Skip navigation
In my opinion

How to differentiate universities, that is the question

Why HEQCO’s new report doesn’t go far enough.



Ontario has been considering whether and how to differentiate its universities since 2010 when its deputy minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities, Deborah Newman, commissioned a study, The benefits of greater differentiation of Ontario’s university sector from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. HEQCO’s most recent contribution, A data set to inform the differentiation discussion, released in July, is both helpful and unhelpful in advancing the discussion. While it is an example of differentiation informed by data, it ignores its own admonition in its report three years ago by grouping Ontario universities on only one dimension, research intensity.

Some other provinces differentiate their postsecondary education institutions quite strongly, as HEQCO noted in its 2010 report. The roles and mandates policy framework for Alberta’s publicly funded, advanced education system establishes six sectors based on credentials offered, type and intensity of research and geographic focus. British Columbia has designated five special purpose, teaching universities to complement its four research-intensive universities. Université du Québec is a province-wide system of 10 establishments – six constituent universities, a distance university, two specialised schools and a research institute. Other Quebec universities have comprehensive teaching and research roles while some others are highly specialized or have a special regional role, as do some campuses of the Université du Québec.

Step one of Ontario’s roadmap to a more differentiated system was for each postsecondary institution to submit proposals for what the ministry called “strategic mandate agreements.” However, the expert panel that assessed strategic mandate agreement submissions found that a “bottom-up” process will not produce the system changes it believes are necessary.

Many of the fears of universities ranked lower on research intensity are borne out by Ontario’s data set to inform the differentiation discussion, in the new HEQCO report. Ignoring its admonition three years ago, HEQCO groups universities by research intensity, identifying four clusters. In a cluster of its own is the University of Toronto. A cluster of six research intensive universities includes the five other Ontario universities that belong to the U-15 group of research intensive universities (McMaster, Western, Ottawa, Waterloo and Queen’s) plus the University of Guelph. A cluster of nine mainly undergraduate universities and a cluster of four universities that fall between the more research intensive and mainly undergraduate clusters — York, Carleton, Windsor and Ryerson – round out classification.

Nor does the data set provide much scope for giving all types of institution an opportunity to win extra incremental funding, as HEQCO advocated in its earlier report. For example, the data set refers approvingly to the US distinction between liberal arts undergraduate colleges and the research-intensive University of California system. But it doesn’t acknowledge that while the California master plan for higher education increased funding per student of the University of California system, almost all enrolment growth was funded at the open-access California Community Colleges and the California State University system which mostly teaches to master’s level.

Disappointingly, the data set includes no measure of access, despite HEQCO’s report on performance indicators showing that the familiar under-represented groups remain under-represented in Ontario’s universities. This is surprising, since one of the advantages that HEQCO claimed for differentiation was to support access by recognizing a heterogeneous student population with varying needs and demands.

The report acknowledges that the data set doesn’t capture practices that may be distinctive in significant ways and which are highly innovative – for example, the pioneering problem-based learning curriculum of McMaster’s Faculty of Health Sciences and the fundamental principle of cooperative education at the University of Waterloo.

Neither does the new data set and clusters explicitly take into account the regions and populations that each institution serves. On this, HEQCO might have been helped by the work of two University of Toronto scholars who have made signal contributions to the provincial, national and international literature on the diversity and differentiation of post secondary institutions: Michael Skolnik and Glen Jones.

Although Drs. Skolnik and Jones approach institutional diversity from different perspectives, both emphasize the importance of geography and demography in shaping and delineating institutions’ roles, particularly in Canada with its uneven geographic distribution of people. Communities with ready access to only one postsecondary institution naturally want their local institution to have as comprehensive a range of teaching and research programs as possible, and elected representatives understandably respond to this desire. That may not be as “efficient” as the managers of hard-pressed provincial budgets may prefer, nonetheless regional institutions contribute importantly to the culture and development of their regions and that is hard to capture in performance data.

While in its most recent report HEQCO hasn’t followed all its earlier advice on promoting the differentiation of Ontario’s postsecondary education, overall it has made an important contribution which should inform policy makers and legislators in Ontario and beyond.

Gavin Moodie lives in Toronto and is affiliated with RMIT University in Melbourne.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Sean O / September 5, 2013 at 09:18

    No good can come from the level of interence in the Ontario university system that is being proposed. Governments are not competent at this type of management when they wade into micromanagement. The ‘cure’ will be worse than the disease.

  2. Tom Bronigan / September 15, 2013 at 00:50

    My reading is not that the HEQCO report doesn’t go far enough, but that it is biased in its reading of its own data to support Toronto. The essence of the argument(which becomes comes towards the end of the point), is that if Ontario wishes to complete globally in HE, then we need to behave in a way that will lead to differentiation. This will allow some universities to prosper under either enhanced research mandates, or undergraduate teaching mandates. Fine — that is logical, although one could argue with whether this is the route that the province should take. Where logic takes a detour, is that U of T is then selected as the preferred uber-university, and global rankings cited to back this up. If one tunnels into the data, clearly U of T is not the sort of institution that should be prioritized — the best universities in the world tend not to be large, have about 20-30K students, and are not in metropolitan areas, but in smaller communities. There are exceptions, of course, but one could read this as suggesting that universities like Toronto should really focus on providing undergraduate education for their catchments (like York, for instance), and comparatively smaller institutions (like Guelph, for instance; or Western, or Queens, or Waterloo) should be identified for enhanced graduate funding to get their UG:G ratio to about 1:1. If we are to have an institution in the top 10 globally, it won’t be Toronto — it is too big, too diverse, too expensive and it needs to serve a huge demand for UG education in the GTA by a massive immigrant population; it would be easier, and cheaper, to select a mid-sized university like those identified above, where property is cheaper, the institution is more flexible, and the capacity for growth much higher. Toronto is a behemoth by global standards — a great place to be sure, but already at capacity, and the cost to make it better is far too high. It would be more efficient to select two or three others to become the global leaders.

  3. University Affairs editor / September 24, 2013 at 09:26

    Tom Bronigan – your take on this is interesting and I’m wondering whether you might like to expand on this idea in an opinion piece for UA. If so please email [email protected]

Click to fill out a quick survey