Why performance-based funding for universities is not the answer

Posted on January 23, 2020 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors:

CalgaryHerald.com – Opinion
Oct. 24, 2019.   Azin Ghaffari / Postmedia Calgary

Both Alberta and Ontario are implementing performance-based funding formulas for universities and, in both cases, a significant proportion of funding is to be tied to performance on a narrow set of indicators linked to labour-market outcomes. What’s the problem with that, you may be asking? Let’s examine three possible motivations: serving labour market needs, optimizing innovation and enhancing accountability.

Serving labour market needs

Universities do not control the labour market and governments are poor at predicting future labour market needs. The 2017 report from the Expert Panel on Youth Employment highlights “the shift away from manufacturing to service and knowledge economies means there is a greater emphasis on ‘soft’ skills like problem-solving, communication, interpersonal skills and critical thinking.” The report concludes, perhaps obviously, that “the world of work is transforming rapidly” and that the key to navigating such a future is to remain flexible and fluid; it goes on to state, “Some of the next job opportunities may not even exist today …”

It is precisely in the area of flexible thinking and soft-skills where universities excel. However, in order to remain consistent in their quality offerings, universities require predictable funding. Keeping universities in a perpetual state of uncertainty will only limit, not enhance, their ability to offer innovative programs that build on their traditional strengths.

Moreover, using just a couple of Alberta’s and Ontario’s proposed metrics puts a spotlight on their folly. For example, what better way to sabotage a university education than by expanding standardized testing out of K-12 and into post-secondary as they are proposing with the “Skills and competencies related metric”? Such a scheme is the exact wrong direction for developing and enhancing soft skills. Another metric proposed, “Median graduate earnings,” would reward universities for favouring high-paying fields (as measured in the short-term), rather than for developing graduates who are critical, creative and engaged citizens capable of meaningful work and lives in a wide variety of areas needed by society.

Optimizing innovation

However they are implemented, performance-based funding models actually lead to a narrowing of scholarship, of what is possible, both in teaching and research. Measures like “Sponsored research revenue” encourage researchers to focus on what counts and what is rewarded over what matters as they play it safe in the conventional in their hunt to hit the targets, rather than the ground-breaking new ideas and uncertain but innovative paths that become the potential monumental game-changers.

Finally, if it is about enhancing accountability

Truth is, unlike virtually any other professional workplace, the work of university faculty is under constant evaluation. It begins with anonymous student evaluations for every course; next, it’s a steady stream of arm’s-length, anonymous peers from around the world who are tasked with reviewing and critiquing our scholarship; then, our performance is regularly evaluated on teaching, research and service. This review is often carried out at three levels of scrutiny: departmental (or equivalent), a committee of peers and, finally, by an administrative dean; for promotion and tenure decisions, add a few more layers of oversight. Programs are also internally and externally reviewed every six or so years. On top of that, in many fields, there are professional accreditation bodies with rigorous standards (for example, in engineering, medicine, psychology, social work, teaching and so on); not to mention the regular financial and human resource management audits.

Let’s face it, whenever governments start floating performance-based funding schemes, you can be certain they will be quickly followed up with budgetary cuts, as is recently the case in both Alberta and Ontario. Sadly, it gets to be so predictable. The fact is these are the tired, costly ideas adopted by unoriginal and cynical governments copying other governments and jurisdictions where the ideas have already failed. Let’s not allow ourselves to be measured against such misleading and deleterious metrics in a classic academic version of The Hunger Games. The public deserves and needs to demand better.

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

Opinion: Why performance-based funding for universities is not the answer

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