Though it didn’t get a whole lot of ink/pixels, the Council of Ontario Universities launched a new lobbying campaign last week. It’s called Partnering for a Better Future for Ontario and its focal point is a document of the same name – you can read the short version of the report here (yes, I know, only in academia could the short version of a lobbying report be 44 pages long). In fact, it’s accompanied by a wide variety of supporting documents which are available on the campaign website.
COU took an interesting result to get to this campaign. The idea was to try to focus not so much on universities, but on the province. Universities are funded by provincial taxpayers to make the province a better place, so why not start the campaign by finding out what Ontarians thought would make the province a better place rather than start – as universities usually do – by saying “we need more money!”. So COU and its members spent much of the last year engaging Ontarians on exactly that question, through townhalls, roundtables, etc., with a little polling added on just to see if their consultation results were in tune with attitudes among the general population (spoiler: they were).
So, I showed it to a few people in the sector, and most seemed to like it, though more often than not they would end the conversation with some variation of “But where’s the ask? It doesn’t seem to ask for anything. We really need more money.”
This seems to be one of those things that makes complete sense to anyone outside the higher ed bubble but no sense to anyone who is in it, but hear me out: the entire point of this campaign is not to ask for anything. Not a sausage. And that is an EXCELLENT idea. Here’s why:
Odds are that the Liberals are going to be tossed out of power in the next provincial election. Fourteen years in power is a long time, after all. So the safe bet is that there’s a new government coming to power next spring. No one from the Rae government remains on the NDP benches, and precious few from the Harris/Eves era among the Tories. So whichever of the opposition parties wins the election (and you have to figure the odds are with the Tories here, especially after having last month published what amounts to their most centrist manifesto since Bill Davis was Premier), come next summer most of the people in power are going to be total, utter rookies.
And – surprise for everyone who thinks the sun revolves around higher ed – total rookies do not care about funding formulae. They do not care about support for doctoral students. They do not care about fundamental research. They are like babies. They can barely walk/talk/defecate/figure out where the meals are. The details Do. Not. Matter.
Now is literally worst time to be coming to an opposition party with almost no governing experience with a detailed, policy-heavy ask. Twelve-to-eighteen months after an election, as a new government is crafting its second budget and looking more seriously at getting to grips with the nitty-gritty of governing and realising its grasp on details is kind of shaky? That’s the time to make a detailed ask.
But first things first: a brand new government has to see you as a friend. What matters to a new government is knowing who can help them. Who is on their side, who can be a part of a solution. If they think you can help them, they will listen to you. The COU document, I would argue, is almost perfectly crafted to achieve the aim of convincing a new government that universities can contribute positively to any new government’s agenda. You want good jobs? We do good jobs. You want strong communities? We help build strong communities. Doesn’t matter what the actual policies are – universities can find be part of the solution.
In short, it’s a university agenda that isn’t all about universities. That doesn’t work in all circumstances, but in a “change” election where the governing party has been in power a long time, it’s exactly right. A tip of the hat to COU on this one: it is a canny piece of strategy from a sector that doesn’t always do canny very well.