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Margin Notes

Radical rethink of Ontario universities

The present approach to baccalaureate education in the province is not sustainable, says new book.


A new book being released today will no doubt renew the debate about whether universities need to differentiate themselves, with some opting to become primarily undergraduate teaching institutions while others concentrate on research.

As the title of the book suggests, Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario addresses the situation in that province, but the authors’ conclusions should be of interest across the country.

The authors argue, in a nutshell, that Ontario’s model for providing undergraduate education, the research-university model, is no longer sustainable. This is due to two competing pressures: the increased expectation for universities to conduct research and produce knowledge that will enhance Canada’s economic well-being and international competitiveness; and pressure to dramatically increase accessibility to baccalaureate-level education.

Something has to give, the authors claim. It is simply not affordable to have undergraduates taught only by faculty who are required to devote the same amount of time and effort to research as to teaching. Or, to put it another way: “The simultaneous pressure to increase both enrolment and the volume of research … has resulted in over-commitment of individuals and institutions.”

Among the book’s recommendations:

  • Create a new sector of baccalaureate institutions that focus on teaching. Faculty would be expected to be current in their fields but would not do discovery research.
  • Encourage universities to create or maintain a high-quality three-year undergraduate degree.
  • Foster increased efficiency by encouraging differentiation among existing universities through a combination of regulation and financial incentives.
  • Encourage balance and differentiation in the college sector. A small number of colleges should become substantial providers of baccalaureate education, while some focus on trades training and serving under-prepared learners.
  • Improve opportunities for college to university transfer. Develop specific programs in universities aimed to facilitate transfer from college career programs.
  • Develop an Open University of Ontario that would offer high-quality learning based on flexible credit recognition, open admissions, and access for learners who are unable to attend the existing universities.

The book’s conclusions may be given additional weight by the combined experience and expertise of the authors. They are: Ian D. Clark, a former federal deputy minister and past-president of the Council of Ontario Universities; Greg Moran, a former provost and vice-president, academic, at the University of Western Ontario; Michael L. Skolnik,  professor emeritus in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto; and David Trick, president of David Trick and Associates and former assistant deputy minister for post-secondary education in the Government of Ontario.

The project was funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. The council says it will “evaluate these findings and provide policy recommendations to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / December 1, 2009 at 18:53

    Sometimes this kind of argument (especially when authored by someone from one of the big, established research oriented universities like Western) looks like another variation on the demand/request to concentrate research funding in fewer research intensive institutions.

    Questions it raises include what do they really think about the quality of undergraduate education in the big research intensive places? Should they have differentiated faculty?

    And how about the fact that some of the small undergraduate only universities in the Maritimes are actually offering real research experience to their undergraduates and then those students are in high demand from the big research intensive places for grad school?

    Perhaps the problem is the general underfunding of universities which is driving a lot of the pressure to increase both student numbers and research activity and if governments put more funding into institutions’ general funds and created fewer funding opportunities targeted to specific activities (e.g. teaching, infrastructure, research, outreach, etc) then universities would find their best offering.

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