5.2 – Government Planning Strategies

Radical Strategies

Radical strategies are ones that are intended to change significantly the status quo in higher education. They are the most difficult to implement because higher education is steeped in tradition and there are well-entrenched interests that work to maintain the status quo. As well, public understanding of higher education is limited so governments have little to gain politically by embarking on radical change.

Radical strategies include:

  • creating new e-learning institutions;
  • encouraging the private sector and international providers;
  • using e-learning to transform post-secondary education.

Examples of Radical Strategies: Creating New Institutions

The development of e-learning within the higher education and training sector need not only take place within existing institutional structures and traditional models for the delivery of education. Governments can, for instance, create new institutions or draw in new partners to participate in the provision and development of the educational infrastructure.

One of the most recent developments in Canada is the creation of the Ontario Online Learning Consortium and eCampus Ontario in 2015. This new organization was created to be “a facilitator, enabler, and funder, supporting online learning in Ontario and Ontario’s education and training providers rather than a regulator, controller or acquirer of assets“. It administers an online course development fund, coordinates the development of student support services, library services and faculty training. Full details are contained in the report of the Special Advisor on online learning.

On the other hand, one of most enduring radical initiatives was the creation of the Open University in the United Kingdom. Although the UKOU was established in 1969, long before the advent of e-learning, it has since evolved into one of the world’s largest online universities. More recently, in 2000, the UK established the UK e-University, whose primary objective appears to have been to market its programs internationally. This was disbanded in 2004.

In the United States, the governors of 19 Western states established the Western Governors University in 1998. The WGU is a public online university that uses a competency-based and personalized learning approach. It is a very interesting institution that is guided by five themes:

  • Responsiveness to employment and societal needs.
  • A focus on competency-based education.
  • Expanding access.
  • Cost-effectiveness.
  • Development of a technology infrastructure.

In British Columbia, the provincial government created the Open Learning Agency and the associated Open University and Open School components in the 1980s. By encouraging (and partially funding) a consortium of higher education institutions, the province was able to pool approximately 500 courses from several institutions to create a new, distance education university to provide access to students who cannot easily come to the cities to take their studies. Access is a particularly important issue in a province with a total population of 4.1 million and a land-base that is 947,800 sq km in size! The Open University of British Columbia directly addressed government priorities relating to the delivery of cost-effective instruction (via correspondence and distance education), with full articulation and student mobility between post-secondary institutions, and the increase in the capacity of provincial post-secondary and training institutions. In 2004, the Open University of BC was closed, along with the Open Learning Agency it was part of, and the operations were taken over by the newly-created Thompson Rivers University, based in Kamloops.

The BC government also created a number of other new and fairly innovative institutions with mandates for e-learning: Royal Roads University and the Technical University of BC (later taken over by Simon Fraser University) in the 1990s and BC Campus in the 2003.

Elsewhere in Canada we have Athabasca University, modeled after the UK Open University and the Télé-Université, Canada’s francophone online university, which is part of the Université de Québec.

Now that e-learning has become so widespread in higher education, you might well question whether some or all of these strategies are truly radical. Most of them really just maintain the status quo. Perhaps the only one that doesn’t is the use of e-learning to transform post-secondary education.

Conservative Strategies

Conservative strategies try to work within the existing  institutional arrangements and structures. Resulting changes are more incremental and less disruptive.

Conservative strategies include:

  • the use of regulations;
  • supporting and promoting competition;
  • establishing the jurisdiction of public sector institutions;
  • supporting and enhancing the developing of partnerships and consortia.

Examples of Conservative Strategies

Governments play a key role in influencing the competitive environment within the higher education and training sectors. For instance, in British Columbia, almost all of the higher education institutions are publicly-funded, so they operate within the environment defined by the provincial government. Some institutions have been established as Universities, which means that they can offer degrees and conduct research. Others have been established as colleges, which means that they can offer two year programs and certificates, but not degrees. Such institutions typically provide service to students seeking professional and trade-related training. In the 1990s the provincial government created a hybrid institution, the university-college, which started out as a regular college but was given the authority to also offer four year degree programs. More recently, the status of these university colleges was changed to “teaching universities”. The provincial government, therefore, defines the overall post-secondary educational environment and the roles of the various institutions..

The national context and the infrastructure within the higher education and training sector are important, particularly because it would be very difficult (if not impossible) for individual institutions to handle the cost of developing e-learning alone. Quite simply, the costs and risks are too high, and for this reason, Bates (2001) suggests the value of partnerships and consortia models. Such collaborative approaches often go against traditional competitive relationships between regionally-based institutions. The strategic pooling of resources capable by such collaborations greatly increases the viability and breadth of e-learning initiatives.

Consider the example of the partnerships between the University of British Columbia and Tec de Monterrey in Mexico. This partnership has resulted in student and faculty exchanges and several undergraduate and joint degree programs, including the MET, although the MET partnership was ended several years ago.

The Province of Ontario provides us with another example of a relatively conservative strategy for stimulating the use of e-learning as part of a broader strategy to increase access and strengthen the post-secondary system. In November 2013 Ontario released its Differentiation Policy Framework which is intended to “build on and help focus the well-established strengths of institutions, enable them to operate together as complementary parts of a whole, and give students affordable access to the full continuum of vocational and academic educational opportunities that are required to prosper in our contemporary world.”

One of the six components of the Differential Policy Framework is Teaching & Learning which is where e-learning is addressed:

This component captures institutional strengths in program delivery methods that expand learning options for students and improve their learning experience and career preparedness. This may include, but is not limited to, experiential, entrepreneurial, work- integrated, and online learning.
Institutions will focus on areas of educational strength and specialty so that they offer the maximum choice, flexibility, and quality experience to Ontario students. This includes institutions strengthening their innovative teaching approaches, such as technology-enabled learning and experiential learning opportunities, to provide students with a twenty-first century learning experience.”

The government required all 45 public colleges and universities in the province to develop Strategic Mandate Agreements that specified how they were going to address the goals of the Differentiation Policy Framework in the each of the six components. If you look at these SMAs you will see a heavy emphasis on the use of e-learning in various forms.

Avoiding Duplication

When most higher education institutions have the capacity to develop e-learning programs, the potential for unnecessary duplication within a publicly-funded system becomes a major problem. That is not to say that duplication and overlap do not exist within conventional offerings. In fact, one of the drivers behind Ontario’s Differentiation Policy Framework just discussed is to try to reduce or eliminate unnecessary duplication across the system in all forms of delivery. But with e-learning, the rationale for institutions offering the same courses and programs becomes even weaker since the courses can be accessed from almost anywhere. It just makes no sense for every college to offer English 100 to every student in the same state or province.

There are several strategies open to government to prevent this, from policy to regulation to collaboration to “free market” competition with, in the latter case, the strongest department winning and the weakest closing down. The just discussed Differentiation Policy Framework in Ontario is an example of a policy approach. Regulation is more difficult because the Internet does not respect state or provincial boundaries, and students now have access to online programs from all over the world. Still, accreditation is a key factor in how students decide which institutions to attend. Collaboration is a better approach, but difficult to implement without some strong financial encouragement from governments. Organizations like BC Campus and the newly-created E-Campus Ontario are designed to foster collaboration by making funding contingent on it but while BC Campus has been a positive influence on the post secondary sector, it’s ability to promote significant and systemic collaboration has been limited . Despite the rhetoric of collaboration, the public post secondary environment is still highly competitive.

The important role for governments if they wish to avoid unnecessary duplication is to watch for ‘mission creep’. Mission creep occurs when two year colleges want to become a four year degree awarding institutions, comprehensive state universities want to become research institutions, research universities want to offer associate (two-year) degrees, and everyone wants to make money from the Internet. Probably the most important and effective strategy is for government to use its program approval processes to ensure that institutions keep to agreed mandates.

Review the Strategic Mandate Agreements of several colleges and/or universities in Ontario.

  1. How strong an emphasis do you think is there on e-learning in the agreements that you reviewed?
  2. How specific do you feel the institutional commitment is to e-learning?
  3. What is your sense of what impact this kind of process will have on e-learning in the province of Ontario?

reading icon

Bates, A.W. (2001). National strategies for e-learning in post-secondary education and training. Chapters 3, 4. Paris: UNESCO/International Institute for Educational Planning.


Athabasca University
BC Campus
Ontario Differentiation Policy Framework
e-Campus Ontario
Open Learning Agency
Royal Roads University
Tec de Monterrey (ITESM)
Technical University of BC
UK Open University
Western Governors’ University