Monday, August 13, 2007

Separation makes no sense

This was published today in the Telegram as a forum piece.


Government decided behind closed doors to give Grenfell College more autonomy from Memorial University. That decision was made without a plan or detailed consideration of the costs and disadvantages.

The cart was put before the horse when consultants were mandated to explore Grenfell’s autonomy. Deliberately left out was an exploration of why it should be autonomous or if it should be autonomous.

Those questions were already answered by the dynamics of the October provincial election and the need for simple pork politics.

Autonomy defenders, talking up regional pride and the no-cost virtues of autonomy, see no disadvantages. They meet critics with disdain and dismissal at best. At worse, they attack then as saboteurs.

But the report, when separated from political bombast, gives a very good outline of what we might to expect from government’s unilateral move.

On page 9, three main disadvantages to government’s chosen option are outlined by the consultants.

First they expect “substantial additional costs”. There are no hard estimates based on organisational change reviews - they’re just guesses. Separately reported estimates range up to $15-20million per year. Right now, they don’t know what jobs, employees, functions and/or divisions will be shifted across the province. Or in what direction. Or if they will be shared or duplicated. So government can’t begin to predict the costs.

Second, the consultants say an autonomous Grenfell will only be able to offer a “limited academic programme range.” Small student numbers will guarantee that. MUN has economies of scale to offer a range of programs proportionally much greater than smaller universities. So don’t expect too many new programs. In a vicious cycle, limited program range discourages future student interest, too.

Third, the consultants point to “fragmentation of academic authority and divergence in academic standards and practice.” Setting up separate academic senates, as per government’s goal, will ensure the two institutions grow more academically incompatible over time. Students, credits, courses and programs will become harder to transfer. Right now, those transfers are seamless.

Government spokespersons deny this point. But government can’t give Grenfell academic autonomy and then tell them not to use it.

To this weakening of Grenfell as an academic institution, the consultants advocate a magic solution - doubling the student body in ten years. Grenfell currently has roughly 1300 students. To be feasible as an autonomous university, according to the consultants, Grenfell has to grow to 2500 students in ten years.

But there is no hint how to do this or how much it will cost. The province in general, and the west coast in particular, produces fewer and fewer university aged persons each year. That’s the situation across the rest of Canada too.

There are no signs that will change. It’s the hard truth of modern demographics.

While the international market sounds like an attractive and easy source, realistically international students will only ever form a very small proportion of Grenfell students. It will never be half.

Is the best way to spend public money on post-secondary education?

We have no shortage of university graduates in the province. It’s the shortage in skills and trades of all kinds that impedes our progress. Any survey of employers in the province says we need workers with trades and skills, not more university graduates.

This decision is shortsighted. It damages respected institutions and does not solve problems we need to address. Even worse, it treats Memorial University as spoils for distribution to regional political bosses.

Real Leadership indeed.

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