Saskatchewan Regional Colleges: Are Major Changes Imminent?
In late 2011 the five-year review of the regional college system, Saskatchewan Regional Colleges: Towards a New System was submitted to the provincial government. The report was prepared by faculty from the Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy. The government will respond to its recommendations in 2012. The current reviewers were required to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of the system and its alignment with government objectives and priorities in relation to its legislated mandate and report to Minister Rob Norris.
Historically, the five year reviews have been undertaken by a wide variety of experts and have taken different forms. The last review, in fact, assessed the entire provincial training system after extensive consultations and made very far reaching recommendations. It has been evident, however, that over time governments have mainly ignored the recommendations emanating from the review process. The same long term issues facing the college system have been raised repeatedly; suggestions made for reform and then shelved. Reviewers have consistently identified the relationships among the colleges, SIAST and the universities, how these relationships affect programming, as well as the barriers preventing the delivery of more high quality and responsive programs to rural Saskatchewan residents. Unfortunately, successive provincial governments seem unable or unwilling to empower the colleges to make sufficient progress toward providing meaningful numbers of upgrading, credit vocational and university programs in the college regions.
The wording of the report’s title, “Toward a New System”, suggests that significant changes are contained within its twenty recommendations. (pp v.vi) The key recommendations are summarized as follows:
1.1 … Regional Colleges Act should be amended to indicate that the colleges institute a coordinated system of distributed learning opportunities that is and integral part of the post secondary education system..
1.2 …Colleges should be permitted to develop their own programs and credentials in areas of emerging demand that are not currently served by other providers or cannot be brokered by the colleges.
2.1 …Colleges should undertake a needs assessment that identifies critical labour market shortages
2.2 …Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration (AEEI) should undertake a comprehensive labour market analysis to provide training targets to the institutions.
2.3 …University course planning should articulate with the enrollment plans of the universities, which in turn need to consider making greater use of the colleges to expand their student base.
3.1 … Colleges will continue brokering from SIAST and seek low cost alternatives from out of province suppliers when SIAST is unable to.
3.2 …Colleges should continue to develop specialized program expertise and colleges can petition for leadership status.
3.3 … An adult basic education strategy should be developed with other Ministries including Education and Social Services, which will commit the province to multi-year performance targets. …Some colleges may submit for leadership status
4.1 … Colleges should be required to develop system wide financial and non-financial performance indicators
4.2 … New college programs will be approved by a committee chaired by the provincial government.
4.3 … A data base will be created to monitor achievement of strategic goals and measure progress toward achieving them.
4.4 … Introduce at the primary school level a student identification system to track ways and places Saskatchewan students access learning
5.1 … Ministry should develop an overall system operating budget and allocate resources to each college based on a fixed cost formula reflective of scale of operations and an activities based formula reflective of program costs
5.2 …Colleges should be permitted to move funds between budgets.
5.3 …Ministry’s annual budget allocation should provide for new program development at colleges.
6.1 …Create a model set of College Board bylaws outlining board member duties
6.2 … Establish a training program for College Board members and a system of appointment
7.1 …Provisions should be made within government to ensure that responsibility for the college system evolution – their numbers, notional boundaries and strategic goals is vested in the Ministry.
7.2 …Saskatchewan Association of Regional Colleges should present an annual report to the Ministry and the public recounting system progress and achievements of each.
7.3 …. College system website should be replaced by an integrated student centred portal providing information on current programming, admission etc
So what does one make of these recommendations when they are viewed in total?
On first glance it seems rather unusual that almost three quarters of the recommendations are assigning greater responsibility to the Ministry rather than the colleges to take action. The number and significance of recommendations directed toward individual colleges are minimal.
It is not surprising to see that members of a school of public policy would recommend implementation of a public management model as the way to resolving college system issues.
Taken as a whole, these recommendations, if implemented, will result in a much more centralized college system with even greater control located in the Ministry. Will changing the wording of the mandate of the colleges contained in the Regional Colleges Act, creating system wide strategic goals, a system wide budget, performance indicators, a balanced score card approach, creation of new data bases, new websites actually lead to more rural learners gaining access to quality programs?. For example, all the quality assurance recommendations are mainly the responsibility of AEEI to develop, implement and monitor. AEEI then would likely need to hire more employees – budget analysts, accountants, computer programmers, and program developers etc to put this management model in place. What effect will these added costs have on college budget allocations?
The justification for the above recommendations seems to lie in the view that “Individual colleges do not plan offerings in a coordinated manner to meet agreed upon needs and provincially mandated targets.” (p.35) When aggregate enrolments are analyzed it is difficult to ascertain how coordinated program planning would have much of an effect. The table on page 15 of the report shows 2009/10 enrolments by program type. About 76 per cent of all college enrolments are institute credit (SIAST and other brokered offerings) plus industry credit/ non-credit offerings, which are the college’s response to local industry demand. In effect, about three out of four students are taking courses related to gaining or improving occupational competence. Given the diverse nature of the regional economies, it appears that colleges are acting responsibly to serve local needs. For example, what value would be gained by coordinating provincially occupational health and safety training related to the energy industry. The vast bulk of this training is mainly located in only two college regions.
Adult basic education programs account for 21 per cent of students enrolled. University enrolments make up the remainder (about 3 percent). At present there are no provincially mandated university programming targets and although ABE has been growing, it is in response to the greater availability of Provincial Training Allowance funds, not mandated targets. The size of ABE programs reflects growing aboriginal and First Nation populations as about half of all ABE students represent this equity group.
The objective of moving ‘toward a new system’ also seems to be based on an assumption that there are significant numbers of mobile college students seeking specialized credentials somewhere in the college system, rather than only in their home community/region. The report does not provide any evidence of students moving from one college to another to access specialized programs. Experience would support the conclusion that mobile students (those who can afford to live and study away from home) are much more likely to enroll in a SIAST program at one of its four campuses, as opposed to relocating to a regional college location. The reason for this is that SIAST can offer a much wide range of certificate programs that result in higher salaries for learners post graduation. College institute credit programs offerings are quite similar across the colleges, but where they differ if it is due to unique regional economic needs. Colleges’ capacity to deliver two year certificate programs is constrained.
Certainly establishing and funding specific program targets has its place in the system, for example university programs. Recommendation 2.3 requests the universities ‘consider’ making use of the colleges to increase course delivery. Unfortunately the language in the recommendation is rather tepid and there is no funding attached to this recommendation. It is highly unlikely that more university programming will reach rural Saskatchewan without a special fund that universities and colleges can access. After forty years university programs only average three per cent of all college enrollments. (See pp 15-18)
Southeast Regional College’s university operations budget, for example, was only $67,516 and as a result its university enrollments are among the lowest in the province. (p.21) There is little doubt that this growing region should be doing more to provide university courses for local students. Colleges historically respond to provincial targets when funding is made available. After all on average 75 percent of college revenues come from the provincial government. (p.20) Colleges are highly dependent on provincial funding.
The report does open up the brokering system to a small degree. Colleges will be able to develop specialized programs, but there are caveats. SIAST it appears still has first right to deliver programs to the colleges and the Ministry will approve any new college created programs. The concept of college ‘leadership status’ as suggested in recommendations 3.2 and 3.3 are not well defined in the report.
The report also finds that on the one hand the Ministry does not provide sufficient system wide direction to the colleges, and on the other hand its reporting is ‘an unreasonable burden’. This paradox begs the question as to whether implementing a complex public management model will resolve the innate conflicts arising from these two long term issues.
Is the logical extension of creating a much more coordinated system based on a public management model the first step down the road toward restructuring the colleges as SIAST campuses?
Adult educators should take the time to study this report and be aware of its potential implications for the independence of the colleges and the regions.