Ryerson is well-positioned to weather government funding changes: Levy

A new policy from the provincial government could force universities to cut some programs, but Ryerson president Sheldon Levy isn’t worried.

A confidential draft of the policy sent to post-secondary institutions leaked last week, and the so-called ‘differentiation’ policy will require universities and colleges to focus on strengths, though possibly at the expense of weaker programs.

Post-secondary education funding in Ontario is currently tied to enrollment numbers, though the new policy will see the province move towards envelope funding, where grants will be attached to certain priorities and given out to the schools who fulfill them.

“Ryerson is very well-positioned because our mission statement is already a differentiated one,” said Levy.

“If you take a look at the number of students relative to number of places available, we are by far the most demanded university. So if we make an argument that we want to be able to grow in this area, we’re going to have the strongest case in the province.”

Though the policy’s stated aim is to drive quality and competitiveness, the draft also indicates that the province is struggling financially to support post-secondary schools, citing institution inflation and increasing operating grants.

“Will there be winners and losers? I think there must be. The question is how big is the winning and how big is the losing, because if there isn’t a winner or loser, then what is this whole exercise about? – Sheldon Levy

The current draft asks universities and colleges for feedback on the indicators that may be used when each school negotiates their specializations with the province. Among the suggestions are student surveys and data on co-op programs and post-graduation employment statistics.

A report released earlier this year by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario groups six universities in Ontario as research-intensive and nine as primarily undergraduate-focused. Ryerson is one of four schools categorized as falling between the two.

The report, however, mentions little of how universities not categorized as research-intensive will be able to move between ranks, despite the ability to do so having been expressed earlier by the report’s committee.

Roshelle Lawrence, Ryerson Student Union’s vice-president of education, fears that the new model will allow for more funding to be tied to government-approved ‘consumer-driven’ degrees.

“We’re already struggling with funding, so they might say ‘we’ll push towards specializing in business, math and engineering over programs like theatre and dance,’” she said. “They’re basically looking at how the labour market is now. Not how it will be.”

Though institutions in Ontario are largely allowed to operate by their own mandates, the provincial government can indirectly step in by controlling funding, the allocation of new student spaces and the approval of new programs.

However, Allison Williams, a steering committee member of the Ontario Undergraduate Students Association (OUSA), said that from the responses she’s gathered, students across Ontario are favourable towards having universities specialize and receiving money accordingly.

“Specialization and differentiation is something, to a degree, that does happen on its own anyways,” she said. “The funding formula right now is pretty outdated, so I think there is some interest in having funding attached to something other than enrollment.”

Williams does, however, have concerns about schools catering their specializations specifically to receive money. She said that the OUSA would rather see envelope funding used for categories like teaching quality, which is something that all universities should be working towards anyways.

Alberta and British Columbia already have similar differentiation policies in place. Alberta identifies six sectors which range from research to specialized arts and culture, while British Columbia designates four of its universities as research-focused to complement its five teaching-focused ones.

The Ontario government expects final revisions by the end of October with the hope of reviewing each university’s strategic mandates by November.

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