The Honourable Glen Murray is having a difficult time as Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities for Ontario. In the past month alone, he has had to deal with two anonymous policy leaks that have derailed possible implementation plans for radical changes to the college and university sectors.
This struggle was no more obvious than at his March 9 speech at the Canadian Club.
Ranging from the Golem to the evils of state capitalism, many of us in the audience were left confused by Murray's speech, if not afraid for the future of college and university education in Canada's largest province.
Statements like: Classrooms are now empty because students no longer attend class, the private sector must pay for institutional operations, and that the non-existent Ontario Online Institute will be better than Athabasca University, made the few of us in the room who were either students or faculty exchange worried glances.
Murray has no shortage of enthusiasm for his job. However, passion is no substitute for sound policy, and much of the policy ideas unveiled so far by this Minister have been widely panned.
Despite downplaying the recommendations proposed in the leaked document dubbed Three Cubed, Murray's speech confirmed that Three Cubed's policies are being taken much more seriously than Murray or his staff have lead people to believe.
Three Cubed outlines a plan to shift at least one-third college and university courses online, force all institutions to offer three semesters worth of courses, shrink all undergraduate degrees to three years, and penalize institutions that don't comply with the above policies with a three per cent budget cut.
Since the premature release of this document, no post-secondary organizations have endorsed the document in whole or in part.
Murray said that Three Cubed was simply research into broader global trends, and just one idea of many floating around the ether of the Ministry. After the Canadian Club speech, I'm left wondering why did the Minister's rhetoric draw so heavily from Three Cubed?
Murray's introduction actually referenced the same stories as Three Cubed's introduction, likely revealing the report's author.
It's possible that Murray's Canadian Club debut as Minister was supposed to unveil Three Cubed as his revolutionary plan for college and university education. It's also possible that once Three Cubed was leaked, the speech was then supposed to highlight plans for the new tuition fee framework for 2012, thwarted by yet another, unsourced leak featured in the Toronto Star.
The "standard tuition levels" leak lead to a last-minute and quiet announcement made before noon on Thursday, March 8 that tuition fees would rise by five per cent.
We're left to guess about what impact either of these leaks had on his speech the day after.
Murray has a tight rope to walk. He must try to keep the students in line, placate professors, and support the institutional presidents, all while implementing his government's priorities. These leaks suggest however that Murray lacks support from possibly all groups in the sector.
Rhetoric such as: "We have to work smarter, not harder," as he proclaimed in his speech, is not going to win him any friends. Students fail to see how shorter study periods, lower quality through mandatory online courses, and policy ideas written by people with an obvious lack of understanding of the sector are examples of working smarter.
If Murray is going to be able to deliver the priorities of the Premier with as little friction as possible, he must abandon these hackneyed propositions. If he is already following orders, he must listen to the dissent from those of us who work or study in the post-secondary sector and relay them to his bosses.
The Minister also needs to stop imagining the private sector as the saviour of college and university funding. The private sector pays nothing toward the operating costs of colleges and universities and students and staff have good reason to be wary of private sector funding. Corporate tax revenues are the best way to achieve greater funding of the private sector for post-secondary. This government slashed $2.4 billion in corporate taxes last year.
Considering his approach and the reception from sectoral groups, I predict that Minister Murray will not survive in this role past Premier McGuinty's next Cabinet shuffle. This will be a shame; Murray is the only cabinet minister who started his political life as a student activist outside of party politics, with the Canadian Federation of Students.
If only he would listen to students now.
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