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Reza Moridi swears in as Minister of Research and Innovation of Ontario in the Legislative Chamber at Queen's Park in Toronto February 11, 2013. Now the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Mr. Moridi says Ontario’s universities need to expand their reputations internationally as part of the province’s push for institutions to specialize.STRINGER/CANADA/Reuters

Ontario's universities need to expand their reputations internationally as part of the province's push for institutions to specialize, says the minister responsible for the province's colleges and universities.

Last month, the government released agreements with each of the province's 44 colleges and universities setting out goals for each school, from the number of future undergraduate and graduate students to programs that universities want to expand. The deals are the first step in each school choosing areas of specialization and avoiding duplication across institutions. Eventually, the agreements could be used to fund institutions according to measures other than just expanding enrolment, although discussions on those future metrics have not begun, the minister said.

"In terms of performance, what I've been thinking is that we need to make our institutions more internationalized," Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Reza Moridi said. Canadian scholars at Canadian universities should be winning top international prizes, he added, pointing to the awarding of one of four Fields Medals this year to Princeton math professor Manjul Bhargava, who was born in Hamilton. "The prize is Canadian, but we did not have a Canadian base winning this prize."

Dr. Moridi is himself a former academic with a PhD in physics, and was the chief scientist and vice-president at the Radiation Safety Institute of Canada. He is also Minister of Research and Innovation.

"In my own case, I graduated four times from universities; I spent 12 years in universities," he said, adding that increased labour market competition means more students follow his path. "People may say I have a BSc, so I need to specialize in a certain area to find a better job – sometimes people do two masters, as I did myself."

With the new differentiation framework in place, smaller schools such as Trent or Windsor will see their graduate spots only grow by a few dozen or 100, while the province has agreed to several hundred more graduate students at the research-intensive University of Toronto.

At the same time, students should consider apprenticeships as electricians or plumbers, not just long years in the classroom, Dr. Moridi said. The province wants to provide more information on the labour market, to better match students' choice of field to business needs. "We don't want students graduating in one particular field and then after graduating they find that there are no jobs," he said.

It is not clear how differentiation will affect university funding in the future, particularly for schools that are primarily undergraduate institutions. Approximately 2 per cent of Ontario's funding is already tied to graduates' outcomes, but there is little difference among how well schools prepare students for the labour market, a study last year by the Council of Ontario Universities found.

For now, universities know the government's priority is eliminating the $12.5-billion deficit by 2017-18. "They know that the government has no new money for salaries and they have to work within the means which they have," Dr. Moridi said.

In the fall of 2015, the ministry will unveil a website that may eventually save institutions some money in delivering courses. Students will be able to take courses offered online by any participating school and receive credit toward their degree.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities will unveil a website next month that may eventually save institutions some money in delivering courses. In fact, it will unveil it in the fall of 2015.