MINI-EP: Managing Universities to Death: Cuts and “Performance Measures”


Kenney’s UCP government recently announced a new funding model for post-secondary education: 40% of institutional funding will now depend on performance measures, such as graduate employment rates, median graduate income, provisioning skills to labour markets, and sponsored research revenues. While this is a dream for auditors and management consultants, this new bureaucracy threatens the integrity of Alberta’s universities and colleges, and risks phasing out innovative new research. University of Regina professor Dr. Marc Spooner joins Team Advantage to discuss the implications of this new funding model.

Follow Marc on Twitter:

Read Dr. Spooner’s piece in the CAUT Education Review, Performance-Based Funding in Higher Education:

Read Dr. Spooner’s opinion piece in the Calgary Herald:

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Kate Jacobson:         Hello, and welcome to the Alberta Advantage. I am your host, Kate Jacobson, and joining me over the phone from the great city of Regina, Saskatchewan, is Professor Marc Spooner. Marc recently wrote an opinion piece in the Calgary Herald titled “Why performance-based funding for universities is not the answer” and authored a piece for the Canadian Association of University Teachers assessing performance-based funding in higher education.

Marc, thank you so much for joining me here on Team Advantage.

Marc Spooner:         Well, good morning.

Kate:                         So Jason Kenney’s UCP government here in Alberta recently announced some significant changes to postsecondary funding. Specifically, the new funding model links 40% of an institution’s funding to the fulfillment of performance measures. These are things like graduate employment rate, median graduate income, sponsored research revenues, enrollment targets, and so on. So this performance-based funding model follows a similar model that was introduced in Ontario in 2019 by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government.

Marc, on the face of it, the idea of funding being linked to certain goals and expectations, you know, doesn’t sound particularly scandalous. Could you explain to our listeners that are unfamiliar with the issue what are the major differences between this new performance-based funding model and the system that existed before?

Spooner: Sure. I think the first thing to take into account when we’re looking at both the Ontario model under Ford and now the Alberta model under Jason Kenney is that these are actually just cloaked funding cuts. But they’re worse than just a straight-up funding cut: The problem is now they’re bringing in this half-baked, poorly thought-out performance indicator model that, again, not only results in a funding cut to universities, but also now starts to distort the job that they’re set out to do. What are universities supposed to – the role that they function in society that they’re supposed to be fulfilling is now getting distorted by these half-baked, poorly thought-out indicators that will inevitably lead to the harm of the ability for universities to do their job, which is – they have many jobs. One of them is to serve the marketplace. But they’re also there to provide students with the opportunity to become well-rounded citizens who can participate in a knowledge economy; who can be critical, creative consumers and thinkers, and again, like I said, participants in a modern democracy.

So in my view, look, if the government wants to make funding cuts, if that’s the mandate and that’s what the people want or will tolerate, then just make the cut. But don’t go harming the university at the same time with these – like I said, they’re very poorly thought out, and even the government itself says that they want to implement these in April and they don’t even know which indicators they’re going to use, other than listing – you know, I’ve heard up to 15 different indicators that they may be using.

Kate:                         Mm-hmm. So how is it that these performance metrics are chosen; and by focusing on things like, you know, employment rate, graduate earnings, research revenues, what kind of values is our government saying that postsecondary institutions should internalize; and what is being excluded from these types of performance metrics?

Spooner: Sure. I think the first thing that we can see is that there’s, in both cases, Ontario and Alberta, there’s a very heavy emphasis on labor market outcomes.

Kate:                         Mm-hmm.

Spooner: So that’s, you know, employment indicators, median income, both of which are poor indicators for a university. One, universities don’t control the labor market. And governments are very poor predictors of future labor market needs. So you’re really shooting yourself in the foot by having these indicators. I like to joke that, ironically, this is the “more red tape, less student choice” policy.

Kate:                         [laughs]

Spooner: Because what ends up happening is, one, you’re actually adding layers and layers of red tape. In terms of the funding model, we’re talking about – this is a costly program to administer, both on the university side – they’ll have to hire people to gather this data and ensure that they’re trying to meet their targets – and on the government side, this is a whole department of people who will be now poring over these poorly chosen indicators to see where universities stand. So there’s the red tape part.

But then you get the less student choice part. So, one, these initiatives ultimately harm students in many ways. One, they’re coupled with the raising of tuition. Then there’s – they actually lead to less choice, because as universities conform to the labor market outcomes – you know, as they conform to those indicators – they start to maybe put less emphasis on new, innovative programs that may lead to jobs and may not to lead to jobs that exist yet. So students are actually faced with less choice.

And then there’s the prospect that in the long run, people who study – sometimes the humanities get knocked, because they don’t lead to a direct job immediately. But in the long run, they actually often make as much or more money in the long term, and the people who work in those jobs usually report being happier, more fulfilled.

So you get a kind of confluence of things that actually harms students, and that’s on the student side of things.

When we look at society in general, when you start focusing on things like sponsored research as an indicator, that kind of thing limits the innovative side of universities who can do all kinds of groundbreaking work in risky, ambiguous, nonconventional places that ultimately lead to the ground-, you know, the real game changers. And that’s not even to mention, lots of research doesn’t even require funding. What they require is a well-resourced library.

Kate:                         Mm-hmm. And one of the things I think about, too, when I think about kind of, like, median income levels, is that obviously a really major predictor of income levels are things like gender and race and your parents’ income levels, which incentivizes, in some ways, universities to select for students that will have higher income levels post-graduation, which I think is really sinister.

Spooner: Sure. I completely agree. That’s why these indicators are dangerous and harmful to both students and society, because they really distort what it is a university ought to do. And governments really don’t fully understand – you know, in terms of how they bandy about accountability, they don’t seem to me – they don’t understand that universities are already one of the most accountable places in terms of the public sector. If you look, programs are reviewed every five to seven years. Professors individually are reviewed every time they teach a class by a full set of students who anonymously review them. Then they’re also reviewed by anonymous peers throughout the world who have no skin in the game – believe me, they’re not afraid to tell you if you’ve made a mistake or to critique your work. So you get this other level of scrutiny that few jobs other than professors have.

And that’s not to mention the regular reviews that happen at the departmental level. Sort of, we go through this annual information forms that we have to fill out where our work is reviewed by department chairs or their equivalent; and then at the associate dean’s level, there’s often a peer review committee; and then a dean ultimately reviews that work. So to say that we’re not accountable already is very misleading.

Not to mention the fact that universities want to attract students. They want to offer innovative programs that students want. They want to offer the best student experience that they can provide, because we’re all sort of caught up in a game of academic capitalism where we want to attract the most and best students possible.

So universities are already, you know, reacting to these markets. To add this other layer of government scrutiny and government control is kind of ironic. I don’t know if people realize this, but in the former USSR, lots of industry targets were set by the government. And so you’d have nail factories where if the targets were set in weight, they would produce their biggest nails. If the target was set in volume, they would produce their smallest nails. But all of that led to the overproduction of some items and the underproduction of other, needed, items, because of the overly enforced control from the central government, which is – I find quite ironic that the – Jason Kenney’s government would mimic.

Kate:                         Mm-hmm. So in general, who stands to benefit from performance-based funding, and who ends up losing out?

Spooner: I’d say everyone is ultimately the loser. One, corporations don’t get the workers of the future that they need to be at the forefront of their fields, and the fields that don’t even exist today but need to be filled tomorrow don’t have the skill set of – the students with the skill set that they need to fulfill those jobs, so the workplace loses out.

Governments make cloaked cuts to the universities and hide them through these performance-based indicators. They ultimately lose out, because they’re not going to have the effect that they hope.

And students lose out, because they get less choice, they pay more tuition, and there’s more red tape.

Society loses out because we’re not doing the innovative work that we could be doing, because we’re focusing on the conventional to meet the targets of these new performance indicators.

And then the other part is, you create this sort of “Hunger Games” version where I’m now in competition with my fellow colleagues and my fellow, you know, scholars at different universities within the province, so I’m going to be less likely to collaborate with them, because any gains they make are losses that I suffer. So you create a competitive model rather than a collaborative one, which is what’s really important if we’re talking about developing new knowledge – new knowledges, new approaches, new innovations, new processes, even to market.

Kate:                         So you mentioned this before, but some academic fields, like the humanities, social sciences, the arts, don’t necessarily have large industries that they feed their graduates into. The goal for graduates in a lot of these fields is to, you know, equip them with critical thinking and problem-solving skills that allow them to tackle complex social problems. We are in an age of unparalleled income inequality and looming climate crisis, and things are going to have to, in my opinion, change quite drastically if they’re going to get better. How valuable do you think these skills from the humanities and social sciences are in tackling the big problems that our society faces, and how do you think performance-based metrics are going to impact those fields?

Spooner: Well, you hit the nail on the head. Skills like problem-solving, communication, interpersonal skills, critical thinking – these are vital to our very survival, both economically and environmentally. And what these metrics as I’ve seen them, with their heavy emphasis on the current labor market and focusing on things like median income, really distort the kinds of graduates we want to be producing, the kinds of higher education learning experiences we want to offer.

And another piece that sometimes gets lost is that when you keep a university off-kilter – when they’re off balance by not knowing how much money they’re going to get in the next three years, let’s say, or in the long term – what happens is they’re going to shy away from doing risky but innovative programs offering things that maybe don’t have immediate demand, but will meet future job requirements that the government can’t even anticipate yet.

And you’ve seen this already. There was a good article, actually, in Maclean’s recently that talked about the oil and gas engineers. The focus on oil and gas engineers produced a bunch of people who are now out of work. That’s a skill set that they focused on looking at current labor market needs instead of future market needs.

Kate:                         Mm-hmm. So pivoting a little bit to the quality of academic work: I know that it tends to come kind of from an evaluation through these peer review processes, not necessarily through a popular vote or through a salary comparison. What do these performance measures mean for academics who work in postsecondary and how their research might be encouraged or, on the flipside, discouraged?

Spooner: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. What we’ve seen from looking at – there’s about 30 years of data now from across the world where these failed experiments have happened. Depending on what’s emphasized – in this case, when I look at the Alberta government’s policy announcement for this, it seems like they’re going to focus on sponsored research. What sponsored research often leaves out is nontraditional research, unconventional research, Indigenous research, community-engaged research; and depending, again, on how it’s emphasized and how it plays out, it will disadvantage certain groups.

For instance, in New Zealand, they had a big category that they wanted international work. But Indigenous people, Indigenous women, tended to do local community work, and so their work was disadvantaged, and that leads all the way out throughout one’s career. You’re not going to get the same rewards for doing that kind of work, which means you’re not going to get tenure as quickly; you’re not going to get, perhaps, different pay bonuses; and you’re not going to get – that work’s just not going to get valued. Again, depending on how the indicators are used, the distortions will manifest themselves in different ways.

Kate:                         Mm-hmm. So we’ve talked about Ontario, but how have performance-based models for postsecondary education been implemented in other jurisdictions, and how did performance-based measures impact the quality of postsecondary education in those jurisdictions?

Spooner: Sure. I think the classic example is the United Kingdom, where it’s probably the longest-running national performance-based funding program. It started in 1986, and it’s still going, where now it’s called the Research Excellence Framework, which essentially has distorted and changed their entire system, where people are only hired if they’re – there’s even a term for it – REF-able – like, R-E-F, REF-able – because the institution, in order to survive the – with, like – each different unit or department within that institution, in order to survive and succeed under that REF program – the Research Excellence Framework – they need to hit certain targets. And so, often, it’s looking at how much funding you got, where did you publish, is it a top-tier journal, how many times did you publish in those journals – which tends to concentrate people in the conventional, because it’s too risky to take a flyer on a new wacky idea, let’s say, because it might not get published, and if it doesn’t get published, your unit could then get defunded.

The other thing that happens if you look at these over time is that as the indicators or the metrics get gamed – because they inevitably get gamed. So each institution is going to try to look as best they can to fulfill the mandate of those metrics, and so they’re going to game their research to sort of – in an education example, it would be “teaching to the test.”

Kate:                         Yeah.

Spooner: Right? You’re going to teach the test and ignore most of the curriculum – only what’s measured on the test. And that’s what happens at the institutional level, so then the government responds by adding more metrics. So you get this vicious cycle of just adding more and more metrics, and the thing gets more and more bloated and costly as it gets unwieldy to administer. So in the UK example, they now have the Teaching Excellence Framework – I kid you not – because they found that they instituted the Research Excellence Framework and everyone kind of shifted their attention to only focus on research, ignoring teaching. So then they found, oh, boy, we better do something now, because the metrics are distorting the university experience to such a degree that teaching’s been overlooked, and so now they’ve come up with more metrics, and they have the Teaching Excellence Framework to try to balance this out – to balance out the distortion, which becomes unwieldy and costly.

And all of this is based on well-founded research. One of the things is called Campbell’s law – another name for it is Goodhart’s law. Basically, the more an indicator becomes a target, the more it’ll distort that which it’s set out to measure. And we’ve seen this. There’s terrible examples over time. You can look at the – you know, even the – and at the risk of getting sensational here – the body count and the Vietnam War was a direct example of the key performance indicators going awry, because McNamara instituted that they would just count bodies to see who’s winning. And you can see how that could – so it didn’t matter what bodies, and so you can see the civilian deaths and the ultimate carnage that that caused. And that’s how forceful and sort of evil these metrics can get. Depending on which ones you’re focusing on, they will become the target that people will then react to, because that’s what they’re being asked to do.

Kate:                         And speaking of research, the research that results in groundbreaking discoveries or insights does often tend to come from unexpected places – so, people testing new hypotheses; combining methods of inquiry that haven’t been tried before; thinking outside the box, so to speak. Does performance-based funding increase or decrease the likelihood of these kinds of discoveries occurring in our universities and colleges?

Spooner: By far, it decreases them. And that, again, is borne out in the research if you look at the UK, where people tend to focus on the conventional. So they want to hit the targets, so they’re going to start to essentially only look for research that can count in the performance evaluations, that count in those metrics that the government sets out. And so that’s another piece where you start to do – you start to research on what counts instead of what matters.

And that’s especially true in terms of the universities’ role to serve the communities in which they reside. You tend to ignore important community-based research that can do all kinds of harm reduction, that can raise the quality of life for everybody. There’s all kinds of interesting and important research that happens that doesn’t necessarily lead to funded research or research that gets translated into a journal article. Often, you might change how a community views a nutritional issue, or that you might raise how many people are getting vaccinated, how many people are going to a needle exchange, how is – you know, there’s all kinds of questions that don’t often lead to a journal article, but lead to important changes in practices within communities. All of those get downplayed.

The other aspect is, of course, that there’s all kinds of innovations happen from labs that aren’t well funded, that were from the library. As I said, for many of us, the library is our lab, and they lead to all kinds of ways of changing how we view the world.

And you can really see that, too, in terms of when catastrophe happens. For instance, after 9/11, all of a sudden you saw universities scrambling: Where are our people who understand the Middle East? Where are those scientists, political scientists, who understand that kind of diplomacy and understand how others view and interact with the world? These are things that you can’t foresee, so the universities that maintained those language departments, and those departments that had foreign studies, those were key to helping us better understand and better work through peaceful interaction in the world.

Kate:                         Mm-hmm. So politicians and policymakers often like to argue that universities and colleges should basically simply serve labor market needs. This hasn’t worked out particularly well in Calgary, where a lot of geoscience and petroleum engineers are now out of work thanks to a global downturn in oil prices. Do you think it’s wise for universities and colleges to link their graduate output based on the global price of a volatile commodity, not to mention the necessary phaseout of fossil fuels that will have to occur over the next decade?

Spooner: No, it’s clearly, clearly not the way to go. It’s, as you’ve just pointed out, and that Maclean’s article had pointed that out, too, that when you focus on current labor market needs, you’re going to lose out, because as I’ve said, governments are poor predictors of future labor market needs.

And there – you know, we know this. This isn’t like it’s coming out of nowhere. There was a 2017 report by the Expert Panel on Youth Employment that highlighted that the shift away from manufacturing to service and knowledge economies means that there’s going to be a greater need and emphasis on soft skills, like the ones I’ve listed before – you know, problem-solving, communication, interpersonal skills, creative thinking. These are things that universities really excel at, and now you’re kind of distorting and preventing them from doing what they’re really good at and getting them to focus on this narrowly applied labor market indicators and outcomes.

It’s a terrible plan. It’s clearly half-baked. They don’t even know which indicators they’re going to use, and they’re going to roll it out by April. Where would we ever tolerate that anywhere else in society?

Kate:                         Mm-hmm. So if any of our listeners are justifiably concerned about these changes to postsecondary education, what are some initial steps that they can take to get more informed on the issue and start to organize or take action?

Spooner: Well, I think, number one, always – governments do respond to pressure, and especially parental pressure. They seem to listen to parents much more than they do to the scholars in the field, so parents have a lot of power in order to help sway the government. And in the very least, they should slow down this arbitrary date of April 1. I’m not sure either that it seems like an appropriate date, given it’s April Fools.’ Other than that, it seems like an arbitrarily set date. They should slow down and give it more thought. There’s no point in rushing out and creating a system that’s going to wreak havoc over, you know, a world-leading province, and higher – the postsecondary education in Alberta is world leading, and why you’d want to damage University of Alberta, University of Calgary’s groundbreaking work and the important service that they provide to the community and to society is beyond me.

There are metrics that people can focus on – you know, you could – which universities are already looking at, but – things like how many faculty are not paid to do research, how much of the money is going to student services. There was one metric that the government did bandy about that I do agree with, and that’s looking at traditionally underrepresented groups – so, first-generation students, students with disabilities. That kind of thing is probably an important place that they could be looking at. But let’s not kid ourselves: institutions are already looking at that. Institutions are looking to do the best job they can to serve society, so – and like I said, they’re all in the business of trying to attract new students and different students, so they want to do that work.

I think a better approach, when you’re asking the government, is to work with each institution to develop a plan that’s unique to that institution and that it respects the communities in which that university serves and resides. There are much better ways than this stick approach, you know? There’s no carrot; it’s all stick to punishing universities who don’t live up to this distorted view that the government has set out for what they ought to be doing, and in the end, we’ll all pay. Universities will stop being world-class, as the Canadian universities are, and the universities in Alberta in particular. Students will get less choice and be able to – be less prepared to compete in the future economies that are upon us, or on the horizon. They’re being asked to shoulder more and more of the debt to service – in order to go to university. More and more of it is being put on their shoulders, which means that they can participate less and less well in the economy. They’re not able to buy houses. Everything’s delayed because of the enormous debt load that they’re graduating with.

Yeah, I would say to get informed, put pressure on your MLAs, write to the government, don’t take their sort of half-baked ideas of what accountability means or the way that they position universities to be, and to get organized. I think that there is still time to try to reverse this, and at least, you know, as a lesser of two evils, just ask for the cut, but let them leave the heart and soul of the university unscathed by these deleterious metrics that will harm everybody.

Kate:                         Another thing I’d like to add here is that I know that the unions for support staff for most major postsecondary institutions in Alberta are going into bargaining at some point this year, and that is a really good opportunity to put on the table things that would be able to protect the university and protect the people who work there, both academic and nonacademic staff. And it is going to be, as we have seen through these performance measures being introduced by this government, an incredibly tough round of bargaining, and I think that the unions that represent postsecondary support staff need to be prepared to fight incredibly hard at the bargaining table.

Spooner: I completely agree with you. I think that another great irony is it’s the faculty associations, the faculty unions, who are increasingly the defenders of the aspirational ideals of the university.

Kate:                         Mm-hmm.

Spooner: So it’s kind of an ironic twist that it’s left to faculty to fight for it in their contractual agreements with the university, and ultimately with the government, to be able to do the job, to preserve things like academic freedom, to preserve the ability to serve society in the best way that they’re set out to do. So it will take solidarity amongst the faculty associations. I think even the administrations of each of those universities, each of those institutions, in their mind know that these are bad ideas, and I’d love to see university presidents stand up to the government and call out the BS. They should call out, because they know there’s reams and reams of research that show how these have failed. In most jurisdictions where these have been rolled out, they’ve led to all kinds of unintended and unwanted consequences.

Kate:                         Mm-hmm. Marc, thank you so much for joining us here on the Alberta Advantage. If our listeners want to follow you and your work, where should they look?

Spooner: Sure. I love having followers on Twitter. I love speaking to people and interacting with people who agree or disagree, and my Twitter handle, as I say, is just @drmarcspooner, and that’s a great place to follow along with things that I’m working on and other news that I like to retweet and have people be aware of changes to postsecondary education.

Kate:                         Perfect. Once again, thank you so much for joining us.

Spooner: Thanks.

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