WLU considers assets

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While students were cramming for exams, university officials were working to get out a paper on a strategic plan to meet the province’s year-end deadline.

Wilfrid Laurier University submitted its Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) to the province on Dec. 20, the first step in a series of negotiations that universities and colleges will be undertaking as part of a new approach to post-secondary education in Ontario: differentiation.

The approach aims to have each institution differentiate itself and direct its growth based on its unique strengths in order to move away from duplication.

“The Strategic Mandate Agreement approach allows each institution to articulate what it feels its strengths are and where it wishes to grow and the government can then take that on board and negotiate with each institution as to what the future will bring,” explained Max Blouw, president and vice-chancellor of Laurier.

The agreements will help to facilitate a more predictable relationship between the province and its post-secondary institutions, Blouw believes.

In a statement, minister of training, colleges and universities Brad Duguid said, “A differentiated system builds on the strengths of our institutions, and supports greater quality, competitiveness, accountability and sustainability in the system.”

One of the goals highlighted in province’s Differentiation Policy Framework for Postsecondary Education, released last November, is to maintain the financial sustainability of post-secondary education.

The document states, “Substantial new investment by the government at levels comparable to the previous decade is not feasible … With institutions’ costs outpacing growth in revenues from operating grants and tuition, existing cost structures are under pressure.”

While Blouw was unable to discuss the specifics of the draft SMA—it is part of an ongoing negotiation process—he shared that Laurier is proposing a Milton campus, “fairly robust growth” at the Brantford campus and limited growth at the Waterloo campus.

Over the next few months, special advisors from the ministry Paul Genest and Sue Herbert will work with each college and university—including Laurier—to negotiate finalized SMAs.

At this stage, it’s hard to predict in what ways the new structure will affect individual institutions.

“I think there’s always the chance that what the government is looking to do is to apply metrics, for example, that aren’t going to fit some institutions as well as they fit others,” said Deborah MacLatchy, VP: academic and provost at Laurier, who was involved in the creation of the draft SMA.

“So the challenge right now is for some of the stuff, it’s a bit of a black hole and you’re acting on faith as much as anything.”

While the changes are welcomed by many, they come from a top-down strategy from the province, serving as a reminder that the independent institutions remain a product of provincial policy.
MacLatchy continued, “So we’re autonomous, but when you’re tied to funding, you still have to make decisions within the context you’re operating.”

“I think there’s an ideal and I think there’s the real.”

Having begun identifying the university’s administrative and academic priorities through its Integrated Planning and Resource Management initiative within the last couple years, MacLatchy believes that Laurier’s approach links well with the province’s plan.

However, in highlighting the particular assets of the university, it is inevitable that some programs will be left off the list of key priorities.

“I think there is always a challenge, because there is always going to be people that are going to be on the list and ones that aren’t,” MacLatchy acknowledged.

“I hope that people will interpret differentiation as being an articulation of how you have real positive assets; it doesn’t mean that the other things you do are either more or less worth or need to feel neglected in some fashion,” added Blouw.

Provincial lobby group the Ontario Undergraduate Students’ Association (OUSA) sees the transformative policy as one that has the potential to be beneficial.

“We think it’s a progressive-looking policy. It looks like it’s something that will help move post-secondary education forward,” said Stephen Franchetto, OUSA’s VP: finance.

Duplication of programs across schools, he says, is “resource-inefficient,” and forces institutions shift attention away from their strongest programs.

“We’re waiting for them to give an indication of where they’re going and then we’ll kind of pick a path from there,” he said.

Discussions on the SMAs with ministry special advisors are set to begin this month and be completed by the end of March.

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