Blowing it up: Province ignites debate on future postsecondary landscape

If Glen Murray had his way, the Western Experience could soon resemble the community college experience. That’s at least the gist of a much-discussed paper issued this summer by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge, according to Murray, sets down a series of ideas in an attempt to bridge what the government sees as an unnecessary divide between Ontario’s universities and colleges.

Admittedly, the ideas – and they are still only that, ideas – raised in the paper would radically alter the province’s postsecondary landscape. But they have already sparked discussion and criticism nationwide, including on Western’s campus.

During a media roundtable in July, Murray defended the need for radical changes, saying the province must move forward to a modernized vision of postsecondary education, aligning itself with world-class postsecondary institutions adapting to new technologies and following in the footsteps of the Bologna declaration – a document that allows students to move freely between 29 countries in the European Union by way of credit standardization.

Murray also said the recent economic downturn has jump-started a “revisioning” of postsecondary education in Ontario in order to better prepare graduates for the job market – one driven by a demand for talent and innovation.

“Serious changes are going on right now. There’s been a fundamental change in the nature of what work is and in demographics. Universities aren’t just a site of research, they’re a (site) of mass education, the way high schools were. There needs to be a re-thinking of the system,” Murray said at the outset of a summer tour visiting Ontario’s postsecondary institutions.

Among the issues the paper presents for discussion is a proposal to expand credential options and supplements, among them a move to a flexible degree structure that would allow students to take up to a third of their courses online, across institutions, while also recognizing experiential learning and offering increased apprenticeship opportunities.

The paper also suggests reverting to three-year degrees with a greater emphasis on experiential learning to better prepare graduates for the workplace, and offering graduates a standardized provincial document that would, upon graduation, allow them to show their knowledge and skills to other institutions and potential employers.

“Traditional classrooms are an anachronism. More flexible, student-centered learning is coming,” Murray said.

Among the suggestions generating the most discussion are calls for more online education, fully transferrable credits and three-year degrees, all which would reboot the existing structures in place.

Murray noted traditional lectures should be replaced by online learning modules alongside experiential-learning opportunities with faculty spending more time coaching and mentoring students.

In this model, he explained, students would be able to take classes at a number of institutions simultaneously, satisfying their educational and professional needs while saving time and money.

“We’re looking to transform from the ‘sages on stage’ system into a system that is a highly integrated, student-centered learning (system) that understands the competencies students have for things they want to do in life,” he said.

When it comes to the transferability of credits, the discussion paper proposes making 100 per cent of first- and second-year introductory, general education and core courses fully recognized across postsecondary institutions. In addition, the paper proposes the development of a credit-transfer system that would enhance student mobility between institutions, not just across the country but internationally.

“You don’t graduate to an Ontario economy, you graduate to a global economy and your degree has to be robust. There has to be an understanding of what your competencies are,” Murray noted, explaining the province would develop standards for accreditation.

Meanwhile, the return to a three-year undergraduate degree would, according to Gyula Kovacs, spokeswoman from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, put Ontario on the same level as higher education in many jurisdictions around the world, including the European Union, England and Australia.

“The ministry’s goal is to explore revitalized three-year degrees within the international context of postsecondary education reforms that offer a stronger labour market focus and more experiential learning opportunities,” she said. “We recognize that three-year degrees are not suitable for every field of study — for example, this may be the case for many professional fields. But a revitalized approach will benefit a wider range of students than the ten per cent of undergraduates who are currently enrolled in three-year degree programs in Ontario.”

“We have some of the best institutions in the world and some of the best content producers in the world. What this paper will do, is bring all these components together to move from a healthy, good postsecondary system to a global leader in a technology enabled, global learning environment,” Murray said. “Change is going to be led by students, and universities and colleges that resist the global change, and resist student-led change, are going to be road-kill on the new information highway.”

While Murray is touring the province’s postsecondary institutions, concerns are popping up on campuses with staff and faculty raising concerns over what they see as a detrimental direction for Ontario’s universities.

“There are fundamental differences between colleges and universities and Western has built its reputation around exceptional teaching and high-quality research. I think this is a very dangerous approach. My concern is not a lot of thought has gone into these proposals,” said Political Science professor Don Abelson, president of the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA). “Our role as educators at universities is to provide students with skills to engage in critical thinking.

“Our job isn’t to position students to take on different jobs. We hope the skills they acquire (in university) will be transportable and that they can use it in a wide range of professions.”

Abelson stressed the value of learning and maturing in a traditional setting while supplementing – not supplanting – an education with new technologies.

“Colleges were intended to provide students with an opportunity to acquire a particular skillset. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you can’t confuse the two roles. Universities and colleges satisfy different needs and it seems to me the lines have become blurred,” he said. “I have confidence senior administration at Western will resist and advocate for strengthening traditional universities and not sacrificing them in a way that is outlined in this report.”

Alan Weedon, Western’s vice-provost (academic planning, policy and faculty), isn’t concerned, mainly because the discussion paper is just that – a proposal to generate discussion.

“It’s presenting ideas for reaction. Some of them would be quite transformative and would change the post-secondary system dramatically if they were implemented. But the paper doesn’t say this is what’s going to happen. We’ll be trying to respond to these terms in the strategic mandate agreement,” he said.

Weedon noted that contrary to Murray’s claims, students aren’t opting for a three-year undergraduate degree, as it is no longer competitive. He also said it would be difficult to adequately standardize accreditation and courses, and trying to do so could leave students ill-prepared to advance in their academic and professional lives.

What’s more, Western is ahead of the game, Weedon added, as it has already implemented – though, admittedly, not to the proposed degree – some of the changes the ministry is suggesting.

“We’re already exploring a lot of these options. It’s a matter of student demand. Something like 10 per cent of our courses are already offered through distance education – that responds to student interest and demand. And we have the three-year degree options for those who want it,” he said.

“A blend of online and classroom experiences seems to be the way to go to meet student demands. But I wouldn’t want to put a number or target for that proportion because it’s the demand you respond to.”

The bottom line is, he said, senior administration will work to provide what students demand.

“Western seems to be offering what the students want. It’s not an accident that 10 years in a row we’ve been top of The Globe and Mail survey. Students like what they get here. We’re meeting their needs and we don’t want to destroy that.”

Institutions, student associations, Colleges Ontario, the Council of Ontario Universities, and other associations have been asked to submit written responses to the discussion paper to the ministry no later than September 30.

On Wednesday, UWOFA held a Town Hall meeting to discuss the ideas raised in the paper and their potential implications for students, staff and faculty.



Following the release of Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge, Western News reporter Adela Talbot spoke with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to delve further into how some of the paper’s proposed changes would work, if implemented, in postsecondary institutions. Read the Q&A with Gyula Kovacs, ministry spokeswoman.