Specializing Ontario schools

Higher Education Quality Committee advises university specialization

Universities across the country are looking at the benefits of specialization, and if they decide to move forward, the change could alter the nature of post-secondary education for students.

A report, called The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sector, was released Tuesday morning from Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). It indicated that specializing a university’s academic concentrations will be create a more efficient system.

It suggested making changes to university structure, programs offered, research, teaching
and services in order to make specialization a reality.

The report, states that due to the economic downturn, student concentration across Ontario schools are too low. By differentiating universities and allowing them to concentrate in a desired discipline, it will provide students with more resources devoted to their field and a better overall quality of education.

The paper argues that the Ontario university system is already very diverse due to the regional, geographical, economic and cultural variations found throughout the province. It says universities need to concentrate their resources on a specific area such as graduate research. Doing so, the report argues, will permit the maintenance of the quality of education provided to students despite greater enrollment and larger class sizes. Harvey Weingarten, president and CEO of HEQCO, said his company was approached by the Ontario Ministry of training colleges and University (MtcU) to write the report.“We convened a working group. We considered the issue and solicited some advice from that sector,” he said adding that the report’s purpose is to encourage government and intuitions to spend money in a more focused way.

“It’s encouraging universities to think hard about what their jewels in the crown are,” he said. Although there are many who are concerned with the direction that the paper suggest the post-secondary educational system move forward, Weingarten said it was meant to provoke a debate and furthermore, many universities are responding positively to the report, Queen’s in particular.

“Queen’s is engaged in a process right now in academic planning … this kind of process may result in larger and better programs and less emphasis on certain programs,” he said, adding that Queen’s has been consistent with differentiation by already implementing it in the academic planning process.

In acquiring a differentiated postsecondary institution, the government must consult with universities and the public. After the consultation period, universities must write a mission statement which highlights factors such as their desired target enrollment, priorities of teaching and research and new programs they wish to develop.

The MtcU then reviews these statements and negotiates with universities. this results in multi-year accountability agreements. both parties will then agree on the funding allocation and expectations for the university. Principal Woolf said he was given the chance to view the report, a few days before its release.

“I think it’s an interesting document without question. It has valuable insight including the recognition that universities are already differentiated,” he said. “One of the challenges for us is that Queen’s is a mid-sized university; we have strong undergraduate education, but also strong graduate programs. It is very important if any differentiation occurs, we preserve our position.”

If differentiations were to occur at Queen’s, Woolf said he hopes to concentrate on crossdisciplinary
specialization as opposed to departmental or faculty changes in order to maintain equality among disciplines.

The academic planning exercise will assist in making some of the choices in the future in terms of choosing where to specialize.

“We can’t possibly be excellent across the board,” he said.

Alexi White, executive director of the Ontario undergraduate students (OUSA), said the organization is very optimistic about the report.

“It’s important to stress the difference about not closing programs and to stress that this is about bettering the funding for universities,” he said, adding putting the idea into action has a tremendous potential to have positive effects.

Nonthless, he said that in order to ensure the process it a success, there is a need for a consultation process with students.

“I think that universities make that decision every day, and this is not necessarily forcing university to cut funding at all,” he said.

“When universities make these decisions, it’s important to see how it fits in the boarder picture, it’s important for the province to take a role in working with the universities and be proactive.”

With files from Clare Clancy

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