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.