Faculty call for provincial accountability

Members of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) are questioning the provincial government’s commitment to accountability after it has delayed disclosing agreements it signed with Ontario universities and colleges five months ago.

The agreements in question are meant to increase transparency regarding how institutions spend government grants. OCUFA is interested in seeing them because of the information they contain regarding faculty hiring. However, University administrators have said they cannot release the contents of the agreements without the approval of the province.

“There is an irony here because the government is insisting on greater transparency,” said Henry Mandelbaum, OCUFA executive director. “It seems that there is a double standard in play where [Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Chris Bentley] is saying the universities have an obligation to provide information to the public, but the minister himself is unwilling to do so.”

In the 2005-06 budget, the province stipulated that 40 per cent of the operating grant going to universities be withheld pending agreements between the provincial government and university administrations on “quality indicators,” Mandelbaum said. He added that institutions did not receive the funding until after the agreements were signed.

Queen’s administrator Chris Conway, who is director of the Office of Institutional Research and Planning, said broadly speaking, the agreements include a series of commitments from the University detailing what it hopes to achieve in the coming year based on the funding its receiving from the government.

While the agreements pertain to the fiscal year ending today, they were not signed until about four or five months ago, said Mark Rosenfeld, OCUFA associate executive director.

John Holmes, president of the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA), said the primary concern for faculty regarding these agreements is the numbers they set out for the hiring of faculty and plans for student-faculty ratios.

“Over the last number of years there has been a decline in the number of full-time faculty,” he said, adding that while there have been new faculty hired recently, it’s not enough to counterbalance the number of faculty retirements. “There’s a need for a significant increase … on an annual basis over the next number of years.”

Since the agreements were signed, OCUFA has been trying to obtain access to them from the government, Mandelbaum said, but without much luck.

“The consistent answer was really a non-response,” he said. “We were told we would get a summary, and then we didn’t get a summary and we just weren’t told anything at all.

“Since we feel that this is, and should be, public information, and since the minister was not willing to provide it, we thought the only recourse available to us was freedom of information,” Mandelbaum said.

OCUFA filed a freedom of information request for access to these documents with the Ministry for Training, Colleges and Universities on March 22.

Laura Lo, the Ministry’s information and privacy coordinator, said the Ministry has 30 calendar days to respond to a freedom of information request, but that because in this case colleges and universities are also involved, it may take longer for the ministry to go through them as well.

“In a case like this one, perhaps it may be that you need to conduct third-party notification,” she said, referring to colleges and universities that are signatories. “Within the initial 30-day period we write to the third-party and they have 20 calendar days to respond to the ministry. We have another 10 days to review their response and to make a decision as to whether or not we will agree with them and release the records.”

Lo said any party has the opportunity to appeal the decision made to the Information and Privacy Commission, a body independent of the Ministry.

Rosenfeld said OCUFA will appeal a decision that doesn’t release the agreements in their entirety. He said he doesn’t know of any “rational reason” why the provincial government would be reluctant to disclose the information.

“To us, it’s baffling given that this is a government that has talked about the need for accountability and transparency,” he said. “This is a case where there isn’t transparency, for sure.”

Minister Bentley was unavailable for comment, but the Journal spoke with ministry spokesperson Tanya Blezina.

“Right now the ministry is working with the colleges and the universities to coordinate the disclosure of the interim agreements,” she said.

Blezina said she couldn’t speculate on a timeline for when the Ministry would respond to OCUFA’s request, as some of the individual agreements might have private information such as details on faculty’s personal career information in the agreements.

Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane said the University is willing to disclose information regarding these agreements, but that it must wait for approval from the province.

“We have recognized from the beginning that the status of these agreements is somewhat sensitive and somewhat unclear with regard to whether they are public documents or not, but we have been willing to share ours with our faculty association because it’s a partnership,” he said.

“At the moment we’re unclear of the reasons for the government’s position on this, so I suppose our decision about how much more broadly the document is shared will hinge on finding a little more about their reasons, and the goals that they had hoped to achieve by that approach.”

Deane emphasized the interim nature of these agreements.

“The stress ought to be on the word interim in this case,” he said. “People’s sense of what is contained in these agreements may be somewhat inflated through all the talk of them remaining confidential.”

Conway said he thinks OCUFA’s desire for access to the agreements is reasonable.“I assume they would like to see what kind of initiatives the universities are planning to do with the money that they’ve received, so it’s fair for them to be interested in [the agreements],” he said.

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