Funding based on positive results is a good thing

Janet Ecker

Ask most teachers in the kindergarten to grade 12 system what they think of outcome-based metrics or system-wide testing and you will be greeted with a less than enthusiastic, even hostile response.  Their unions have fought the provincial government for years over anything that would provide sound data on the quality of teaching, the progress of students as a group or the performance of a school.

But as any manager worth his or her salt knows, whether in the public or private sector, what gets measured gets done, to use the old canard.  Most employees outside schools are familiar with the annual exercise of goal setting for themselves and for their organizations.

The resulting data is used to assess the performance of Individual employees – in many cases, determining bonuses.  On an individual basis, such data helps employees grow and learn, to become better at their jobs.  For investors, funders or stakeholders, such data is critical in judging whether an organization is performing as they expect and identifies problems so they can be fixed.

Businesses of course are very familiar with the process as it helps drive profits, growth, innovation and customer satisfaction.  But it is not just a private sector exercise.  For example, hospitals are awash in metrics that not only include the type of admissions and outcomes of procedures but re-admissions, infection rates, mortality and morbidity rates, workplace injuries, patient falls and a host of other information.

For governments who spend billions of dollars on municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals to provide public services, system-wide outcome metrics could provide highly useful information about where the money is being put to best use.

That is why Ontario’s recent announcement that as much as 60% of funding for universities and colleges will eventually depend on various metrics and outcome measurements is so welcome.  Taxpayers and individual students (or their parents) pay significant sums to churn out graduates who can actually succeed in the workplace.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know if all that money is worth it, if it is really working the way it should?  And if it isn’t, how can we fix the problem?

To their credit, colleges have been collecting various stats for years and universities are used to being ranked by various think tanks and publications on a wide range of outcomes.  But basing government funding on performance, particularly at that percentage, is not the norm – until now.

Institutions will now be measured on things like employment and graduation rates, the skills and competencies of their graduates, the amount of research they do or apprentices they produce as well as being assessed on individual institutional strengths and community impacts.

In the words of one sector leader, it will be nothing short of transformational for higher education.

Getting the right metrics in place to measure the right things is not simple.  It is easy to create unintended consequences or incent the wrong behaviour, thus undermining the overall objective for continuous improvement.

But there is an entire industry of experts in this field to help and many other sectors from whom much can be learned by their experiences.

Introducing performance-based metrics into the post secondary system is long overdue and a welcome initiative.  Let’s hope the government doesn’t stop there. How about the rest of the education system?

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