Province Promises Quicker New Program Reviews

The PEQAB may see its years-long review process streamlined, judging by a recent provincial announcement.

The specifics have not been outlined yet, but the provincial Ministry of College and Universities (MCU) is promising to streamline the bureaucratic process involved in the launch of new postsecondary academic programs.

On October 30, Minister Ross Romano, joined by Associate Minister of Small Business and Red Tape Reduction Prabmeet Sarkaria, announced the government is simplifying how colleges, private and out-of-province institutions receive consent to offer new degrees in Ontario, and how publicly assisted institutions receive program funding approvals.

“A streamlined process means students can more readily access training for the jobs of today and tomorrow, and that industry has access to a workforce with the right skill-set,” said a ministry press release.

"We are reducing duplication and cutting red tape to speed up the approval process. This will help the postsecondary sector to deliver new programs faster, so students can get the training they need to get a good job and help grow Ontario's economy," said Romano. "Streamlining the consent and funding approvals processes means the ministry can communicate decisions to our sector partners faster so they can offer new programs more quickly that may meet labour market demand."

"All too often, burdensome regulation makes things slower, harder, and more complicated than necessary," said Sarkaria. "As part of our work to reduce regulatory burdens through the Better for People, Smarter for Business Act, we're fixing regulations that have led to unintentional consequences — like slowing down the process for new college course and degree offerings. By getting out of the way of postsecondary institutions, we're helping them prepare our students for the jobs and opportunities of the future."

"We haven't seen the details of the new process yet, but any streamlining of the academic approval process is certainly welcome,” said St. Clair President Patti France. “We thank the ministry for reducing red tape."

She added, "The long-standing process to create and introduce a new program has been an onerous one – and rightfully so. It is essential that all of our 'i's are dotted and our t's are crossed' to ensure that we are delivering valuable new education and training opportunities to students.

“Nevertheless, if we can obtain ministry approval somewhat more readily once we have demonstrated that our planning has been thorough, that will certainly allow us to respond more rapidly to economic and labour market trends that require new programs."

Currently, from the inception of the process – that is, when a new employment-marketplace need is identified that should be addressed with a college offering – actually launching a new program can take a couple of years.

Let’s run through the current process, from start to finish:

• Again, either from business/industry demands or an analysis of economic/employment-marketplace trends, the college identifies that new jobs may become plentiful in a certain occupational field, and decides to explore the creation of a new program;

• It will quickly attempt to form a Program Advisory Committee. That is a group made up of a few college administrators, a faculty member or two from the discipline in question, and a number of people who are actually working in the field. For instance, if the college was thinking about launching a new program in grape-growing/wine-making, it would create a committee made up of a couple of its horticulture and culinary professors, and invite a half-dozen or so local grape-growers and vintners to join in the discussion. Collectively, they would determine the types of jobs available in the industry – in the short- and long-term future – and the types of skills which those future employees should possess;

• In conjunction with the committee’s work, college officials are simultaneously working on the project. Course development is undertaken by professors with expertise in the discipline in question, assisted and overseen by the Curriculum Design wing of the college’s Centre for Academic Excellence. Relevant courses at other colleges are examined, that could be adopted or adapted for the St. Clair program, or new curriculum is developed from scratch. Appropriate textbooks are identified. Consideration is given to the need for new lab space and equipment. The availability of work-integrated job-placements for students is investigated;

• Among the topics explored by both the PAC and the curriculum developers are these: admission requirements (mandatory high school courses and grades), labour market research and employment prospects (whether there will be plentiful jobs available to grads), student demand (whether a lot of students throughout Ontario have been enrolling in similar programs at other schools), related accreditations (will our grads by eligible to be designated as “professional vintners” by industry organizations), marketing (what do we have to do to recruit a sufficient number of students), and financial impact (despite the initial start-up costs, can the college actually “make a profit” by offering the new program within five to seven years);

• By this point, at least a year of research, consultation and work has gone into the program-development process. Eventually, all of that is presented to the college’s Board of Governors, the school’s highest decision-making body, with a recommendation to launch the program in a coming semester;

• The Board analyzes all of the presented information – especially the (possible) need for new facilities and the financial impact of the new program – and, customarily, gives a thumb’s up to the proposed launch, “subject to Ministry approval” ...

• Which is, currently, the stage that can add another six months, to a year, to a year-and-half to the process – entirely dependent, it seems, upon how much paperwork is sitting on the desks of the ministry bureaucrats who examine such submissions. For the most part, the ministry review involves a verification of the accuracy of the college’s background research ...

• Unless the proposal at-hand is the creation of a new Bachelor-level degree by a college (as opposed to the usual diploma). In the case of a degree program proposal, the preliminary work by the college can be much more extensive, and the provincial portion of the process certainly is. In that situation, once the Board of Governors approves the launch of a degree program, the submission goes to the ministry’s Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board (PEQAB). It launches an examination that includes the appointment of a review panel, hearings and on-line feedback – and considerable back-and-forth discussions between the school and provincial authorities. Minimally, launching a college degree program can take four years from start to finish. St. Clair unveiled its first Applied Bachelor’s program this fall, in Social Justice and Legal Studies. It had initiated its planning for that in 2013-14, received Board of Governors’ approval in 2015, and had hoped for a provincial green-light for enrolment beginning in 2017. The fact that the launch-date had to be postponed for two years indicates how the process can become bogged down.

The recent ministry announcement – or, at least, its press release – concentrated on references to streamlining the degree-granting process for colleges. Without a lot of specific implementation details attached to that announcement (yet), perhaps the intention is just to pare down the years-long review conducted by the PEQAB.

Certainly, however, many of the 24 colleges would also like to see a more rapid turn-around on the provincial approval process of new diploma-granting programs.

Stay tuned as this plays out.