courses are then delivered to international students who are taught by lower-paid, lower qualified teachers, at campuses that are not as well-serviced as the public campuses.
The issues covered in the Report reverberate beyond Ontario’s community colleges, and speak to a crisis in public education as a whole. For this reason, panelists at the April 24th launch include Erika Shaker from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Alastair Woods, Chair of the CFS-O, and Graeme Stewart from OCUFA. In addition, OPSEU’s president Warren (Smokey) Thomas has personally invited all of the education sector unions to attend, and the broader public is also being invited to take part. A sustainable and high-quality system of higher education is invaluable in building tomorrow’s economy, and in creating tomorrow’s citizens. As such, we have a collective responsibility to defend it against the many threats it now faces.