Path of post-secondary education is still unraveling

At the corner of King Street and Central Street in Waterloo is MacGregor Public School. Built in the early 19th century on what used to be a farm, the public school now hosts 400 to 600 students each year, ranging from pre-school to grade eight. Their mission statement represents the core value of what the school represents — a committed community that aims to foster an academic, artistic and athletic environment.

The typical path for a student from MacGregor Public School could lead a child into any of the high schools in the Kitchener-Waterloo Region. Whether Waterloo Collegiate Institute, Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate & vocational school or Bluevale Collegiate Institute, every year hundreds of students are entering into high school in the surrounding area.

Under the most current requirements, for a student to obtain their Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD), they must complete 30 credits, 40 hours of community involvement, pass the Ontario Literary Test — written in grade 10 — and then figure out what path they want to take following high school.

Many people reading this have probably haven’t considered in years what it was like to go through high school, let alone the courses they took. But looking at data provided by the Government of Ontario about high school course enrollment in 2012–2013, the memory of some readings may begin to jog a bit.

Besides diploma requirements such as English, the data shows a large amount of grade 11 and 12 students gravitate towards Mathematics and Science. The numbers for different subjects don’t dwarf one anther however — 40,637 students took a grade 12 religious education classes, while 17,777 took business leadership. Looking at the top 100 enrolled courses, the data shows students are engaging with diverse subjects all across the province. Some are clearly leaning towards the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, often represented as the acronym STEM, while other are engaging with social sciences, humanities, business, which is referred to as Non-STEM courses.

With such a large variance of students engaging with STEM and Non-STEM courses, what is the future of programs within the disciplines represented in those far-reaching acronyms?

The answer is not a simple one to answer. While the raw data shows correlations of students engaging with various disciplines across the province, the Government of Ontario has a vision for what the future of post-secondary education would look like on it’s own. This vision has manifested its self into what is formally called the Ontario’s Differentiation Policy Framework for Post-secondary Education.

Released in 2012, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities proposed an idea to the various post-secondary institutions within the province that tried to comprehend a possible path looking into the future of higher education within the province. Built on the principle of “transparency and accountability between the government, institutions, and the public,” the framework sought to ask educational institutions where they felt their strengths laid, in order to see how it fit within it’s own vision of higher education and how the province could help support the organizations it has in place in delivering foundational, academic training to students.

In order for the Government of Ontario to understand the needs for each university in the province, all of them were required to compile a Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA), in which a particular university would go over the unique mandates, strengths and aspirations. This follows in line with a question posed by Deborah Newman, the Deputy Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.

In July 2010, Newman asked “whether a more strongly differentiated set of universities would help to improve the overall performance and sustainability of the system, and help Ontario compete internationally [and] how to operationalize a differentiation policy, should the government be interested in pursuing this as a strategic objective.”

In fact several universities outlined in their SMA’s that they indeed aligned themselves with the government’s differentiate directive. The University of Waterloo (UW) for instance believed that the framework for specialization under the proposed policy aligns with the universities 5-year goal of being “recognized as one of the top innovation universities in the world.”

In favour of differentiation is Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU). In their SMA, they emphasized that as a “comprehensive university that excels in liberal arts and science education,” the differentiation policy framework would help support the universities “entrepreneurship, economic growth, and innovation.”

A final example of an institution that favours differentiation is the University of Toronto. Echoing WLU, the University of Toronto believes the framework will “highlight institutions collaborative work with employers, community partners and regions, or at a global level…serving the needs of the economy and labour market.”

Between UW, WLU and the University of Toronto, each outlined in their respective SMA’s how they see the relationship between the ministry of education and the educational institution operating. The idea is that through compiling each educational institutions SMA the ministry can then understand what the financial and academic needs are of each specific university.

But with a proposed policy such as this there are drawbacks and in this case they can be quite severe. The Government is also aware of this — within it’s its proposal of the differentiation policy framework it outlines two concerns it had moving forward with the policy. It outlined that greater differentiation should not undermine current successes in the post-secondary sector, meaning that differentiation should not “undermine the capacity of the system to accommodate expected enrollment demand. The second concern was in regards to “squashing institutional aspirations”.

Taking a step back from how the government envisioned differentiation, the fact of the matter is that this policy will affect the academic careers of a lot of students. In 2012–2013, the province of Ontario had 419,856 students enrolled in universities. With the universities mentioned in this article alone, UW had 32,187 students enrolled; WLU 16,203 and the University of Toronto had 73,215 students enrolled in 2012–2013.

Considering almost half a million students then were enrolled in 2012–2013 — which has probably only increased over the years — the implementation of the differentiation framework would have a huge impact. The differentiation policy strive to have universities focus their studies more specifically, which equates to students having to decide what institutions fit their professional needs more directly. For example, if a high school student were considering UW or WLU for a general arts degree, they would have to consider whether they would want to be apart of an institution that is teaching-intensive or research-intensive.

The future of STEM and Non-STEM disciplines is still yet to be determined. The answer is not in the sand as the line is still being drawn. Under the differentiation policy framework, different disciplines aren’t being pitted against each other — it’s more a competition of how each university understands and foresees the incorporation of STEM and non-STEM courses. The University of Toronto outlined that one of it’s four leading entrepreneurship opportunities facilities that it outlined in its SMA was The Impact Centre, which falls under the faculty of arts and science. UW identified that it will continue to develop its self-identified “high-impact, highly relevant research” in fields such as mathematics, computer science, business, health and well-being, psychology, governance and accounting and finance.

Carleton University, in outlining it’s areas of program strength, identified four programs out of a list of ten within the social sciences, with four in science and one in psychology and one in business.

Within the differentiation policy framework, the government made a list about what students and the province can expect five to ten years after the beginning of the move to more university differentiation. Beside the economic reasons, one of the hopes for high school students entering post-secondary education is that they find it easier to navigate a more coherent and coordinated post-secondary system. This emphasized the two important parts of the differentiation framework — which Ontario universities need to work with the government to understand economic requirements and that students will be engaging with a more complex system when entering post-secondary education. Observing each universities SMA can help better understand how some universities are trying to define themselves as educational institutions in the future. What the policy means to STEM and non-STEM courses is not so bleak; it’s just a lot more specific. Having different institutions promote specialization into their academic mandates is a means to create facilities, which the government hopes, can obtain international attention.

On June 8, MacGregor Public School will be hosting their grade eight-graduation ceremony. As students, faculty and parents gather to witness the convocation, questions about the future will start to loom over many children’s heads. Ideas about what they want to do with their lives might start to ferment, or many might be glad to be finished public school. Whatever the mindset may be, the path towards an education in this province is shift; in the blink of an eye someone who once played in the sandbox during recess will soon start to figure out whether they want to attend post-secondary — which in itself has a series of questions attached to it.

The important thing to remember is that the possibility to blossom in an academic career is changing in this province; more differentiation between institutions means the structure of each establishment will be more tailored to specific needs.

This article was written based upon research conducted in a 400-level anthropology course at Wilfrid Laurier University.