The Ontario Provincial Government has been actively seeking to change the higher education system in Ontario since at least 2010. The Government wants to achieve certain “objectives” that have been set by the Government, and not universities, colleges, students, or other stakeholders – which is important to stress. The Government’s strategy is called “differentiation” and the aim is to create “more equitable access” and “higher-quality outcomes” with “greater financial sustainability” – read into that what you may. The Government has introduced new policy mechanisms to drive forward its strategy (e.g. Strategic Mandate Agreements) and proposed new ones for the future (e.g. funding formulae changes). As part of this process, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) – an agency created by the Government in 2005 – produces regular reports on the state of Ontario’s higher education with the aim of promoting future policy changes. On 12 July 2016, HEQCO produced a report called “The Differentiation of the Ontario University System: Where are we now and where should we go?”. My intention is to respond to this report here, outlining how I think it supports and promotes a highly parochial and damaging set of proposals for the future of Ontario’s higher education system.
Main Issues with the Report
- I am not going to discuss the data used in the report, apart from to note two things: (1) even the report writers highlight it's problematic on a number of fronts; and (2) the data used in the report is only and purely aggregate data, and therefore unable to reveal much about the actual differences between universities.
- What is differentiation? A critical issue in the report is the way that differentiation is presented. On the one hand, it is represented as a characteristic of the system already (i.e. universities are different); and on the other hand, it is represented as the only strategy that can achieve the Government’s objectives (i.e. universities have to be more different). As such, it is a weird mix of is/ought AND ought/is confusion.
- What are the ‘differences’? The report focuses on aggregate differences between two generic aspects of universities: teaching mission and research mission. It does not consider the specific differences between research and teaching undertaken at different universities or different university departments (e.g. in theoretical approach or perspective, in program or course content, etc.).
- Will anything change? Although the differentiation strategy is meant to transform Ontario’s higher education system, it might actually do nothing of the sort. There is a strong likelihood that any changes to funding formulae - the main mechanism to achieve the Government's objectives - will simply replicate current funding levels, just using a more complicated (and therefore costly) process. If it doesn't do this, any changes will mean that some institutions will lose (significant) funding, while others will gain. The emphasis placed on teaching in the report (i.e. four out of five dimensions are teaching related) would imply that teaching universities should be the big winners, but this is highly unlikely considering the lobbying strength of research universities. At best then, any changes will simply reproduce the current system after a costly restructuring process.
- What will it actually achieve? Although it claims otherwise, the report makes it clear that differentiation will do nothing to produce diversity or choice. These are highlighted in a number of places (e.g. p.7, 10), in that differentiation is really about forcing every university into a particular place in an inter-dependent system (e.g. one flagship institution, a few research institutions, more teaching institutions, etc.). It will not encourage diversity among institutions, since each has to fit into the system, and it will not encourage choice between institutions, since institutions will be forced to focus on teaching or research. Moreover, the endpoint will be an inflexible system in which institutions cannot move from where they have been placed in the system, once they are assigned their role by Government.
- University of Toronto: the report is elitist in reinforcing the position of Toronto as the flagship university in Ontario; it is implied that no other university will be able to challenge (nor should) Toronto for this role, thereby reinforcing Toronto’s position.
- Research Elitism: despite decrying this tendency elsewhere, the report reinforces the higher status of research over teaching in universities through: (1) the emphasis on treating University of Toronto as special and in need of support because of its international research strength; and (2) the emphasis placed on concentrating research in only a few universities. As such it reinforces the reputational status of research, rather than strengthen other goals (e.g. teaching, access, etc.).
- Equity of access: the report emphasizes objectives like access, but fails to consider the real equity issue at play when it comes to universities; namely, access of marginalized social groups to high status universities (e.g. University of Toronto). Access to university education alone will not bridge social divides if marginalized groups go to some universities, while privileged social groups go to others. Increasing the number of students from marginalized groups at university, therefore, does not resolve this problem.
- Teaching Implications: in trying to raise the status of teaching and of non-research universities, the report does not (and probably cannot) reach the necessary conclusion; namely, research universities will have to shrink their undergraduate numbers if they are to focus on research (and lose significant funding as a result). For example, internationally recognised research universities like Oxford have almost parity between undergraduate and graduate student numbers; to reach parity, Toronto would have to shed over 25,000 undergraduate enrolments. The changes to funding that this would entail would be far reaching, since it would mean either reducing the budget of Toronto or changing funding formulae so that research is valued highly (at the same time that funding is supposed to support access, teaching, etc.). It is very unlikely that research universities will end up receiving fewer resources as the result of this strategy, so it is likely that teaching will be further degraded rather than strengthened.
- Universities are one of the few truly global institutions we have in society; ideally, they produce knowledge that can be shared everywhere; they draw on knowledge from anywhere; they introduce students to the rest of the world, breaking down barriers created by society, culture, history, etc.
- In focusing on Provincial objectives, the differentiation strategy erodes and degrades the global orientation and relevance of Ontario’s universities, forcing them to focus on provincial concerns (e.g. local problems, local labour markets, etc.). As a strategy, then, differentiation is breeding parochialism rather than an international orientation, at the very time when the global challenges facing us all are mounting (e.g. climate change, refugees, inequality, etc.).
- Parochialism is a problem for Ontario’s universities because it will affect the quality and interests of the people they are able to attract as faculty and as students. It is likely, in this context, to mean that non-research universities, for example, are unable to hire faculty with strong research profiles, especially international ones, and that they will not be able to attract strong students. The report highlights that students seek to enrol in universities with strong research reputations, so this will mostly affect non-research universities (p.27).
- This parochialism comes across most strongly in the renaming of ‘in-between’ universities as ‘regional’ universities that are supposed to serve the needs of their regional economy and labour market.