One of the big topics over the past three years in Canada – and particularly in Ontario – has been that of “differentiation”. The idea of differentiation as a boon to the university system essentially traces back to Adam Smith. Just as in Smith’s hypothetical pin factory production can be increased multi-fold, by having different workers work on different aspects of pin-making, so too can a university system be made more productive by having institutions concentrate on different aspects of higher education.
It also gains some moral force from the observation that universities tend towards isomorphism. It’s not that everyone wants to be Harvard or U of T, exactly (though there is a bit of that), but rather it’s that every institution has a drive to make itself more organizationally complex and more research-oriented. And collegiality makes it difficult for institutions to actually prioritize some fields of study over others: the number of institutions that are genuinely excellent in some fields of study, and yet can’t actually say so out loud, or do anything to promote these areas, for fear of offending other internal constituencies, are too many to count.
So, OK, specialization. But in what? The most highly counterproductive aspect of the current debate on differentiation in Canada is that it tends to revolve on only one possible aspect of differentiation (research vs. teaching), and it assumes that the relevant unit of analysis is the institution, as opposed to the discipline. Neither of these should be a given.
To see how the debate could be re-cast, have a look at how the Dutch have handled the differentiation issue. A few years ago, the Government struck-up a Committee on the Future Sustainability of the Dutch Higher Education System, whose report was entitled Threefold Differentiation – it’s a very smart plea for greater mission differentiation, without creating a zero-sum game around research.
The key difference between the Dutch and Canadian approaches is the idea of institutional “profiling”. Institutions can specialize in lots of different ways: the kinds of students it accepts, its involvement in knowledge exchange and interactions with business, its degree of orientation to internationalization and/or regional engagement. It can also specialize somewhat in terms of its research profile (smaller institutions, for instance, might have doctoral programs in arts or science, but not both). Thus, their views of differentiation are significantly more multi-dimensional than ours. And more dimensions = more ways for institutions to find a “win”.
A second key difference between the Dutch and Canadian approaches is the idea of performance and incentives. There’s no pretence in the Netherlands that you can pull institutions away from isomorphism without some form of reward: institutions need to be rewarded for their profiles. (In Canada, of course, the only incentives government provides is to be big and research-intensive. And then they whine about institutions choosing not to differentiate themselves. Go figure.) But the Dutch are equally clear that these rewards need to be based on transparent and measurable outcome indicators. In Canada, we’ve sort of grasped the indicator bit, without necessarily tying it to rewarding specific profiles.
In short, there are specialization gains to be had through greater differentiation. But as long as we define differentiation as being specifically about research vs. teaching, my guess is that we aren’t going to realize them.