Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: differentiation

February 26

A More Productive Debate on “Differentiation”

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.

September 30

Differentiating University Missions (Part Five)

Our conference, Stepford Universities? Differentiation of Mission in the New Higher Education Landscape, wrapped up yesterday, and there were a lot of very interesting ideas floating around. To end the week, I’ll just touch on a couple of them.

Clearly, part of the problem we have in discussing a touchy issue like this is one of vocabulary. As panelist Ellen Hazelkorn of the Dublin Institute of Technology says, we haven’t got the language to talk about this issue in a nuanced way. So, “differentiation” – which is really a process rather than an end goal – has actually come to mean a lot of different things to different people, which confuses the debate.

Council of Ontario Universities President Bonnie Patterson made the point that perhaps the real issue isn’t that institutions need to have different missions in terms of research, teaching and service – maybe what they really need are different profiles to make sure that there are some gains to specialization. I happen to think that’s a great idea anyway: as dollars become scarce and institutions need to sharpen their messages about who they are and what they stand for to governments and potential students (especially international ones) alike.

But maybe the most intriguing discussion came at the very end, when we talked about the forces within academia that push for homogenization – in particular, the demand to perform ever more research. One participant in the final panel (where we handed the reins over to conference participants themselves) made the point that university presidents themselves – appointed by boards who are deliberately kept away from the minutiae of academic life, and who have a natural desire to “make a mark” – have, as a class of individuals, had a lot to do with the rush to research.

It’s a very valid point, but I think there’s something deeper going on, too. For all the protestations that “lots of faculty don’t like the rush to research” and would prefer a more teaching-focussed approach, there’s been remarkably little push-back from faculty themselves over the years. My suspicion is that until a real movement within faculty groups emerges to counter this, very little other than draconian government intervention is going to get institutions to snap out of the collective Stepford trance towards greater research-intensiveness.

And, to prove this point, the University of Calgary came out with a new strategic plan yesterday. Their big strategic goal is… wait for it… to become more research-intensive! Plus ça change…

Thanks to all who attended the conference and have a great weekend!

— Alex Usher

September 29

Differentiating University Missions (Part Four)

One way or another, the underlying argument for differentiation is essentially the story of Adam Smith’s pin maker – that there are increasing returns to specialization. What those increasing returns are, exactly, is a matter of some dispute. For Harvey Weingarten, the increasing returns are essentially “more quality” – that is, for any given quantity of dollars we’ll see a higher return in terms of better research, better teaching, etc. He doesn’t really think you can save much money because of the politics.

Ian Clark and his co-authors of the book Academic Transformations, on the other hand, phrase their argument explicitly on the issue of finances – basically, that as resources become more scarce, there is a public policy case for a making institutions more specialized because it will result in a cheaper system.

Now, in both cases, the pro-diversification advocates are basing their argument on increases in productivity. The difference is essentially one of phrasing: one is about saying we can do more with the same, the other saying we can do the same with less. Politically, the former is a lot more palatable; given where we are fiscally, the latter is probably more realistic.

The strongest opposition that Weingarten’s piece encountered was from the provincial faculty association, OCUFA, which published its own piece on differentiation shortly after in response to the piece Weingarten wrote with Fiona Deller. Oddly enough, OCUFA’s response was actually more of a refutation Clark et al’s piece than it was of the Weingarten-Deller one. It seems as though the fact that Clark and co. received some HEQCO funding for their work meant that OCUFA viewed the two sets of arguments as identical even though they aren’t (quite).

Essentially, therefore, the argument against differentiation so far has boiled down to: “no, because it might mean less public money.” But it’s not as though the significant increases in per student funding has necessarily delivered big increases in quality – a point which OUSA executive director Sam Andrey made very forcefully at our conference yesterday. Empirically, saying that the alternative to differentiation is more funding just isn’t very convincing.

But there’s another possible argument against mission differentiation: namely, that it delivers a lot less than promised. As COU’s Bonnie Patterson suggested, it may be that the way forward isn’t so much about differentiation of mission in terms of the research and teaching function as it about differentiation of profile and areas of effective specialization. More on that tomorrow.

September 28

Differentiating University Missions (Part Three)

Here’s an important question. Why don’t Canadian governments act as if outputs matter when it comes to funding universities and colleges?

There’s nowhere in Canada where the overwhelming majority of operating funding isn’t essentially determined by enrolments (OK, you get goofy exceptions like Nova Scotia where the funding formula is based on what enrolment was in 2003, but apart from that…). But this creates no incentives other than to try increase market share, which essentially is a zero-sum game. It’s also really dull.

If we want to shake things up and get institutions to pursue differentiation, we need to go in a radically different direction. And in this respect, I’m a big proponent of the methods of the X Prize Foundation. Put a carrot out there big enough for institutions to pursue and institutions will change their behavior.

Interested in emphasizing good teaching? Why not offer $50 million annually to the institution that comes top on teaching quality in the next Globe and Mail satisfaction exercise? I guarantee that dozens of institutions will snap to it in terms of emphasizing teaching.

(Yes, yes, I know it’s an imperfect measure of teaching. But do it once and it’s an absolutely certainty that institutions will come up with a better measurement method the next year, so why not, you know?)

One could do the same kind of thing in terms of all sorts of outputs. The institution with the greatest impact on local economies? $40 million every five years. The institution that does the most to improve graduate employability? $80 million every five years. The amounts don’t actually matter that much, as long as they are big enough to drive institutional behaviour.

Where quantitative data can’t quite provide a definitive answer, adjudication can be done entirely by academics themselves (though preferably ones from out-of-province or from other countries) – by all means, let’s keep the principle of peer review. If nothing else, it will make institutions pay attention to their own outputs a lot more assiduously, which would be a good in and of itself.

As we saw yesterday, academia left to itself won’t provide diversity. You can try to tie institutions down to particular missions, but that’s likely to meet with resistance. So why not put down the stick and try some carrots instead? Considering how badly we’ve done at incentivizing diversity to date, the downside seems pretty minimal.

September 27

Differentiating University Missions (Part Two)

One of the things that distinguishes Canadian universities from those virtually anywhere else is the unparalleled freedom they have to determine their own mission. In most countries – including our neighbours to the south, I should underline – the final say over public institutions belongs with government. As one of our American-born staffers once explained to a compatriot “the difference is that up here, public universities get funding from the government, and then they tell government to kiss off.” Our institutions have freedoms that are largely reserved for private institutions in most countries.

At one level, of course, this is all to the good. It’s generally accepted that decentralization of authority in education leads to more innovation and responsiveness. What’s intriguing, though, is that despite all this freedom, there’s a remarkable unanimity among institutions about which direction they’d like to be heading: more graduate students, more research intensity and a more globalized posture.

Obviously, this can’t be explained by free institutions looking for market opportunities. It would be ludicrous to suggest that there aren’t communities looking for universities that specialize in undergraduate teaching and that have strong regional development mandates.

What it does suggest, though, is two things: a) there are other, deeper tendencies in academia which are pushing in the opposite direction and b) governments don’t make other missions sufficiently attractive financially.

The deeper tendency is fairly obvious; the professoriate – which owns our universities in all but name – spends the better part of a decade in training being trained to do research and would, given the choice, prefer their professional lives to revolve more around research than teaching. Professionally, great researchers are valued over great teachers. Left to their own devices, this is what they’d prefer to be doing. Hence the trend towards institutional isomorphism.

So the role of government – assuming it doesn’t want all universities to look the same – is to create a system that encourages institutions to act in diverse ways. Assuming tuition is capped and institutions can’t make money out of good teaching by charging for it, government only has two choices. One is that it can use regulatory power to set out different missions for institutions (which is essentially what happens in the U.S., and is also more or less what was advocated by HEQCO’s Harvey Weingarten and Fiona Deller in their paper The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sector).

The other is that government can use a variety of financial carrots to incentivize different types of behavior. More on that tomorrow.

September 26

Differentiating University Missions (Part One)

This week, HESA is hosting a conference in Toronto on the subject of Differentiation of University Missions. We’re focusing on this because we think there are a host of factors both inside and outside academia that are pushing institutions towards isomorphism. In a word, there’s a danger that institutions are becoming clones of one another, robotically following the same script – rather like the placid ladies of Stepford.

There are obviously a lot of facets to this issue, but broadly, I think we can point to three factors which (in no particular order) dovetail with one another to put pressure on institutions to homogenize themselves:

1) Government Incentives.  In most countries, governments don’t really incentivize institutions to behave differently from one another.  In Canada, we present almost no incentives for institutions to do anything other than publish more and accept more students. Given the current array of subsidies, where is the incentive for institutions to pursue excellence in teaching, or to do a superb job in regional development?

2) The Preferences of the Professoriate.  Let’s not kid ourselves; nobody is happier about the increasing research-intensitiveness of Canadian universities than academics themselves. When middling universities tell their staff they have to teach less in order to keep up with the big boys and girls of Canadian academia, who complains, exactly?

3) The Prestige Race. I’m not entirely convinced this third reason is actually conceptually separate from the second; however, some very smart people who I respect a great deal (like conference guest Ellen Hazelkorn) do, so it seems apposite to include it. Basically this argument is that the pull of major rankings systems – especially the big international ones like the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings – have queered the definition of excellence to the point where institutions have no choice but to privilege their research missions of over all other.

What can we do about this? What other models are there out there to encourage diversity? Who gets to decide what missions institutions can or can’t have? These are the questions we’ll be dealing with this week, both at out conference and in this blog. Feel free to join in the discussion.