So, this is my last blog for the academic year. For the next couple of months, I may blog occasionally if something interesting happens (but to be honest it would have to be exceptionally interesting to get me writing); you can expect normal service to resume a week or two before Labour Day.
What to make of this past year? At a campus level, I think the main story is about governance. Partly it is a question of good governance procedures: a number of institutions are frankly behind the times when it comes to basic principles of openness (those of us who use institutional data could have told you about universities’ default setting on openness years ago, but whatevs). That’s irritating but fixable. What’s new is the claim from some quarters that universities are irredeemable until Board compositions are fixed so that Boards no longer have external appointees in the majority.
What people seem to have forgotten is that the alternative to external board majorities is direct micro-management by government. The entire point of external Board majorities is to reassure government that faculty foxes are not guarding the henhouse of public funds. They are the shield with which universities protect their autonomy vis-à-vis governments. If they disappear, government would essentially have no choice but to micromanage institutional budgets and then we might as well become Malaysia or Romania. Could external board members be chosen with greater care and given more training? Sure. Could they be replaced? Nuh-uh. But this simple political truth seems to elude many – so I expect more clashes along this faultline next year, too.
Nationally, the story of the year was pretty simple. For many years now, post-secondary education has been winning at the federal level and losing at the provincial level. This dichotomy intensified this year as a new government came to power in Ottawa which was not only open to dropping more money on the sector, but also actually willing to listen to the sector’s priorities before dropping said cash (both novel and welcome). There’s no obvious reason why this story will change next year. And while everyone for the moment is focused on the Innovation Policy Review (which I’m fairly sure will end up being industrial policy focused on IT and cleantech rather than actual innovation policy, but hope springs eternal), the real sleeper story for next fall is the Science Policy review and the possibility that some of our science-funding granting bodies may be merged. This is welcome in principle, but the resulting turf wars should be epic. Stay tuned.
On student aid, the mostly calamitous Ontario government got one thing deeply right with its revamp of student aid. This particular type of “targeted universalism” is so smart that almost everyone is going to have to copy it soon. But as New Brunswick’s misadventures in policy imitation have shown, sometimes it’s better to slow down and have a think before jumping into things. (To New Brunswick’s credit, their new Minister is re-thinking the policy and it’s expected the rougher edges of the policy will be smoothed off: good on the government for its willingness to take a second look) My guess: we’ll see at least one and maybe two more provinces adopt an Ontario-like system by next year – and that’s very good news.
In closing, I want to thank everyone for continuing to read this blog (even those of you who hate-read it) and especially those who write in to challenge me on what I’ve written. I know I get things wrong all the time; I’m always grateful when people take the time to explain the error of my ways. If you’re in Toronto this summer: let me buy you a beer. And if not: just drop me a line anyway to let me know what you think of the blog and what I should be doing more/less of. Feedback always welcome.
Have a great summer and see you all in late August.