Canadian postsecondary performance: Money can't buy you love

TORONTO, March 12, 2015 /CNW/ - When it comes to Canadian universities, the level of funding doesn't predict performance, according to a new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). 

In its newest and most comprehensive analysis of Canadian postsecondary systems, HEQCO finds no correlation between the performance of a university system and the funding it receives. Some provinces perform well with lower levels of funding and some provinces perform less well even with higher funding levels. Ontario and Nova Scotia are top performers overall despite lower per-student operating costs, while other provinces that spend the same or in some cases considerably more money achieve average or below average performance.

"It's no longer just a question of how much money is spent on postsecondary education," says HEQCO president and CEO Harvey P. Weingarten.  "It's a question of how the money is spent and what outcomes are achieved."

Canadian Postsecondary Performance: Impact 2015 examines provincial postsecondary system outcomes along three dimensions and 34 indicators.  Access indicators include overall and equitable access to higher education; value to students indicators include the student experience, affordability and learning outcomes; while value to society indicators include job creation, innovation and citizen engagement.  Outcomes are considered in relation to the operating cost per student, producing an overall performance score for each province. While the report examines university, college and trades education, the relationship between operating cost and performance is only examined for university systems, as comparable national data for colleges and trades are not available.

"Overall, Canadian higher education is working," says Weingarten. "In every province there's a positive link between postsecondary education and labour market success, individual earnings, citizen engagement and contributions to the economy. No province is failing to deliver but all show room for improvement in one or more areas."

Ontario does very well in virtually all access-related indicators. A high proportion of Ontarians have advanced degrees and several universities consistently appear in top international rankings, bolstered by the strong research performance of Ontario university faculty.

However, Ontario could improve its performance by greater attention to learning outcomes, reducing its faculty-to-student-ratio, repackaging its tuition assistance programs so students better understand the net price, and repositioning and improving access to apprenticeship training – initiatives that do not require additional expenditures.

For example, Ontario has the highest list price tuition in Canada, but most students pay considerably less due to grants, scholarships, tax credits and government discount programs. As the report notes, debt levels for Ontario students are among the lowest in Canada three years after graduation.  "Ontario's significant investments in postsecondary affordability would have a far better payoff if information about and processes for accessing such programs were repackaged and simplified, giving students a better understanding of the net costs of higher education," says Weingarten.

Ontario's student-to-faculty ratio is also the highest in Canada, but previous HEQCO research has shown that if professors who are not active researchers taught more, the teaching capacity of full-time professors in Ontario's universities could increase by as much as 10%, equivalent to adding 1,500 additional faculty members across the province – also at no additional cost. 

"It is time for funding priorities to shift from enrolment to quality," Weingarten adds, "as was recommended by an expert panel we convened to review the postsecondary sector's strategic mandate agreement submissions. The priority must be on quality and the student experience. We need to improve student engagement and start measuring whether students are graduating with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful.  A deeper and system-wide commitment to measuring these learning outcomes, and ensuring that they are developed to meet the needs of the labour market, is an opportunity for Ontario to show world-wide leadership."

The report also identifies significant data gaps that impede inter-provincial comparisons on postsecondary system performance.  Federal and provincial collaboration could produce pan-Canadian consensus on a core set of numbers and a standard of data collection, particularly for the college sector.

"This report is not about winners and losers," says Weingarten. "The whole point of the report is improvement and the greatest value is in identifying where provincial systems are performing well, where they are not and identifying some pathways forward."  The report also includes an interactive web tool that allows users to select indicators and focus on outcomes that are most meaningful to their specific province or interests to see how this might recalibrate the results.

About HEQCO

HEQCO is an agency of the Government of Ontario, established in 2005 to contribute to the improvement of Ontario's postsecondary education system.  HEQCO is mandated to conduct research, evaluate the postsecondary education system and provide policy recommendations to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities on improving system quality, access and accountability.

SOURCE Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

For further information: please contact: Susan Bloch-Nevitte, Executive Director, Communications, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, (416) 212-5242 / sbnevitte@heqco.ca

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