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‘Major crisis in the system’: Manitoba’s performance-based education plan gets failing grade

Manitoba’s post-secondary institutions — and the students they serve — will be put into a precarious position by shifting to a performance-based funding model for higher education, according to researchers and others in academia.

As the name implies, performance-based funding is a method of divvying up public funds for post-secondary institutions based on several metrics, which could include anything from graduation rates and graduate earnings to credit hours earned, or number of job placements.

The province has been indicating for years it wanted to adopt the model, and Manitoba’s Skills, Talent and Knowledge Strategy, released earlier this month, includes a single line under an “immediate actions” heading, stating the province will implement the funding model “to promote positive outcomes for students and alignment with industry needs.”

In an email response to questions, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration Wayne Ewasko had few details to offer on what metrics will be used, how much funding will be tied to performance, or what the timeline for the changes will be.

“Our colleges and universities will be involved throughout the process of design, development and implementation of the mode,” Ewasko wrote.

“We will work towards a model that respects the size and demographic diversity of our colleges and universities with a focus on student success, supporting economic achievement and high quality education while ensuring transparency and value for money.”

However, the head of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations (MOFA), which represents some 1,600 academic staff, says alarm bells are ringing.

“There is really no persuasive evidence that it works to achieve the goals that the governments … state they want to achieve,” says Scott Forbes, MOFA president, calling it a move used by governments hostile to higher education.

“The question I as president of MOFA have is: what are they trying to fix? How is the system broken?”

Rather than move the needle forward in terms of retention and graduation rates, Forbes says performance-based funding will further exclude under-represented groups.

With institutions pressured to increase their graduation rates, Forbes says it’s likely some will focus efforts on accepting students with already high GPAs, thus making it even harder for Indigenous, Metis, students of colour, low-income students, or adults to access higher education.

Additionally, rather than increase the quality of the education to better meet performance metrics, universities and colleges may simply lower the bar for achieving top grades.

“It gives new meaning to the phrase ‘failure is not an option,” Forbes says.

“There is pressure on everybody to get people through the system.”

Mitigating such unintended consequences may be possible, but would involve establishing “enormous bureaucracies to monitor this very closely,” Forbes says.

Justin Ortagus is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Florida and has been studying the effects of performance-based funding in the United States for the last eight years.

His findings largely mirror Forbes’ concerns about the plan: generally speaking, that the way it has been implemented historically does not increase retention or graduation rates.

“The headline here is: performance funding doesn’t actually work,” Ortagus says.

“Even though we showed there is no relationship between performance funding and retention or graduation, we do see some targeted effects towards restricting access.”

Specifically, it leads to institutions admitting fewer students of colour or low-income students, because they only want to accept those they feel are most likely to graduate.

Administrators also turn to ‘gaming’ the system in many cases, Ortagus says, such as shuffling paperwork around to make it appear students have completed more courses or logged more hours than they did in reality.

“So basically, rather than a long-term improvement in performance, (post-secondary institutions) are just trying to find a way to align this quick fix to the performance funding,” Ortagus says.

Ortagus’ list of potential unintended consequences is lengthy.

The model disproportionately impacts already under-resourced schools, sometimes leading them to close their doors. Austerity sometimes strips away the performance funding, rendering it ineffective. Humanities programs tend to suffer.

“Some states have metrics focused on what they call ‘high-demand degree programs’ or ‘being responsive to the workforce needs,’ oftentimes that’s a coded way to kind of get away from the liberal arts and the humanities that they identify as degrees that are not helping the local or state economies,” Ortagus says.

Forty-one states have at one point in time implemented the funding mode, according to Ortagus, but it has much less precedent in Canada.

Both Alberta and Ontario have postponed implementing it due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s also being considered in New Brunswick.

A number of faculty associations across the country, including the Canadian Association of University Teachers, have responded with dismay, to say the least.

“The funding formula will create a major crisis in the system,” says Rahul Sapra, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

“This reckless approach to funding provides only the illusion of accountability. When tied to funding, all these indicators are likely to measure is the capacity of the institutions to manipulate internal processes and metrics in attempts to meet the government’s arbitrary criteria.”

Sapra is concerned the quality of education will suffer, red tape will skyrocket, and institutions will rely more heavily on “exploitation of contract faculty,” most of whom are women and are paid less.

“Because the government hasn’t been doing any consultation, the government is ill-informed in making these decisions and it’s creating havoc in the system.”

Can it work?

Can performance-based funding actually work? Ortagus says the best a system can do is try to mitigate the unintended consequences as much as possible.

“What we call a critical component of performance funding policies is a focus on equity,” Ortagus says.

“They will try to identify ways to allow institutions to be rewarded for focusing on trying to serve the underserved, so Black students, low-income student enrollment, and adult students, those are some of the examples.

After identifying a policy that works, it has a greater likelihood of succeeding if there are actually funds at stake.

“What we’re finding in the United States is the first thing to get cut when you’re making cuts is this bonus for performance funding … so this can also help to explain why there’s really no effect, because there’s not consistent funding and there’s not enough percentage at stake.”

Finally, Ortagus says there is a broad swath of “political and structural complexities” that needs to be accounted for.

Minister Ewasko says the auditor general has recommended the province provide better oversight of the universities and colleges, and specifically asked that results-based performance metrics be established.

The auditor general confirmed it had recommended results-based performance metrics “to monitor operational and financial performance,” when it released the Oversight of Post-Secondary Institutions report in October, 2020, but hadn’t explicitly recommended such a funding system.

Manitoba’s two largest universities, the University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg, say discussions with the government about the change had only been preliminary and they expect to be involved along the way.

Red River College expressed more optimism in an email, saying the proposed shift to performance-based funding “align(s) directly with Red River College’s work for almost 85 years to support Manitobans.”

None would speculate on what the change might do to their operations.

The University of Brandon did not return a request for comment.

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