University performance-based funding is bound to fail

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UniversityAffairs.ca – Opinion
Oct 22 2019.   By Marc Spooner

Tying a significant portion of funding to any specific set of metrics places undue pressure on universities, and impinges on their traditional mission and collegial autonomy.

Performance-based funding for universities – as recently proposed by Alberta’s blue-ribbon panel report and Ontario’s newly restructured strategic mandate agreements – may at first glance appear to be a good idea. It is not, for a variety of reasons.

In both cases, there is a strong call for a significant proportion of performance to be based on narrow labour-market outcomes, commercialization and economic imperatives. For example, the blue-ribbon report calls for “ensuring the required skills for the current and future labour market, expanding research and technology commercialization … [and] achieving broader societal and economic goals.” This announcement comes on the heels of the Ontario government’s surprising May 2019 announcement that, by 2024-25, 60 percent of Ontario universities’ operating funds would be determined by their performance on 10 metrics. This is a drastic departure from the current 1.4 percent of funding based on performance and is a marked divergence from Canadian university funding models in general.

To be certain, the collection of system-wide data is not a bad idea on its own in order for governments and institutions to improve on goals, offerings and the delivery of a robust postsecondary education. However, when it becomes a high-stakes process, it runs the real danger of skewing university programs and perverting the very objectives it sets out to measure through over-emphasis and, frankly, “gaming” of one sort or another. Perhaps an obvious point, but metric selection is not a neutral act, and tying a significant proportion of funding to any specific set of metrics will invariably place undue pressure on universities to favour and conform to that specific set of metrics, thus impinging on their traditional mission and collegial autonomy.

This point is made more clearly by examining a few of Ontario’s proposed metrics. Take “graduate earnings,” for instance: by focusing on earnings, universities are rewarded for favouring high-paying fields, rather than for developing graduates who are critical, creative and engaged citizens capable of meaningful work (and lives) in a wide variety of areas. It gets right at the heart of the age-old question: What is the purpose of a university experience?

Let’s examine “skills and competencies” next: these in all likelihood will be measured through tests similar to the standardized tests of numeracy, literacy and critical thinking recently piloted by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario  as part of their Essential Adult Skills Initiative. If so, one need look no further than the mass high-stakes testing craze that has all but strangled sound pedagogy in so many public education districts within the United States and beyond for clues to what could go wrong by expanding standardized testing out of K-12 and into the postsecondary sector.

Moreover, the measures themselves are grossly inadequate. A few 45-to-90-minute, one-shot standardized tests promoted and administered by HEQCO could never capture nor compare to any degree program’s existing course and program requirements – each determined and assessed by expert professionals and subject matter specialists. A standard four-year undergraduate experience likely includes 20 to 40 expert “second opinions” diagnosed by a wide variety of professors with a diversity of knowledge, teaching styles and assessment strategies. Privileging one set of computerized standardized tests as a proxy by which to judge a program’s worth is not only misleading, it further erodes academic professionalism and the freedom to teach and assess students as deemed appropriate.

Continuing with this examination, a cursory review of the “research capacity” and “innovation” metrics reveals the inherent bias in equating research capacity and innovation with the simple calculus of total funds received (both from industry and the tri-council). In doing so, the chosen indicators necessarily privilege the types of research that fit into established funding envelope goals and traditional output formats, while devaluing non-traditional scholarship – for example, community-engaged, participatory and Indigenous research approaches. Overlooked altogether is potentially ground-breaking scholarship that requires little or no funding at all (other than perhaps a well-resourced library), or whose funding may be sourced from community-based, non-governmental or even other governmental agencies.

However they are operationalized, performance-based funding models lead to a narrowing of scholarship, of what is possible, both in teaching and research, and inevitably harm society by robbing it of opportunities for risky, yet innovative breakthroughs, as well as valuable areas of research and training that cannot easily be measured by a simple financial calculus. In short, we start to focus on what counts and what is rewarded over what matters, such as a well-rounded citizenry and the diverse array of consequential scholarship, action and critical public engagement our world so desperately needs.

Marc Spooner is a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Regina.

University performance-based funding is bound to fail

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