Government think tank assessing education faces criticisms of questionable research methods, lack of transparency

“Now is the time to shut down HEQCO,” reads faculty coalition press release
OCUFA has been active in protests against the Ford government's postsecondary education policies.
ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY
OCUFA has been active in protests against the Ford government's postsecondary education policies. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY

A leadership crisis is currently wracking the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), a government agency that evaluates the postsecondary education system in Ontario. The high-level resignations of its board members and President Harvey Weingarten in August are giving rise to criticisms, which are further fuelled by earlier accusations of questionable research methods. 

In an August 20 press release, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), a non-profit organization that advocates for the interests of faculty in Ontario universities, called for the dissolution of the HEQCO, claiming “now is the time” as the organization currently has no president.

The OCUFA accused Weingarten of hypocrisy in his recommendations to cut pensions while he himself has a $4.5 million public pension fund. The HEQCO recently held a series of consultations where it suggested that faculty should not be able to collect a salary and pension at the same time, as well as encouraged faculty to retire at the age of 65 for cost-cutting purposes.

“They put out this ridiculous report in which they said that faculty salaries and pensions are one of the more critical issues facing the sector in postsecondary education in Ontario, without really even mentioning that Ontario has the lowest per capita per student and funding vis a vis GDP in the country,” said Michael Conlon, Executive Director of the OCUFA.

HEQCO’s Research Methods

In 2018, the HEQCO completed a series of studies which claimed that around 25 per cent of graduating postsecondary students in Ontario scored below “the minimum required for graduates to perform well in today’s work world.” The test aimed to measure “literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking,” looking specifically at whether graduates have the skills to succeed in the workplace.

University Affairs (UA) called the HEQCO’s skills assessments “a good example of cargo cult policy research,” meaning that their studies are not conducted according to the proper scientific method. UA criticized the HEQCO for using a non-representative study to support broad claims about the effectiveness of postsecondary education in Ontario.

As noted in The Globe and Mail, “students volunteered or were recruited for the studies, and therefore the sample was not random or representative; nor were the same students tested at the beginning and end of their schooling.”

“They’re in essence drawing really kind of political conclusions from their data, creating this kind of exaggerated sensibility around learning outcomes,” said Conlon.

The OCUFA also criticized the HEQCO for a lack of transparency regarding their relationship to the government. “We feel like they’ve essentially become more of a political organization, rather than an independent third-party policy think tank, which is what they were originally designed to do.”

Another of the OCUFA’s criticisms of the HEQCO is their support of the usage of performance metrics in postsecondary education. Ontario announced plans earlier this year to tie 60 per cent of provincial funding of universities to performance indicators by 2024–2025.

According to Conlon, performance metrics “really undermine the system because they set up these arbitrary artificial measures that really have absolutely nothing to do with quality or student experience.” Additionally, they “distract from the real problems with this system, which is underfunding, cuts to OSAP… [and] a variety of other real challenges.”

“I think what HEQCO sets up is this kind of illusion of an independent, transparent organization, which it’s not, it’s just an agency of government. So that’s why we’re calling for that $5 million to be put back into OSAP.”

The HEQCO has declined The Varsity’s request for comment at this time.

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