How to screw up the higher education system in Ontario

The Ontario Premier made his speech the other day that gave a big nod to the need for a stronger education system (no mention of the money to do it btw) but along with nod came some silly goals that demonstrate a clear misunderstanding with the state of higher education in Ontario. The blog outlines some issues but I think it misses the point, we need revolution in education not just more bums in seats.

Here’s my view of the world (simplified/generalize for effect):

  • Universities are tooled to create more academics, other outcomes besides professional accreditation are unintentional.
  • The government has given money to build buildings over the last 10 years – not lecture halls but buildings – and no money to maintain the buildings.
  • Budget cuts have peeled away operating budget of departments over 10 years but the pressure to deliver more has seen staff being hired without the flexibility or ability to look at how things fit within the larger organization.
  • Staff are better educated than in the past and in many cases more skilled than the academics yet are seen as second class citizens within the organization.
  • Most academics want to teach, do research, and focus on their vocation – they do not want to recruit, do marketing or communications, manage staff outside of their research group, or be a department chair, associate dean, or dean.
  • Research funds rarely contribute to the well being of the institution or teaching. Heck they likely don’t pay for the power consumption of the toys they buy.
  • Academic time and process rewards mediocracy and we all know mediocre products are crap (I say this while looking at my UW degree).
  • Students are paying way too much in tuition and have earned the right to view higher education as a service not an earned place that expects, requires, and rewards hard work (not with a job but with that little warm feeling you get, currently most students think only about jobs).
  • Like all of the publicly funded jobs, the leaders are gone or in the process of being chased out. As we head out of the recession a new exodus of the employable from public service will most certainly occur.

To tackle these things takes breaking out of the mediocre and into some pretty crazy thinking. We need to take risks, experiment, and challenge the establishment that is almost dysfunctional outside a few pockets of brilliance. What the Ontario government is offering is more of the same—rhetoric, promises, and likely funds earmarked and the established system not a revolution.

Of course that isn’t for the government to dictate. We need to figure this out and we need the leaders within higher education that are willing to do so. I see glimpses of it but I fear we won’t really go for it as there is little appetite or motivation to break out of the crisis management culture and throw away status quo. However, if I was king of higher education this is what I would try:

  • Remove administrative or managerial positions that are just appointments of academics—make them apply against other professionals
  • Create a product management office, force them on the world with a mandate to train people to think about their products and projects.
  • Put post-docs in the classroom, formalize a new class of research focused academics which they are associated with and require them to ship a new product or service every 2-3 years
  • Create a hybrid of distance education and intense campus education along with co-op
  • Move staff from the silos of departments to special team pools that can charge out for services and rotate throughout campus (modern take on secretarial pools)—that way you can rally on time sensitive pushes and build expertise along with campus wide perspective
  • Service Level Agreements
  • More programs and services to students that are not related directly to academics but tied more to the local community (build more VeloCities).

Could be all crazy ideas but I would like to try at least one or two of them 😉 We need to think differently about higher education and how we function institutionally. If we continue down the cut backs, hand outs, and status quo we will surely self destruct within a generation.

Disclaimer: I would say this openly on campus and I am pretty sure it may offend some but these are thoughts being thrown out there. We need to start thinking and trying things.