The McDonald’s/Colleges Ontario Agreement: A News Analysis
The purpose of this article (the first in a series) is to examine the McDonald’s/Ontario Colleges agreement in detail, review its development, and explore some of its implications. The agreement fundamentally alters the structure of public education in Ontario colleges, and all faculty members in the system should have an opportunity to assess the arguments pro and con to decide for themselves the balance of costs and benefits.
Editor’s Note (September 30 2016): The original version of this post stated that ONCAT completed a review of the agreement. ONCAT clarified that was not the case and they were not involved. This post has been corrected to reflect that.
All 24 of Ontario’s public colleges have entered into an agreement with The McDonald’s Corporation to accept employee training for McDonald’s managers as academic credit for college business programs. McDonald’s managers who complete a corporate curriculum called Managers Development Program 2 (MDP2) will receive the equivalent of 10 academic credits, or the first year of a college business diploma. The agreement has been described by its advocates as an expanded form of Prior Learning Assessment Review (PLAR). PLAR is a standard component of the college system, in which an individual student’s work experience is reviewed by faculty members on a case-by-case basis for possible credit equivalence. The McDonald’s agreement is different and most closely resembles formal credit articulation between educational institutions, in which a range of courses is accepted as fully equivalent and transferable without recurring case-by-case review. Comprehensive credit transfer between public colleges and corporations in a bi-lateral articulation agreement represents a significant departure from prevailing North American norms and standards in public higher education. Advocates of the agreement believe it’s an innovative approach to enhancing workforce development; opponents believe it undermines a necessary distinction between publicly-funded education and for-profit training.
Any structural change of this scope will inspire differing responses. The Head Office of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) has condemned it. Colleges Ontario, an advocacy organization representing the 24 public colleges in Ontario, actively promoted the agreement, and its CEO Linda Franklin now defends it. Deb Matthews, current Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, has endorsed it. Press coverage so far has been generally neutral.
One of the chief architects of the agreement is Fanshawe College Chair of Business, Mary Pierce. In an article published in the London Free Press (Aug. 19), Pierce emphasizes the agreement’s benefits to McDonald’s employees, noting it could save them approximately $4500 in tuition fees. In a follow-up article (Aug. 30), Pierce is quoted directly as saying, “The idea is to generate more enrollment that leads to more faculty. That’s where we are going with this.” In the same article, responding to concerns raised by OPSEU President Warren Thomas and Local 110 President Darryl Bedford, she is reported as saying, “OPSEU is overreacting to the McDonald’s deal, [it is] unlikely similar deals will be made with other companies.”
Other advocates, such as CEO Linda Franklin and Minister Deb Matthews, echo Pierce’s emphasis on benefits to McDonald’s employees, but they disagree with her about the scope and significance of the agreement. In an article for The Globe & Mail (Aug. 19), Franklin directly contradicts Pierce, declaring the agreement is “a hint of where we are going in the future in post-secondary education.” On the official Colleges Ontario website, Franklin is again quoted: “It’s the type of innovative partnership that colleges and businesses will be doing more of.” Finally, to a question from reporter Alexsandra Sagan (CTY News, Aug. 24), Franklin responded, “I can’t imagine this [agreement] will be the last.” Minister Deb Matthews has also been reported as saying she would “be open to making deals with other corporations, similar to the McDonald’s deal” (H. Daniszewski/Postmedia Network, Sept. 1).
Independent experts have also weighed in on the agreement and its significance. Alan C. Middleton, executive director of the Schulich Executive Education Centre at York University’s School of Business, is reported as saying, “It’s likely other organizations and post-secondary institutions will try to emulate McDonald’s Canada” (A. Sagan, LFP, Aug. 24). The Toronto Star (Aug. 19) reported that Doug Fisher, president of food consultancy FHG International in Toronto, “could see competitors like Subway and Burger King following suit down the road.” For Franklin, Matthews, Middleton, and Fisher, the agreement represents an important precedent with wide application; only Pierce suggests the scope is limited.
Franklin agrees with Pierce that the agreement may increase enrollments in Ontario Colleges: “We may actually gain students that we would never have gotten otherwise” (A. Sagan, LFP, Aug. 24). Neither Matthews nor Middleton, in their support for the agreement, make any mention of enrollment increases. For them, the real benefit of the agreement is improved workforce skills development. As to the immediate impact on the colleges of foregoing a year’s tuition by granting transfer credit to McDonald’s managers, Sagan quotes Franklin as acknowledging, “That’s a bit of a two-edged sword” (LFP, Aug. 24).
So far, public comment on the benefits of the agreement from its advocates boils down to four points: (1) McDonald’s managers will save money on their tuition costs, (2) the agreement may increase enrollment at public colleges, (3) workforce skills development will be improved, and (4) the precedent will open colleges to similar agreements with an increase in these benefits.
Opposition to the agreement has come almost exclusively from members and officers of OPSEU. Warren Thomas, OPSEU President, issued a press release (Aug. 25) expressing concern that by the terms of this agreement a large portion of a diploma program is now delivered by a private corporation not subject to the kinds of academic oversight governing colleges. Thomas also expressed concerns about the McDonald’s corporation itself and its business practices, which have included, in his words, “tax-evasion schemes, anti-union tactics, and a reliance on a precarious low-wage workforce.” The press release also quotes R. M. Kennedy, President of the Divisional Executive of the College Sector, denouncing the agreement because “it lets McDonald’s, rather than our colleges, decide what business leaders should know.” Finally, Thomas and Kennedy reproach Deb Matthews for supporting a deal which, in their view, undermines the integrity of public higher education, of which Matthews is currently the acting minister.
President of OPSEU Local 110, Darryl Bedford, in a message to union officers (Aug. 25), observed, “When colleges accept credits from other institutions, it is assumed that topics are presented with a certain neutrality. When accepting ‘credits’ from a private company’s training program there is no assurance that important topics, such as business ethics, are presented in a neutral manner.”
Quebec activist Nora Loreto, writing for a younger audience in the crowd-sourced online journal Rabble.ca (Aug. 30), declares, “When we outsource college education to McDonald’s, we’re saying that there’s literally no difference between what a college professor can teach you, and what the daily grind of serving McNuggets can teach you.”
Critical objection to the agreement chiefly emphasizes (1) the lack of transparent regulation and oversight in the credit transfer relationship and (2) the blurring of boundaries between education as a public good and for-profit corporate training.
The Current Situation
Advocates for the agreement (Pierce, Franklin, Matthews) have emphasized, perhaps in response to criticism, that the agreement has been thoroughly vetted through the appropriate college channels for determining credit transfer. Pierce and Franklin have both insisted that McDonald’s in-house manager training is especially rigorous and demanding. All this, in fairness, should be granted. McDonald’s, a profitable and carefully managed organization, does have a reputation for providing rigorous management training.
It is also reasonable, however, for persons interested in the agreement, both college faculty and ordinary citizens, to have questions about the content of the McDonald’s curriculum and how it fulfills credit requirements for college programs. Ordinarily, information about credit transfer between colleges is readily available to anyone since the documents are part of the public record. In the present situation, the documents of one party to the agreement are secret, and access to them is denied to the public. So far, requests for access to the MDP2 curriculum have been refused. Ordinarily, it does not require a Freedom of Information (FOI) application to obtain curriculum information in a transfer agreement. A tradition of transparency has long prevailed as normative in public higher education. The current agreement violates this transparency.
Certainly, the McDonald’s Corporation can reasonably make a representation that their training curriculum is proprietary and that its release might damage their interests. This will be McDonald’s probable response to any FOI application. The question is not whether McDonald’s has a right to protect its proprietary curriculum, of course it does; the question is whether it is appropriate for public colleges to enter into an agreement that requires them to promote secrecy and suppression of information. Transparency is an important aspect of public education. It should not be expected of for-profit corporate training, but protecting proprietary corporate training should not supersede the transparency appropriate in public service institutions. If McDonald’s wishes to enter into an agreement with a public-service institution, it is not unreasonable to expect it to abide by the ethical norms of transparency in public service. At minimum, it is something more than reasonable to expect public service institutions to abide by those norms, and it is also something more than appropriate that public servants like Deb Matthews should not endorse agreements that undermine and violate those norms. It is difficult to understand how Matthews can fulfill her responsibilities as Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development by transferring work from public colleges to private corporations. Matthews has always been a staunch defender of public health care against pressures for privatization. It is disappointing to see that she has not transferred those same values to education. Perhaps she will recognize that the same issues are involved and will withdraw her support for ventures of privatization.
The public has a right to know how its public institutions are being managed and should have ready access to information concerning agreements that cede a portion of its publicly-supported teaching to a private corporation. If the agreement is as unobjectionable as its advocates claim, let it stand the test of transparency. If it cannot withstand this test, then it is objectionable on that basis alone. As tax-supported institutions, Ontario Colleges are an open book to the provincial government, and the government is an open book to its citizens. The government should not be in the business of promoting secrecy and information suppression in public institutions. At minimum, all the proceedings of Colleges Ontario in connection with this agreement should be available to the public, and any attempt to deny or seriously curtail public access will be an indication of the compromising nature of this agreement, which commits institutions serving the public interest to support the private interests of a for-profit corporation.
The agreement as it stands raises a number of important questions that might occur to anyone with an interest in education. Presently, we do not have access to information necessary to answer questions the agreement raises. Requests for access to this information have so far been denied. Freedom of Information requests will be filed by the union, but it may take months for them to be processed, they may be challenged, and even if approved, the documents may be so ‘redacted’ as to be of little use. That will not, however, eliminate the urgency and importance of the questions, some of which are outlined here.
Who Teaches and What is Taught?
At Fanshawe College, we would not allow someone to teach a course without a qualifying credential, usually a relevant degree. For instance, macroeconomics is not taught by someone without a qualifying credential relevant to the academic discipline of economics. The threshold in most colleges is a bachelor’s degree, and there has been increasing emphasis in recent years on hiring advanced degrees for academic positions. We have no information about the qualifications of McDonald’s corporate trainers as teachers of academic courses such as macroeconomics.
Some Ontario colleges, such as Seneca, have listed on their websites the academic courses now equated with McDonald’s training under the current agreement. One of these listed courses is macroeconomics. According to Toronto Star business reporter Lisa Wright (Aug. 19), “Workers in the burger behemoth’s management development program have to take a few courses at the head office in Don Mills over about three years. But besides ongoing reading and learning from numerous manuals, it’s only about two weeks of actual classes. So the vast majority of the training is very hands-on in the restaurant.” If Wright’s reporting is accurate, it raises the question of how macroeconomics is taught in the MDP2 curriculum.
One might reasonably imagine how some principles of microeconomics could be learned hands-on in daily restaurant management, but it is difficult to see how principles of macroeconomics, involving such issues as interest rates and national productivity, are learned hands-on or in two weeks of classes over three years. The evidence may exist to clarify this in the MDP2 curriculum, but that evidence is not available. The question of who teaches and what is taught remains unanswered and may be unanswerable given the secrecy of the agreement.
Our business professors in the college system are qualified professionals in their disciplines. Our view is their education and qualifications represent value-added in the teaching they provide. It is difficult to accept that the work they do is the same as that of corporate trainers. McDonald’s corporate trainers are probably among the best of their kind, but they are not the same as college business professors, and we believe college business professors deliver something more in teaching business fundamentals than is required or achieved by corporate trainers.
How Are Courses Taught?
Ordinarily, we expect teaching in academic disciplines to involve some degree of professional objectivity. This ideal is never perfectly realized, but we expect that teachers in public institutions will not teach exclusively in accordance with their own political preferences or values. This is what we mean by professional ‘disinterestedness’ – we mean that a teacher’s work is not externally directed or restricted by a particular political or financial interest. One would not expect this of corporate training. The purpose of corporate training is to promote the interests and profitability of corporations. This is as it should be. Corporations are not in the business of providing public services without a profit motive.
Given this, it is hard to see how courses in business ethics, for instance, could be taught with the appropriate degree of disinterestedness by McDonald’s corporate trainers. The same would go for courses in such academic disciplines as microeconomics and macroeconomics, which would ordinarily involve consideration of matters either irrelevant to training restaurant managers or foreign to the interests of the McDonald’s Corporation. McDonald’s corporate training is definitely super of its kind, as Pierce and Franklin both maintain, but it is not suitable as public education, and no corporate training by its nature can be. Some aspects of corporate training are applicable as college credit, but no corporate training program can or should apply wholesale as the foundational learning year of a college program.
That is why PLAR exist as an appropriate vehicle for recognizing credit, and why credit articulation is an unwarranted and indiscriminate extension of an otherwise good idea. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Recognizing some aspects of private training and work experience as college credit maintains an important distinction between basic skills and advanced learning; accepting corporate training wholesale as equivalent to a college curriculum undermines the integrity and disinterestedness of public education.
What Should We Do Now?
If you agree that the current credit articulation between McDonald’s and Ontario Colleges is problematic, or at least that information concerning the articulation should be made public, please email or phone the office of Deb Matthews, Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development to express your concern and to voice support for free access to information. Evidence answering legitimate questions may exist, but that evidence should be publicly available.
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Minister E-mail: Minister.MAESD@ontario.ca