Robert Joustra is director of the Redeemer Centre for Christian Scholarship, and assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College.
Innovation may be a bygone buzz word in the business world, but in Canada's universities and colleges it's getting deadly serious. Business as usual has netted a slippage in global rankings, a special anxiety just when public institutions in Ontario are gearing up for some hard realities on provincial budgets. We need ideas on how to spend less money and get better results, the political stuff of pixie dust and fairy tales. But there is at least one answer worth serious thought that might be our Tinker Bell: competitive diversity.
Competitive diversity means not only concentrating specializations in existing publicly funded institutions, but enfolding other publicly chartered (but not publicly funded) schools, whose competitive edge is sharp from already contending with publicly subsidized tuition. I mean, of course, the myriad small liberal arts colleges dotting our post-secondary landscape. The sorts of institutions that deliver quality outcomes for lower prices. The sorts of institutions that students are already voting for with their tuition dollars, and that businesses from Ontario and from around the world choose every year as crucial economic and social partners.
Any plan for Canada's post-secondary revitalization must fold in the kind of public-private partnership model that has proved so effective in other sectors. It can no longer afford to ignore a crucial part of its university and college system.
Already associations like the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario are arguing that the government should hold post-secondary institutions to outcomes (rather than micromanaging) and adopt policies of competitive differentiation.
Small, diverse, universities and colleges that are publicly chartered (and therefore quality controlled), but not publicly funded provide just the pool of competitive context that can spark improvement across the system. It can also provide the kind of education choice that large, publicly funded universities can't. While the big universities are focusing their programming and expertise, these colleges offer a competitive alternative, on a smaller scale.
We call that choice liberal arts, a term that means more than just a smattering of content, but an education purposefully designed as a public project – in its older meaning the making of a 'free person,' – active in civic life, trained in the meaning and pursuit of the common good.
Why does it matter if a university has not only a fantastic international politics program, but also a fledgling religion program? Shouldn't one be closed to achieve maximal market efficiencies? Not necessarily, argue the liberal arts enthusiasts. The post-911 world should be evidence enough as analysts scrambled in the aftermath to find those fringe religious scholars and political theologians whose insights on Islam suddenly became powerfully important.
What is especially needed in our time is not only skills training that maps onto employability, important as that may be, but a collaborative and integrative approach that connects the big questions of, say, philosophy, or political science, to agriculture policy, to medicine, to chemistry. What is needed is a model of competitive diversity in our post-secondary sector that unapologetically affirms the place of smaller, differentiated, liberal arts schools that balance the important priority of specialized skills.
That is the continuing "gold standard" of a liberal arts degree, the catalytic effects of a cohesive, collaborative project of human knowledge and experience. Our economy, and our society, needs highly trained experts, yes, and differentiation can deliver that. But we also need those experts to have faith in our common life, to integrate learning and doing, belief and behavior. We need not only strong public institutions producing the what of colleges and universities, we need diverse communities sustaining the why. The two can, and should, go hand in hand in a diverse post-secondary system in the province of Ontario and beyond.