Province seeks feedback on specialization

Graphic by Lena Yang.
Graphic by Lena Yang.

A paper leaked in early September revealed potential intentions by the Ontario government for universities and colleges to differentiate among themselves and to specialize in more ‘niche’ areas. The proposal, titled Ontario’s Proposed Differentiation Policy Framework: Draft Discussion Paper, sets out to “preserve educational quality and institutional excellence within a sustainable cost structure.”

Following eight components under which the government evaluated the current situation with post-secondary institutions, the process of differentiation is meant to “advance growth in partnerships and programs that serve the communities to which institutions are connected to.”

Brad Duguid, minister of training, colleges and universities, believes the government’s proposal is a way to further benefit students and teachers within the post-secondary school system. Commenting on the role that government plays, Duguid believes the need for this proposal is about looking towards the future.

“There are challenges in maintaining globally-competitive education in Ontario,” he said. ”The government wants to provide the stewardship to ensure the system works as best as possible for the students.”

Duguid said that the goals of this proposal are at the core of what the Ontario government has strived to provide for students.

“We want to continue to provide students with the best possible learning experience and are seeking ways in which to fund excellence in growth.”

However, members of post-secondary institutions and groups question whether the process of differentiation is the best route to ensure a high quality of education for students. Max Blouw, president and vice-chancellor at Wilfrid Laurier University, believes the issue raised by the proposal is the financial nature of the process.

“Through proposals like this, the government is trying to have more students succeed while spending less money,” Blouw said.

Speaking on the current situation at Laurier, Blouw said that the university is situated well within the proposed framework.

“We have a clear sense of ourselves and have anticipated the needs to set priorities.”

One of the ways Laurier has done this, Blouw pointed out, is through the Integrated Planning and Resource Management (IPRM) initiative which, through its focus on resource management and prioritization, operates on what the needs of Laurier are and what has to be fulfilled in order for Laurier as an institution to thrive.

According to Deborah MacLatchy, vice-president of academic and provost at Laurier, the proposal is an “ongoing situation” and needs to be treated as such.

“The government is asking for feedback about how universities and colleges are reacting to the differentiation framework, and the response depends on what then the government takes away from it,” MacLatchy said.

MacLatchy believes the concerns raised by the differentiation proposal shows the government is listening to the post-secondary institutions.

“The government is listening to what people in universities and colleges are saying, knowing the post-secondary sector is critical as a province and country moving forward,” she said.

Amir Eftekarpour, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Association (OUSA), explained that the proposal is “going to be up to each school” in terms of how they deal with it. His concerns lie in the way in which the proposal and subsequent actions will reflect students.

“We want to ensure students’ access to a high-quality education can be achieved regardless of differentiation,” Eftekarpour said. “We don’t want it to negatively impact the student experience.”

Eftekarpour raised a concern regarding some of the components outlined by the government in moving forward, specifically teaching and research.

“It’s important that both teaching and research are equally balanced, they can’t be lopsided.”

“We don’t want to see schools become massive research centers with less emphasis on teaching,” Eftekarpour cautioned.

Duguid noted the concerns raised by different agencies and institutions so far, but asserted that the proposal is a step forward in ensuring the growth and development of the post-secondary institutions in Ontario.

“Now is the time to provide better structures in how post-secondary institutions work and compete. We need to move away from the traditional means of how we have dealt with funding. The proposal is a way in which we are going to instill excellence looking into the future.”

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