Ten years ago, the Ontario government launched an ambitious (and expensive) plan to boost the number of students at its colleges and universities by nearly doubling their operating grants.
The money increased access to education, but allowed postsecondary institutions to develop sometimes fuzzy mandates, instead of excelling in a few areas.
The provincial government should be applauded for thinking about requiring postsecondary institutions to specialize, or risk losing some funding.
Specialization would force postsecondary institutions to cease trying to be all things to all people.
This could help graduates, who now struggle to gain a toehold in the work force because bachelor’s degrees seem to have become so commonplace.
If a university was compelled to specialize, the credentials represented by the degree its confer in its chosen area of excellence would hold greater value.
Encouraging differentiation would offer students clear choices on which university would suit them best and allow them to develop true expertise.
On the flip side, it would discourage postsecondary institutions – especially those in the same city – from offering programs that are similar.
Such was the case, until recently, in Ottawa, where the University of Ottawa competed with Carleton University’s more respected journalism school. U of O’s program was so troubled that the school suspended admissions to it last month. But why should U of O offer courses for a profession with limited opportunities when a nearby university offers a better program?
Some postsecondary institutions are embracing differentiation on their own. The University of Waterloo, for instance, is known as a global leader in co-op education, engineering and technology, which helps attract students and research funding.
The draft government policy proposes that future funding should be tied to an institution’s ability to differentiate. How should a university choose its area of specialty, for instance, and how should it be held accountable? The government, however, has several levers at its disposal: funding, the allocation of student spaces and the approval of new programs. It’s time to use them.