Higher Education Strategy Associates

Funding Formulas 101

So I’ve been asked to act as a member of the “reference group” (that is, a group of individuals from whom advice may be sought, but which is not technically an advisory group – yeah, I know, it’s a bit odd) for the government of Ontario’s funding formula review.  Since everyone’s about open government these days, I thought I’d make public some of my views on the subject of funding formulae so you can get a sense of what I’m contributing to the discussion behind the scenes.

So, first off: does Ontario actually need a change to its funding formula?  For purely housekeeping reasons, yes.  It’s been about 40 years since the formula was last re-written, and it looks increasingly jerry-rigged (I can’t find a completely up-to-date version of the Ontario formula online, but here’s an ungated 2009 version that, minus some jiggery-pokery around education students, is still pretty much what’s in the system today).

But we need to be clear about what a funding formula amendment can achieve.  The government seems to be under the impression that a new funding system can help institutions better contain costs (it can’t), or support differentiation (it can, but only if you stretch the term “formula” to include a lot of stuff that isn’t particularly algebraic).  Other stakeholders seem to think that a funding formula change might improve financing for institutions.  This it can do in theory, but not – in Ontario at least – in practice.

At a very broad level, funding formulas come in two types: determinative and allocative.  In a determinative formula, the government plugs all the relevant numbers into a formula, and out the other end comes a number that tells the government how much to spend.  These are pretty rare: Australia has a system like this, as does the United Arab Emirates.  Governments tend to dislike these formulas because they hand control of overall spending to bodies outside of government: as long as universities keep admitting people, governments have to keep spending (in the UAE’s case, it also led to Treasury trying to meddle in the admissions process as a way to keep expenditures under control). Instead, most formulas are allocative: government determines how much it wants to spend, and then uses a formula to divide that amount between all the institutions.  That’s very definitely how Ontario’s formula works right now, and I think it is safe to say the current review isn’t going to change that.

Tinkering with an allocative formula will certainly make some universities better off, but by definition it can’t make them all better off.  Indeed, winners and losers tend to be more or less equally balanced.  You can tweak the formula to help institutions that are more research-focused, but small institutions will pay; you can put more money to fund Fine Arts programs, but other fields of study will have to lose money to balance it out.

Another thing about funding formulas: the amount of difference they make to institutional behaviour is basically proportional to the percentage of the total bill that government foots.  In Quebec, where institutions are dependent on government for 80% of their money, changes to funding formulas matter a heck of a lot more than they do in Ontario, where the government share of operating expenditures is closer to 40%.

All of which is to say: let’s not kid ourselves that this funding formula review is going to change very much.  This is a risk-averse government, which dislikes seeing too many losers.  For some reason, they have initiated a process that has the potential to create a lot of losers.  My best guess is there will be a lot of interesting ideas thrown around, which will cause a lot of angst; in the end we’ll have a model that may have a very different set of indicators and coefficients, but will leave the actual distribution of money across institutions more or less unchanged.  Think of it as a policy process as written by Giueseppi de Lampedusa: everything will change, so that everything may stay the same

Regardless, I’m looking forward to the process, and to writing more about funding formulas.  More later.

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