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.