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What quality assurance practices mean for Ontario's universities

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The traditional model of quality assurance, where professors and institutional bodies evaluate, approve and improve programs, has always existed in Ontario. However, the centralization and standardization of quality assurance has been accelerated by university and college administrators and encouraged by Ministry staff. External pressures for standardization from the OECD and processes emerging in Europe through the Bologna process have driven these changes.

The Council of Ontario Universities (COU) started to coordinate quality assurance reviews in the mid-1990s. One of their subcommittees conducted seven-year audits of institutional review processes, and oversaw a board called the Ontario Council on Graduate Studies that evaluated and approved graduate programs.  The first year of auditing occurred in 1997.

Near the end of the Progressive Conservative’s second term in 2003, the government implemented a series of quality assurance measurements. After two terms in office marked by deregulated tuition fees, the focus on quality may have been an attempt to obscure their record as they faced a fall election.

Driving this focus on quality assurance was government’s desire for colleges to be “…flexible, entrepreneurial, responsible, and market driven to better meet the needs of students, employers, and communities,” according to the Minister’s Binding Policy Directive from April 1, 2003.

Part of the same Ministry directive required colleges to create and make available, on demand by any member of the public, a three-year strategic plan, an annual business plan, an annual report and performance reporting through the rigorous collection of Key Performance Indicators.  The Credential Framework was implemented to enable credits to be evaluated province-wide.

The Ontario government also allowed private institutions and colleges to grant degrees. They created the Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board (PEQAB), an arms-length agency to oversee the “quality” of public and private degrees.

To manage these new reporting requirements, each school had to fill out a template form for their Quality Plan to say whether they would use new quality funds to pay for more professors, more sessional workers, more student services like career centres or program development initiatives, all of which were permitted by the Ministry’s guidelines.

The Liberal Party won the fall 2003 election but made few changes to the system of quality assurance that the PCs had set in motion. Colleges still had to produce their reports and universities were left with the COU-coordinated auditing frameworks.

In 2006, the COU contracted their former chair Richard Van Loon, to establish a framework where “Degree Level Expectations” could be established for all undergraduate and graduate programs in Ontario. The COU created the Ontario Universities Council on Quality Assurance in 2010. Institutions must establish (or re-establish) their own internal quality review mechanisms. The Council has the power to approve or deny new program proposals.

The new framework requires institutions to evaluate programs under a broad set of criteria. For existing programs, under quality, institutions are supposed to report on class sizes and the number of full time professors compared to part-time or adjunct instructors. For the criteria for the new programs, institutions only must establish the collective competency of a department.

This exercise has attempted to redefine quality and remove program approval from the experts: faculty. While review processes will ultimately have to be driven by faculty, the unaccountable presidents’ club of Ontario will have final say over the academic offerings of Ontario’s higher education institutions.

Like PEQAB, the new COU board is absent of student or academic staff representation. Even the member who represents “academic colleagues” has been an administrator at the Ontario College of Art and Design since 2006.

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), the representative of Ontario’s university professors, is highly critical of the new quality assurance plans. In their 2012 submission, they argue that government should not, and cannot, effectively control universities. They also link quality of education to Ontario’s record-high tuition fees and argue that any movement in Ontario about quality assurance must address the high cost of Ontario’s education system.

OCUFA demands that the Ontario government consider reforms that are appropriate for Ontario and not just copied from Europe. In their submission on quality to the Ontario government, they write, “…the [government’s] discussion paper makes frequent reference to efforts to create the European Higher Education Area, commonly referred to as “The Bologna Process”…. Uncritical borrowing from other jurisdictions will have a negative impact on the quality of education in the province.”

IRIS has written about these international reforms and how they will influence the Quebec system. Activists in Ontario made similar warnings as the COU’s process was undertaken. But, with no accountability mechanism at the COU, much of the plans of the university presidents have been and will continue to be implemented.

Universities and colleges are not, and cannot be run like businesses. Rather than reforming higher education to meet the needs of students and Ontarians more generally, these reforms are being ushered in under the guise that standardization somehow equals higher quality or more accountability to the “tax payer.”

Unfortunately, a more standard system that is “market-driven” cannot fulfill the role of higher education: to provide a public, accessible education to create smart, critical and creative citizens.

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