The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO)was created by the Dalton McGuinty-led Liberal government of 2005. This was achieved through an eponymously named act. The object of the corporation, as presented in the legislation is
The object of the Council is to assist the Minister in improving all aspects of the post-secondary education sector, including improving the quality of education provided in the sector, access to post-secondary education and accountability of post-secondary educational institutions. 2005, c. 28, Sched. G, s. 5.
while its functions are presented as
The functions of the Council are,
(a) to develop and make recommendations to the Minister,
(i) on targets to be achieved in improving the quality of post-secondary education, on the methods of achieving those targets and on the time frame for doing so, and
(ii) on performance measures to be used to evaluate the post-secondary education sector;
(b) to evaluate the post-secondary education sector, report to the Minister on the results of the evaluation and make the report available to the public;
(c) to conduct research on all aspects of post-secondary education with a view to helping the Council achieve its object, including research,
(i) on the development and design of various models of post-secondary education,
(ii) on the means of encouraging collaboration between various post-secondary educational institutions in general and in particular in matters relating to the recognition by such institutions of courses and programs of study provided at other such institutions, and
(iii) on other matters specified by the Minister; and
(d) to do such other things as may be prescribed by regulation. 2005, c. 28, Sched. G, s. 6.
Isn’t that nice? Lots of great words are used: improvement, quality, collaboration, encouragement, targets and research. Terrific stuff. Very objective. Very unspecific.
HEQCO currently presents this relatively broad mandate on their website in this manner:
HEQCO is an agency of the Government of Ontario that brings evidence-based research to the continued improvement of the postsecondary education system in Ontario. As part of its mandate, HEQCO evaluates the postsecondary sector and provides policy recommendations to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to enhance the access, quality and accountability of Ontario’s colleges and universities. Among the questions HEQCO explores:
- Are students satisfied with their postsecondary experience?
- Do they acquire the knowledge and skills that prepare them for their personal and professional lives?
- What are the barriers to pursuing PSE, barriers to staying in school, barriers to graduating?
- How are underrepresented groups faring in accessing and completing PSE and what strategies will improve their participation?
- What are the attributes of a responsive and efficient PSE system, and how can the system and its institutions be more accountable to the public and government for the use of public dollars?
HEQCO informs solutions
- Conducts and commissions studies and evaluations, often in partnership with Ontario’s colleges and universities, on key issues in accessibility, learning outcomes and system design.
- Produces reports that synthesize the most current data and research – providing postsecondary decision-makers and the general public with critical insight and information on emerging trends in postsecondary education.
- Evaluates the postsecondary sector and makes that evaluation available to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and the general public.
Isn’t it interesting how dissimilar these two descriptions of this organization are? HEQCO’s version is much more specific and subjective in its content.
And why are these differences of interest? Because HEQCO is the stipulated go-between for Ontario’s universities on the matter of free expression.
According to a pair of news releases dated August 30, 2018, Ontario’s publicly-funded universities must draft and submit policy documents to this agency by January 1, 2019. According to one of the two releases, the policy documents must meet a minimum standard including
A definition of freedom of speech
Principles based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression:
- Universities and colleges should be places for open discussion and free inquiry.
- The university/college should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive.
- While members of the university/college are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views.
- Speech that violates the law is not allowed.
That existing student discipline measures apply to students whose actions are contrary to the policy (e.g., ongoing disruptive protesting that significantly interferes with the ability of an event to proceed).
That institutions consider official student groups’ compliance with the policy as condition for ongoing financial support or recognition, and encourage student unions to adopt policies that align with the free speech policy.
That the college/university uses existing mechanisms to handle complaints and ensure compliance. Complaints against an institution that remain unresolved may be referred to the Ontario Ombudsman.
The news release also stipulates further research into the matter of free speech and various accountability requirements. The second release is the obligatory catch-phrase-driven, politician-quoting document prepared to prove the politicians were involved somehow. As such, it contains extraordinarily little substance. Naturally, it isn’t really worth more than a wink and a nod.
Except for musings about what it all might mean. When comparing HEQCO’s founding Act to their website material it can be seen that legal documents and publicity material can differ significantly on matters of substance. In real world matters.
Consider the idea that each post-secondary institution must develop its own definition of freedom of speech. I might strike one as odd that these organizations don’t already have a common definition to something so essential to their existence. In fact, it ought to strike one as odd that universities are directed to develop their own local definition of a fundamental right protected under the Constitution Act (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Here’s a reminder of the second thing set out in the Act:
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.
The current Doug Ford-led Conservative Government of Ontario thinks it is sensible to hand the definition of a fundamental freedom to a long list of publicly-funded organizations who haven’t already undertaken what might be considered a fundamental task. These are the same institutions who have already demonstrated so little sense and quality of effort that:
- a special agency needed to be developed to address the matter (HEQCO)
- a special effort to demand freedom of speech (a fundamental freedom) in the institution needed to be implemented
Well self-governance is always popular with professionals, so we can be sure they’ll do a bang-up job. And if any of the institutions should fail to produce a decent reply, well, it would be reasonable assumption that HEQCO has some expertiese on the subject and a boiler-plate ready to go.
In fact as of September 9, 2018 HEQCO’s website stipulates their priorities as:
- Access: How can we improve access to higher education for groups that are underrepresented
- Learning Outcomes: Are Ontario students graduating with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life and work?
- and System Design: How can Ontario provide a high-quality postsecondary education in a period of continued growth and diminishing resources?
Even more tellingly, HEQCO’s website hasn’t published a news release since December 2017, it’s 2017-2020 business plan says nothing about freedom of expression in its values…or anywhere else. In fact, typing “freedom of speech”, “freedom of expression” and “freedom of thought” on the organization’s website renders essentially nothing. This is not the picture of an organization that is “ready to go” on the subject of freedom of speech.
What is the penalty if the institutions don’t comply? Funding cuts. Ah, well now we KNOW the administrators will generate the requisite documents. No administrator ever failed to submit a document when dollars were on the table (and kept their job).
It remains to be seen if all the duly diligent post-secondary administrators will do anything other than submit generic and legalistic documents which say what they’re required to say but describe nothing of what actually happens.
And here is where it lies. All of this effort is a demonstration of values. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that the freedoms of thought and of expression are fundamental. Everything else in our society is supposed to stem from the fundamentals. Ontario’s post-secondary institutions have not instilled confidence in the public or in the legislators that they are committed to fundamentals. So we threaten to take away some of their money.