Columns

A map to prosperity

Ann Dowsett Johnston April 17 2000
Columns

A map to prosperity

Ann Dowsett Johnston April 17 2000

A map to prosperity

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Last month, high-tech billionaire Michael Saylor made a heck of a donation to public education. The 35-year-old CEO of Virginia-based MicroStrategy Inc. plunked down $ 150 million for the establishment of an online university designed to offer “an Ivy League quality” education to anyone in the world, free of charge. His vision: professors will tape their lectures, also free of charge, for the sheer virtue of international exposure. The way Saylor sees it, its a small world after all—and with high-tech as a helpmate, it might as well be a smart one, too.

Generous idea. But I have a few questions. For starters, who will vet that lecture lineup? As one writer joked, finding good information on the Internet is like searching for the perfect husband in the Alaska Gold Rush: the odds are good, but the goods are odd. And beyond giving voice to a genius or two, what part of an Ivy League education does Saylor think he can replicate? Certainly not small classes, unless you can persuade yourself that a laptop on your kitchen table represents an intimate tutorial. Certainly not access to brilliant faculty, unless you call eyeball-to-screen contact a meaningful interchange.

Still, Saylor’s idea is significant, if only for its determination to broaden access to higher learning. Such is the American way: in recent years, the United States has made enormous reinvestment in higher education. Between the 1995-1996 and 1999-2000 academic years, state allocations increased by 28 per cent. In California, they shot up 50 per cent. And this side of the border? Spending on higher education slipped six per cent across Canada. A curious tack, given that most political leaders are well versed in the rhetoric of the knowledge economy, where brains are the primary resource on which regions compete.

Now, most provinces have weighed in with their new budget commitments, and it’s interesting to see who’s putting their money where their mouth is. What we have here is a series of petri-dish experiments in public policy, experiments that will have huge ramifications for higher education in each province, and for future students. It’s no secret that Canada is expecting a 25-per-cent growth in university demand over the next decade. And as those echo-boom students bang on their doors, universities must have cash in their pockets to hire 32,000 new faculty over the same period. Cash for faculty, and for upgrading their facilities: this week, a new report will announce that the total tab for deferred

maintenance at Canadian universities now sits at $3.6 billion.

So, which provinces deserve top marks for forward thinking? Alberta, certainly, for boosting operating and research dollars, and for the establishment of the $500-million Alberta Heritage Foundation for Science and Engineering Research. British Columbia as well, for putting significant money on the table, clearly recognizing that the only way to evolve from its resource-based tradition is through investment in knowledge creation. Ditto Saskatchewan. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland made admirable increases in operating funds, but New Brunswick dropped the ball. This week, Nova Scotia will likely follow suit, or worse.

Manitoba has yet to weigh in.

Last month, Quebec came through with flying colours, after years of serious cuts. Still, university presidents are reserving their applause. The province has yet to design its “performance contracts,” which will determine how a large portion of the funding will be divvied up.

In other words, the devil is in the details, and nowhere is that more true than in Ontario. While there are high hopes for new funding in the May budget, universities are reeling from the recent announcement of a minuscule increase in operating grants. But the real insult lies in Ontario’s bizarre performance-based funding formula. Half the new money is tied to three indicators: the graduation rate of students, plus their success in securing employment both six months and two years after graduation. Those ranked in the top third of each category will receive up to double the funding of those in the middle third; those in the bottom will receive nothing.

Unlike the formula used in Alberta, which rewards institutions for individual improvement, Ontario’s system pits each university against the next. Statistically, the difference between employment rates is insignificant: on average, 96.7 per cent of students secure employment two years after graduation. Using the Alberta employment indicator, all 17 Ontario universities would fall in the highest performance threshold, be rewarded accordingly—and be better prepared for their share of echo-boom students, the largest in Canada.

As it stands, several Ontario universities will be punished— and that punishment will be borne by the next generation. Michael Saylor will gain the odd customer, and Ontario will lose in the long run. Let’s face it: this is nothing but folly, parading in public as accountability.