Embracing religious difference in higher education

For the most part Canada is still a bastion of public post-secondary education. The majority of degree-granting institutions across the country are publicly funded, with government charters establishing their mandates. At the same time each province has at least one institution on the periphery of the public system that is private and faith-based, offering degrees for its particular constituency.

Overall, these institutions mirror their larger, public counterparts in their governance and programme offerings. But every so often, issues of academic freedom or conservative student conduct policies spark heated debates over how much integration religious post-secondary education should have into the larger provincial system.

The current controversy over Trinity Western University’s potential law school is one such issue that has generated vicious criticism from both sides.

The British Columbia university’s particular code of student conduct is seen by some as a reason to limit the institution from offering certain degrees and keep it at a distance from the rest of the system.

However, a recent study on the province of Manitoba found that private, faith-based institutions can be effectively integrated into a provincial system through strategic university policy and institutional collaboration.

More uniformity than diversity

Although tooth and nail conflicts like the above seem to suggest irreconcilable differences between public and faith-based institutions, the reality is more harmonious. Canada’s faith-based institutions tend to co-exist well, cupped on the edges of the public system.

The Manitoba study points to strong academic norms and values that are widely accepted by institutions in the province and have gradually led to institutional conformity. These values determine institutions’ governance arrangements, curricular development and academic freedom.

The evidence of uniformity is seen by the agreements into which public and faith-based institutions have entered for collaboration. Credit transfer procedures allow students from both sectors to move between institutions, while graduate school enrolment at the flagship University of Manitoba has recently recognised degrees from many of the faith-based universities.

Further integration is noticeable in jointly offered programmes such as peace and conflict studies, which is run by both the University of Manitoba (public) and Canadian Mennonite University (faith-based). For the main players in Manitoba’s faith-based post-secondary education system, conformity to the norms and values of the academy have meant legitimacy and integration in the provincial system.

Checks and balances

Some public universities have also established official channels for faith-based universities to interact with them.

One example is the designation offered by the University of Manitoba to faith-based institutions as ‘Approved Teaching Centres’, or ATCs. This ensures that faith-based institutions align with the accepted academic structures of the public system while allowing them the freedom to maintain their religious mandate.

While not all faith-based institutions applied for ATC status, it is a particularly helpful channel for those that wish for further integration into the larger public university system.

Limits to participation

Canada’s private, degree-granting institutions that operate from a faith-based position have much in common with their public counterparts. They are legitimate providers of higher education and channels should be maintained for collaboration and student mobility.

To suggest that these institutions should not be allowed to offer certain programmes because of the limits they place on students enrolment is a moot argument.

Rather, limiting participation is another commonality between religion and the academy. Universities and professional programmes in particular have always had strict entrance and degree completion requirements.

It is time to move beyond the brutal criticism of institutional difference and find the common ground that will build towards an integrated system.

* Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada.