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education memo

Few of the Ontario university students who deserted university campuses last week for winter break realize that when they return in January, their institutions would have started down the path to change. Mid-December was the deadline schools in Ontario had to meet to submit their responses to the province's "differentation" framework. Over the next decade, the province's postsecondary institutions will no longer be all things to all people, but would have taken steps to become a few, very good things, to a yet to be determined number of people.

At least that's the vision of the Ontario government, which has been prodding universities to start thinking and talking about what each of them does best. "Differentation" is the technical term for the process, but what it means in reality is a parlour game. Will it involve carrots and sticks in the form of funding levers based on outcomes like employment and graduation rates, research patents and number of graduate students? Or will universities have to find their niche while shuffling existing money between programs?

While the technical details are fascinating to university administrators and government bureaucrats, it's students and parents who could present the bigger headaches. Deciding the areas in which each university excels, means that weaker programs could be cut or reduced. What if, for example, a future playwright could only go to York or U of T? What if Labour Studies was available only at Brock? What if a potential engineer had to choose between U of T, Waterloo and York? Or indeed if engineering was available at every university, but journalism only at a few?

Those who have been skeptical about universities' abilities to prepare students for the employment market may be thrilled that programs trailing in salary outcomes will be pared back. Students and their families less so. Some may have to travel across the province to attend these new, and theoretically, stronger, programs, others could see programs eliminated entirely.

Universities too will have to adjust. As each finds its place, their reputation will be cemented. Smaller universities that don't score at the top of international rankings now still benefit from mission blur. Having many graduate programs gives a place like Trent, for example, something in common with the giants. Should those offerings not be considered central to the education experience they provide, smaller institutions will have to find ways to counter farm team perceptions. (They could, of course, do worse than to look to places like Mount Allison or Royal Roads which offer unique and highly valued undergraduate experiences.)

However the pruning happens, the losers – and there will be those – will make it into a fight.

In Alberta, where cuts to postsecondaries earlier this year were a shocking surprise, the University of Alberta finished the fall term by releasing recommendations to reduce the number of faculties and departments and come up with incentives to encourage retirements. Discussions toward the report were underway before the cuts were announced, but budgetary constraints make them more likely to be taken seriously.

There has been pressure on universities to transform, what that might look like is now taking shape.

Simona Chiose is The Globe and Mail's Education Editor. Follow me on Twitter @srchiose