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Margin Notes

The debate over university differentiation

Are Canada's universities trying to be all things to all people?


While doing some research on an unrelated matter, I came across an interesting editorial which touched on the issue of university differentiation. Here is the key excerpt:

It is impossible nowadays, to make adequate provision for advanced work in all subjects at any given institution. Some tendency to specialise is the characteristic mark of every vigorous university. Uniform distribution of effort is proof of mediocrity. It is unmistakable evidence of the absence of any teacher whose fame attracts students, whose learning fits him to be leader of a School.

OK, that last line probably gives it away that this editorial is from a different era – although the first lines could easily have been written recently. The article is from Nature, vol. 89, no. 2224, pp. 385-386, published on … June 13, 1912.

I was thinking about this issue because of the recently published book, Campus Confidential by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, which I referenced in my last blog post. One of the points in their book was that “Canadian universities are all pretty much the same.”

I think that’s an overstatement. Students at St. Francis Xavier University, for instance, are never going to confuse their campus with that of, say, University of Toronto. And there are all kinds of peculiarities and regional specificities which set many of Canada’s universities apart from one another.

However, I concede their point that most Canadian universities “try to be all things to all people” and that you’ll find much similarity in program offerings from one institution to another.  I also agree that there is strength in diversity and that, as the authors write, “wider choice and more variation … would better serve students.” A recent report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario also touted the benefits of greater differentiation.

But let’s not kid ourselves: this is not a simple issue. Few universities would willingly drop entire programs so as to better focus on others, or give up research funds or shutter graduate programs, for example, to focus more on undergraduate teaching and learning. Coates and Morrison note approvingly of the existence of “narrowly conceived” private universities in some countries “with a sharp focus on career readiness,” but again I doubt that’s likely anytime soon in Canada. And there would be great pushback from vested interests.

In other words, more differentiation is great in theory, but difficult in practice. Your thoughts?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / April 12, 2011 at 11:52

    On a large scale, I agree that it’s difficult in practice. However it seems that making tough decisions on programs is precisely what good higher education management should be about.

    It might also enable schools to market/recruit based on the unique benefits of their programs rather than on the state of their residences, sports fields, etc.

    To some extent smaller Canadian universities already do this, promoting the advantages of small undergraduate institutions. I know, for example, that the scientists at StFX are able to give their best undergraduates experience in their labs, which sets them up well for graduate study elsewhere. Most larger institutions don’t have the capacity to do that.

  2. Melonie / April 12, 2011 at 15:12

    Two comments…

    1. Compared to other countries, Canada’s universities are pretty homogeneous. If you look at the U.S. where there is a definite hierarchy (the Carnegie Classification system) then this difference is pretty clear. Other than divisions between college systems and universities (which are beginning to blur), Canada tends to lack this kind of systemic differentiation.

    2. Differentiation is difficult because all universities are trying, not to be *all* things, but usually to be one thing in particular–a “world-class research university”. There are some exceptions to this but certainly I’d say it’s the ideal that institutions strive for, partly because the associated prestige reinforces itself with financial/economic benefits (i.e. grants, external/private donations, “elite” students etc. follow from prestige and also generate it).

    And I think creating quasi-markets in higher ed hasn’t helped differentiation (institutions are not taking up “niche” positions)–it’s generally just increased competition for the same “elite” students, funding, and faculty.

  3. Subhadeep Chakrabarti / April 18, 2011 at 17:25

    We already have medical-doctoral, comprehensive and primarily undergraduate universities as well as religious-focused ones. The only thing missing is US-style “liberal arts colleges”. Differentiation has always been here and it is not a bad thing.

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