Niche markets? Context on “differentiation” in Ontario [university specialization] – by Melonie Fullick (University Affairs – October 15, 2013)

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The current Ontario government has been formulating ideas for systemic change in higher education since at least 2005, when the Rae Review was released. Some of the issues raised in that review are still with us now – and one of those issues is university differentiation, which has come up yet again via a data set (PDF) from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) and most recently in the provincial government’s draft (PDF) of a framework for differentiation.

Differentiation refers to the idea that universities should each take on a distinct “mission”, one that sets them apart from other institutions, and that their activities and priorities should flow from the mission so chosen. The point of differentiation (PDF) in this way is to curtail or reduce costs through the elimination of activity that does not contribute to the university’s “mission”, and to increase quality by having institutions focus their various resources on a reduced range of programs and/or functions. Past discussions of teaching-focused universities (which already exist in some other provinces) were borne of the same logic.

Earlier in this process, the Ontario government required universities to produce Strategic Mandate Agreements outlining how they would take on specific roles in a larger provincial system. However, an “expert panel” who reviewed the results of this exercise concluded that universities had failed to generate mandates that show significant diversity. Since they haven’t been able to implement differentiation “from the bottom up”, universities are now haunted by the spectre of increased government intervention. Based on the reports we see so far, attaching external funding to internal change is the government’s primary tactic for making the desired change happen.

There are a number of reasons why Ontario’s universities haven’t spontaneously differentiated themselves in the “right” way, and thus why the government may begin to impose more conditions on funds. Asking (or telling) universities to define specific “mandates” isn’t just about saying what they will be doing; it also requires them to make decisions about what they won’t be doing, and the implication is that as some areas are strengthened, other areas will be pruned. Such changes are difficult to make at the best of times, and they cannot be made quickly if there is to be adequate consultation. At the moment, program reviews at the University of Guelph provide an example of this kind of process in action.

Not only are the required decisions difficult to make (and to implement), but most universities are striving to be a similar kind of institution: a “world-class research university”. Universities are not like regular products in a market, as much as their sophisticated branding efforts might indicate this. One of the great contradictions of increasingly marketized university systems is that universities run on prestige, and thus they’re unlikely to accept voluntarily a lower status in the hierarchy as a means of accessing a different, less prestigious slice of the student market. This explains – at least in part – why so many universities seem to have the same “vision” and “mission” in mind (an example is provided by Alex Usher in this blog post on Western’s new strategic plan).

It also helps explain why HEQCO’s categorization of universities is focused on two criteria, research and “comprehensiveness” (reduced from five criteria in their 2010 report, PDF). The strong association of research with prestige means that universities that focus on either teaching or research (for example) are not “different but equal”; differentiation becomes a form of hierarchization because some activities are valued more than others globally.

This is possibly why some Ontario universities would applaud formalized stratification, since it would freeze the existing order in place and prevent lesser institutions from trying to climb the prestige ladder. Such a process would have the more tangible benefit of bringing research funding and higher quality students to universities closer to the top of said ladder, without pesky competition from those lower down. It takes resources to be “world class”, after all.

For the rest of this column, click here: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/speculative-diction/niche-markets-context-on-differentiation-in-ontario/

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