Since its release in June, the discussion paper “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge” has generated significant controversy and criticism. Groups representing students, faculty, and university administration have voiced their concerns about its proposals: the limitations imposed on students by three-year degrees, the dubious substitution of online courses for those taught in real classrooms, the challenge of transferring credits between institutions, the possibility that standardized assessments will be used to measure university outcomes, and — most importantly — a tacit but clear focus on the commercialization of research.

The UTSU town hall meeting BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

Amidst the outcry, it is important to understand that discussion papers are supposed to set out potential policies and attract input from those affected. Despite this consultative purpose, Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities Glen Murray has, on Twitter, attacked student leaders and faculty who have offered informal criticism of the paper. Murray called the UTSU-organized town hall to discuss the paper a “festival of misinformation” and characterized his critics as being against innovation. The minister’s vitriolic criticism is inappropriate in the context of a paper that is supposed to attract suggestions, not offer ironclad policy. Murray’s behavior seems to suggest that the government is committed to the vision for education set out in the discussion paper; if that is true, students and faculty have a right to be concerned.

The central problem of the discussion paper is that its policy proposals do not further its stated vision for higher education. The government’s purported goals are outlined under the heading “A Vision for Ontario’s Postsecondary Education Sector,” and are worth quoting in full:

“The vision presented by our government is: Ontario’s colleges and universities will drive creativity, innovation, knowledge, and community engagement through teaching and research. They will put students first by providing the best possible learning experience for all qualified learners in an affordable and financially sustainable way, ensuring high quality, and globally competitive outcomes for students and Ontario’s creative economy.”

It is difficult to disentangle a meaning from this barren collection of platitudes. But stripped of rhetoric, it is a shockingly simplistic idea: colleges and universities will continue to give students the best education we can afford in the hopes that the results will be good for students and the economy. It is hard to imagine that a statement so banal, so devoid of innovation and leadership, is truly our government’s plan for such a vital area of public policy.

It seems, instead, that the government is using this jungle of jargon to distract public attention from their unstated vision: the government hopes to make post-secondary education do more for less, and does not seem to see the value of an idea beyond its ability to make money. No matter what shape they are presented in, shorter degrees and online classes are cost-cutting measures that will inevitably decrease the quality and value of an undergraduate degree.

Meanwhile, the paper largely ignores graduate programs and research in favour of entrepreneurship and vocational training. The government, it seems, would encourage programs that have the most obvious and immediate economic benefits at the expense of styles of education that take longer to produce a return on the public’s investment.

The government is asking universities to be too many things to too many people. Job training and entrepreneurship have never been more than side-benefits of a university education. If those are the government’s priorities, it should advance them through institutions focused on training, rather than tacking these demands onto a university’s mandate. Our leading universities should be centres of excellence — institutions intended to produce new ideas, creative thinking, and capable graduates through unprescribed learning and innovation.

This may not be a vision with which everyone agrees. But at the moment, any attempt to discuss the merits of any plan for higher education is hopeless, since the key actor in this question refuses to state its position outright and attacks anyone who tries to voice an opinion. Students need to see a single, clear and comprehensive statement of their government’s vision for post-secondary education because that would be something worth discussing.

Previous coverage:

Students, staff critique provincial plan at emergency town hall

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