CANADA: Driving the differentiation bus

Differentiation of institutional mission in Canadian higher education seems inevitable and undisputed. But how to drive the "differentiation bus" across the sector was the question that framed discussions at an armchair panel session of the recent Stepford Universities? conference.

Organised by Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA), the conference at Toronto's Sutton Place Hotel last month brought together nearly 70 higher education administrators, policy-makers and academic faculty to discuss responses to diminishing higher education funding and the imperative to maintain the quality of the undergraduate experience.

Key to the conference mandate was the theme of isomorphism; that is, the phenomenon in terms of which universities - over the past two decades - are said to have acquired similar characteristics in their attempts to compete for an ever-diminishing slice of the governmental funding pie.

It is a well-accepted fact that the financial situation faced by Canada's universities and colleges will not be improving any time soon.

So how best to realise outcomes ranging from improving global competitiveness within the sector and institutional accountability to ensuring programme quality and guaranteeing financial sustainability?

Panelists Ian Clark, Bonnie Patterson and Hans Vossenstyen attempted to answer this question in the session "Incentive Structures vs the Market", by focusing on the nature of current funding constraints, the adoption of future strategies and the identification of change drivers.

A professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto and co-author of Academic Transformation: The forces reshaping higher education in Ontario, Clark began by commenting on the way unregulated university markets behave in developed countries.

They are, he claimed, incapable of sustaining a differentiated higher education system able of to provide high quality, cost-effective undergraduate education.

For this reason, he and his Academic Transformation co-authors stress the imperative of governments to articulate what they want the publicly financed higher education system to look like and to design carefully the regulations and financial incentives that will steer the system in that direction.

It is contended that higher education would benefit from a more differentiated system in which teaching- and research-oriented institutions would operate more seamlessly alongside the community college sector. This paradigm would not only support accessibility to quality education for all students, but also maintain competitive excellence in research.

But the danger of adopting such a system could be to undermine the modus operandi of already well-articulated institutions, observed Bonnie Patterson, the former president and vice-chancellor of Trent University and current president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities.

Whatever change is effected must occur on an incremental basis. Indeed, "you can't change an institutional profile overnight". Instead, she concluded, universities should work to devise more effective tools for measuring learning outcomes - letting those metrics determine the direction of change.

Moreover, Patterson questioned whether it would be possible for universities to have prestige without a research mandate. She stressed that whether directed by a government or institution, a differentiation process must occur with clarity, trust, respect and transparency. Importantly, whatever direction is chosen, it is crucial that there are no unintended consequences associated with realising that objective.

Taking Europe as an example, Hans Vossensteyn, of the Twente Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies in the Netherlands, noted that it is possible to view institutions through the prism of "different types of prestige", where individual universities develop their own strategies in the context of financial pressures and incentives.

He referred to the European Union's global database of universities (U-Multirank) in which universities will be ranked according to more nuanced performance and output assessments, observing that such a model tends to encourage differentiation within - rather than between - institutions.

And, indeed, this is an approach not unfamiliar to many Canadian universities.

Responding to the session, delegate Marilyn Rose, a professor of English and former dean of graduate studies at Brock University, observed: "Universities in Ontario already see themselves as differentiated in terms of the programme mix they offer and the missions they define for themselves. They see themselves as inherently different from one another - defined, distinctive and discrete."

She added that no one university "wishes to surrender its nuanced, historic and locally-responsive 'identity' in favour of a more binary system that would define some as 'undergraduate focused' and some - by implication - as the opposite."

Whatever road is taken, the process is still in its infancy, but as conference organiser and president of HESA, Alex Usher, noted, the meeting presented an opportunity to discuss issues associated with and responses to isomorphism in Canadian higher education.

In the context of better understanding the risks and benefits of differentiation of institutional mission, he stressed the importance of building "a foundation for intelligent dialogue on [the] topic". Those who attended the conference had been empowered to contribute to the debate and "sow the seeds for a fruitful discussion over the months and years to come".

What is certain is that the differentiation bus will be driven carefully in order to enhance and to appreciate - and thus preserve - the rich diversity of Canada's higher education landscape.

* The full title of the conference was "Stepford Universities? Differentiation of mission in the new higher education landscape".