There is a revolution going on in Ontario’s higher education system, but remarkably, very few people have noticed it yet. Henceforth, Ontario will have not just a college system and a university system, but also a third category of institutions which does not have a name but which, for the moment are called Indigenous Institutes but which may well soon be called Indigenous Universities.
Trust me, this is big.
There have been “indigenous institutes” for nearly 35 years ago in Ontario (longer in western Canada, where Alberta’s Blue Quills College goes back to the early 1970s). Invariably, these organizations started out as community-delivery platforms: that is, their primary business was not to offer their own programming, but to act as a broker for community delivery of programs delivered by mainstream colleges and universities.
The number of institutes fluctuates a bit; not all of them are organizationally stable and funding has traditionally been a problem. The most developed of them is Six Nations Polytechnic in Grand River, which effectively operates first-year indigenous transition programs for several universities. Then there is First Nations Technical Institute in Tyendinaga (just east of Belleville) which has its own flight school, Anishnabek Educational Institute in North Bay, Seven Generations Education Institute in Fort Frances and a handful of others. The Aboriginal Institutes’ Consortium website says these institutes serve a combined 4,000 learners every year, but the Government of Ontario says it is much lower – more like 1,000. There’s never been an attempt to try to turn those numbers into full-time equivalents; from my own experience with these institutions (which granted now dates back almost a decade), my guess would be that it’s probably around 2000 FTEs if you accept the AIC’s numbers and maybe 500 if you accept the Government’s. For the most part, they serve very non-traditional learners, ones who probably would not do well in mainstream institutions. In that sense, they serve a vital access mission.
The first step on the transformation of these institutes came in the 2017 Ontario budget, when the government announced it was going to provide these institutes with $56 million over three years. The even more consequential announcement came in late November when the government announced legislation that would effectively create an entirely new category of institution in the province. These institutions, with their new public funding, are going to be able to offer certificates, diplomas and degrees. They are going to be accountable to an new and rather loosely-defined (for the moment) quality assurance agency, rather than the existing Post-Secondary Education Quality Assurance Board (PEQAB). This new agency – not PEQAB – will be the arbiter of the use of the term “university”. This is, in effect, an entirely new and separate system of higher education being created.
In many ways, this is an excellent idea. Back in 2007, when I was doing the review of the province’s Aboriginal Education and Training Scheme, one of the key recommendations was to give Aboriginal Institutes a pathway to formal public PSE status. It’s not just that these institutions do excellent work and are deserving of public financial support, in terms of de-colonization efforts, it’s important for Indigenous peoples to have their own institutions which can support their own culture.
That said, a policy of allowing fragile-capacity micro-institutions the use of the word university, regulated only by a yet-to-be-constituted Board of unknown composition and standards, is not without risk. If something were to go wrong at one of these institutions, all Ontario universities will share some reputational risk.
There were two ways this risk could have been mitigated. The first would have been simply to fund a single public Indigenous institution responsible for delivery across the entire province, somewhat on the model of the First Nations University in Saskatchewan. However, this was politically a non-starter partly because of challenges about where to locate it in the province where there are many different nations (including the Anishnaabeg communities in the north and Haudenosaunee communities in the south) but perhaps more importantly the Indigenous communities don’t necessarily view the purpose of these institutes entirely in terms of education and training. To them, rationalist schemes about delivering training efficiently are rather beside the point because they see the institutes as tools for nation building, not just educational delivery platforms. And since the Indigenous peoples of Ontario are not a single nation, there is no reason from their point of view to think of this project in terms of a single institution.
The second mitigation strategy would have been to provide Aboriginal institutes with greater independent status, but to avoid allowing use of the term “university”. This was the path taken in New Zealand when their Maori institutions (known as “Wānangas”) were given formal status as a “third pillar” of the higher education system over twenty years ago. This approach has had the benefit of containing some of the potential reputational risk for mainstream institutions while still allowing Indigenous institutes their independence. The rejoinder, of course, is that to the extent that the point of these institutions is to get graduates into jobs, it’s much easier to accomplish if the credential offered is from something called a “university” than something with an unfamiliar name.
On the whole, I’m inclined to look on this as a promising experiment, one which will serve a very hard-to-reach group of students and help to promote reconciliation by supporting autonomous indigenous institutions and governance. But it’s not a risk-free strategy by any means. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made (as indeed many were during the establishment of mainstream universities) which means there is potential for one or more of these institutions to be a political flashpoint in the years ahead. They key is to remember first that these institutions are about reconciliation as much as training, and second –more difficult I think – that the vast majority of indigenous students in the province are going to remain clients in the mainstream system. You can strongly anticipate that their voices are now going to be drowned out by these new system players with their newfound official status. But their needs matter too, and we mustn’t forget them.