The Honourable Bob Rae, Ontario: A Leader in Learning, February 2005

In May 2004, in the first budget of the new Liberal provincial government, the government announced that “former premier Bob Rae (has) agreed to conduct a comprehensive review of post-secondary education in Ontario. His mandate will be to recommend how we can best provide Ontarians with a high-quality, accountable, affordable system of post-secondary education-one that gives Ontarians the opportunity to achieve their full potential, regardless of income.” Nine months later, Bob Rae’s Ontario: A Leader in Learning represents the culmination of an effort that has engaged the post-secondary education community and raised the profile of higher education in Ontario to a level that has not been seen for many, many decades.

The report is impressive, structured around three overarching goals, seven key strategies, and twenty-eight recommendations involving $2.1 billion in new investment over the next three years, and the establishment of a legislative framework that “sets out the parameters of the student assistance program, the frameworks for revenue – including tuition – and accountability, and mandated public reporting of performance and results.” Time and space constraints preclude a full examination of the many recommendations but there are key messages that should be of interest to CAUBO members across the country.

First, the importance of higher education is expressed in a new way. Rae urges the active encouragement of greater participation in PSE with added emphasis on francophone, aboriginal, disabled students, and students who are the first in their family to pursue PSE. “Because the new economy demands it, the number of people attending will need to rise substantially in the years ahead.”  (emphasis added) The shift from simply meeting projected demand to inducing even greater demand is a key element that reinforces the call for greater investment; an idea that transcends provincial boundaries.

Second, the report focuses on three goals – Great Education (quality), Opportunities for More People (accessibility and affordability) and A Secure Future for Higher Education (sustainable funding framework and accountability). The link between each of these goals is a recommended legislative framework that, in effect, enshrines a commitment to “access for all qualified students…, excellence and demonstrable quality in teaching and research, institutional autonomy within a public system, and the mutual responsibility of government, institutions and students.”  This is a bold step and, not surprisingly, has already generated concern about opening the door to more government intervention. On the surface it has the trappings of a Faustian bargain – a multi-year funding commitment to meet legislative requirements in exchange for what appears to be more accountability requirements including negotiating multi-year plans with government and the scrutiny of a standing committee of the Legislature.   Yet, perhaps it should be seen as an attempt to replace the ambiguity of government policy with a more specific set of policy goals that would actually benefit the long term health of PSE. By not having well articulated goals, measures and public reporting, one might argue, governments of all stripes have been able to ‘slip and slide’ their way around funding requirements.  Without goals and objectives how can one be held accountable? There are risks in the legislated approach but institutions might be well-served to seize the opportunity and become active partners in the endeavour.  There is much to be learned from initiatives in other provinces – Alberta comes to mind – and more attention should be paid to a critical comparative analysis across the country of this evolving approach.

Third, the report calls on the federal government to help address the post-secondary challenge. Federal government investments over the past several years are acknowledged but Rae also points out where federal funding has languished, and focuses on the importance of increased federal contributions to sustain the post-secondary enterprise. As pressure mounts in parts of the country to re-think equalization formulas, and as the ‘fiscal imbalance’ argument moves forward in Ontario, the post-secondary sector will increasingly be highlighted.  Concern about the future of existing Federal programs (e.g. CFI, CRC’s, Canada Scholarship Millennium Foundation) will only add to the chorus for more long-term federal investment; the implications for all provinces are significant.

Fourth, the report tackles two issues that are often the ‘elephants on the table’ that no one wants to speak about: concern that new money will fuel higher salaries rather than quality improvements; and the invidious effects of inflation. In the case of the first issue, Rae is very clear,  “There needs to a candid discussion – and consequent decisions – to ensure that new money does not simply translate into much higher, across-the-board salary increases.” In the case of the second issue, he is explicit that the “reality of price inflation” must be acknowledged. To ignore it would be “recipe for yet another review in the not-too-distant future.”

Finally, the report reflects a very simple, straightforward approach to planning and analysis that can be summarized as ‘what are you trying to do?’ (goals) ‘what do you need to get there?’ (strategies, tools, resources) and ‘how would you know that you are making progress?’ (indicators, public reporting, accountability). Many institutions in their own planning, and management, would benefit from adopting a simplified approach.

The report also has its shortcomings. Despite many references to the importance of improved accountability and the importance of ensuring new public monies result in quality improvement, there is no reference to the role of governing boards.   Recommended actions are accompanied by a description of ‘How It Will Work’ that, in some cases, smacks of ‘over engineering’ and in other cases leaves the reader looking for more details (and the associated devil).   Taken as a whole, however, the report is a powerful package of recommended initiatives[1]that has the potential to transform higher education in Ontario.  Will government accept the recommendations?  Pressure has never been greater. Ontario’s colleges and universities are engaged in a very public lobbying effort with the Rae Report (and the $2.1 billion) as the focal point. The Ontario Budget – slated for an April delivery – will tell the tale. Stay tuned.

[1] There are many other recommended actions that range from establishing a new Council on Higher Education to reaffirming the Colleges mandate, and from a new regulatory framework for tuition to a series of new student assistance initiatives.  For more information see Postsecondary Education Review at the  Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities website 

[1] There are many other recommended actions that range from establishing a new Council on Higher Education to reaffirming the Colleges mandate, and from a new regulatory framework for tuition to a series of new student assistance initiatives.  For more information see Postsecondary Education Review at the  Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities website