Carl Eriksen's preemptive denunciation of CSAC and its functions rests upon some contentious assumptions. Here are a few of them:
- Before CSAC, Ontario colleges were widely successful in identifying and maintaining curriculum content and standards appropriate to the long-term needs of their students.
- The reputation of Ontario colleges for the quality of their educational programming is unbesmirched in the eyes of the general public and the private sector.
- Past program accountability measures are still OK for today's colleges.
- The Ontario college system is capable of responding quickly and appropriately to the kind of major social and economic changes Ontario is now experiencing without some form of centralized education quality control embodied in a CSAC-like entity.
- However it is implemented, centralized standard-setting will be intrusive, will induce bureaucratization, and will produce ossification at the local college level.
- Broadening college curriculum to significant, measurable increases in skills and general education will destroy reputation of college programs.
- Program coordinators meeting One day a year is sufficient ensure all the consistency in a program's content and standards that Ontario students and employers require.
- In the event that centrally-determined standards are imposed upon colleges, “moral suasion” will be enough enforcement to ensure compliance with them.
- College students (“consumers”, in Eriksen's jargon) are qualified to judge a college program's content and quality.
Underlying all of this is Eriksen's contention that it is Adam Smith's “invisible hand” of unfettered competition and individual initiative that has made the college system the paragon of post-secondary education practice that he so muscularly asserts it to be.
Each of the points identified above is open to challenge. Glued together, they make up the planks of a rickety surfboard that Eriksen uses to try and ride the neoconservative wave now washing its way through Ontario's halls of power, wit: centralized control and planning are bad, free markets and unregulated competition are good; CSAC is bad, local college autonomy to keep on doing things as we always have is good. As surfboards go, I fear that this one is likely to break apart and leave its rider floundering the moment it hits rough waters.
The only invisible hand operating in my classrooms right now is the one attached to the Treasurer of Ontario, the hand that wields the knife labelled “Common Sense Revolution”. This is the knife that is slashing the level of educational support that the Ontario government provides for my students-students who, more and more often these days, are the powerless social and economic victims of the market forces that Eriksen so blithely praises within the context of college education. What free market choices do my students have, once they have decided that a community college education represents the best possible chance of bettering their career or life circumstances?
Whether to study accounting (or whatever) at Humber or Centennial or Sheridan?
That is no choice at all. Ontario needs an external standard-setting and accreditation agency for post-secondary college programs to protect the quality of education that students receive at all Ontario colleges. Our students need protection from the very market forces that Eriksen praises to ensure that those forces can't further devalue or discredit the worth of community college credentials.
Here's an example of what I'm talking about. In an October 6, 1995 submission to the Minister of Education and Training on “Strategies for Addressing Grant Reduction,” The Council of Presidents for Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology cite as their number one collective accomplishment the fact that, between 1986 and 1994, Ontario colleges “accommodated 39% more students with 33% less funding”. The presidents see this dramatic decline in per-student support and our system's response to it as an improvement in “delivery efficiency.” Faculty who have been in the college system since 1986 see in it concrete evidence of a decline in the quality of the educational product we have been offering our students: larger class sizes, fewer hours per course, a narrowed curriculum focus, higher clinical placement ratios, less student-teacher contact, a reliance upon outdated technology and software, starved resource centres, fewer student services, deteriorating facilities.
What CSAC can offer is a protective bulwark against further internally-inflicted encroachments upon the quality of Ontario college programs. Once minimum standards have been identified provincially, local program faculty will have content benchmarks to teach to that should be beyond the reach of local administrative cost-cutters. For students to graduate from a program, they will have to be able to demonstrate that they have achieved the specified program outcomes. To preserve program accreditation and program reputation, colleges will have to strive to supply students and teachers with the resources necessary to ensure that such teaching and learning does happen. Students and employers will have some guarantee of inflation-proof college credentials. And the college system as a whole will continue to merit the public credibility that Eriksen so rightly values as one of our principals assets.
Michael Park teaches in the School of Academic Studies at Centennial College in Scarborough, Ontario.