The Geography of Differentiation

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By Christopher Ventura

Institutional differentiation within Ontario’s Post-Secondary Education (PSE) sector began to unfold in real terms in April of 2014, with that being the effective starting date for all of Ontario’s PSE institutional Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) (Brock University & Ontario Government, 2014). The first round of SMAs negotiated between the government and the 44 PSE institutions in Ontario is set to expire in 2017, so within institutions, discussions are already underway of what the next SMA process may look like.

In 2013, Weingarten, Hicks, Jonker, & Liu published The diversity of Ontario’s universities: A data set to inform the differentiation discussion as a major paper through the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). The paper’s intention was to show statistical reasoning for the Ontario government’s clustering of institutions in a differentiated system based on, “variables that other jurisdictions have used to differentiate their university systems”.

This blog post will examine a sample of the institutions identified in the cluster described as, the “mainly undergraduate universities that are less involved in graduate education, especially at the PhD level, and attract a lower level of research income” (Weingarten et al., 2013) The institutions identified were Algoma, Brock, Laurier, Lakehead, Laurentian, Nipissing, Ontario College of Art & Design University (OCADU), Trent, and University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). The sample chosen for this blog excludes OCADU, UOIT & Algoma University, because they have a specifically different mandate already, as noted in the HEQCO (Weingarten et al., 2013) paper, and Algoma Universit’s SMA (Algoma University & Ontario Government, 2014).

Each SMA negotiated between the Ontario government and the institutions follow an identical format, which makes it very easy to compare and contrast objectives and differentiation methods. Within each document’s executive summary there is a small section entitled, “[Institutions] key areas of differentiation”, which gives a brief insight into each institution’s vision of how their institution is differentiated from others. By coding each of these sections from the selected institution’s SMAs, patterns, similarities and differences emerge.

Between the six institutions identified, the author identified key phrases and themes that appeared in more than four of the SMAs. The findings of this coding resulted in a further split of the cluster around geographical lines, as well as a clear and measured difference between all of the institutions within the identified cluster, and a sample of those considered a cluster of, “Universities at the upper end of research intensity” (Weingarten et al., 2013).

There was a clear distinction between the SMAs presented by Brock & Laurier, as opposed to those from the other institutions within the cluster, and even the language of the similarities across all institutions varied. The four most prevalent themes were community engagement, a focus on growing research, inclusiveness, and improving access. Not of all these were evident across all institutions in the study, but were noted in at least four of the six SMAs.

Community engagement was cited by all institutions except Laurentian in their SMA (Brock University, Trent University, Nippising University, Lakehead University, Wilfred Laurier University, Government of Ontario, 2014). There was an interesting distinction in the language used by northern institutions versus their southern counterparts. Each of the northern institutions spoke more of engagement and improvement within their community. Lakehead opens their statement by saying, “Lakehead has a significant impact on the economic, social, and cultural life of Thunder Bay, Orillia, and their surrounding communities” (Lakehead University, Government of Ontario, 2014). By contrast, the southern-based institutions used community engagement language in terms of community partnerships.

This distinction between the language of northern institutions and southern ones is further exacerbated by the focus that all of the northern institutions put on access and inclusiveness, which neither Brock or Laurier mentioned as key differentiators. Trent University has the most impactful statement on their focus on these two key points. Their SMA states, “Trent has a culture of inclusivity and has placed a significant emphasis on improving access to postsecondary education by underrepresented groups including Aboriginal, first-generation postsecondary, LGBTQ, and international students” (Trent University & Government of Ontario, 2014).

This is an interesting distinction, because no institution studied has any language around inclusivity, or improving access that is located around the Greater Toronto – Hamilton Area (GTHA) and even beyond that within Southern Ontario. Since Brock University’s and Laurier University’s SMAs have nearly all of the same key tags, perhaps they belong in a separate category. Would it be fair to put all of the northern institutions in a cluster unto themselves?

To take this a step further, the author looked at three of the institutions in the next category identified by the HEQCO (Weingarten et al., 2013) report, that were primarily research intensive, to see if Brock and Laurier were misidentified and placed in the wrong cluster. The difference between the three institutions, Waterloo, McMaster & University of Ottawa could not be more different from the submissions of Brock and Laurier. The three research intensive institutions’ SMAs were primarily focused on their specific research areas and how they were unique within the Higher Education system in Ontario (University of Waterloo, McMaster University, University of Ottawa, Ontario Government, 2014). The differences specifically between Laurier University and University of Waterloo could not be starker, and their main campuses are approximately 1 km apart!

So, what conclusions can be drawn from this analysis?

  1. Brock and Laurier should be in their own cluster, as they are significantly different from their northern sister institutions.
  2. Brock and Laurier are severely lagging behind their fellow southern sister institutions in terms of focus on research.
  3. The Ontario Government needs to be clearer when setting the parameters by which institutions differentiate, as some focused heavily on their research strengths, while others focused on community strengths or being an accessible location.

This surface level investigation has revealed some interesting differences that the geography of institutions has on their core values, which do not diminish in an east/west split, but rather a north/south division. Future research on this topic can be aimed at digging deeper into the SMA submissions by these institutions to examine if there are more fundamental differences between institutions based on age, location, research income, and each’s own unique vision of itself.

 

Brock University, & Government of Ontario (2014). Strategic Mandate Agreement (2014-2017). Toronto: The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

Lakehead University, & Government of Ontario (2014). Strategic Mandate Agreement (2014-2017). Toronto: The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

Laurentian University, & Government of Ontario (2014). Strategic Mandate Agreement (2014-2017). Toronto: The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

Laurier University, & Government of Ontario (2014). Strategic Mandate Agreement (2014-2017). Toronto: The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

McMaster University, & Government of Ontario (2014). Strategic Mandate Agreement (2014-2017). Toronto: The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

Nippising University, & Government of Ontario (2014). Strategic Mandate Agreement (2014-2017). Toronto: The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

Trent University, & Government of Ontario (2014). Strategic Mandate Agreement (2014-2017). Toronto: The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

University of Ottawa, & Government of Ontario (2014). Strategic Mandate Agreement (2014-2017). Toronto: The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

University of Waterloo, & Government of Ontario (2014). Strategic Mandate Agreement (2014-2017). Toronto: The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

Weingarten, H. P., Hicks, M., Jonker, L., & Liu, S. (2013). The Diversity of Ontario’s Universities: A Data Set to Inform the Differentiation Discussion. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “The Geography of Differentiation

  1. I think that you bring up some really solid conclusions from your analysis, particularly in points 2 & 3. I think in essence these are intrinsically tied, through the fact that the province has clearly yet to make up its mind as to how differentiation will actually be achieved. We hang in the limbo between where we were and where we are going until someone, somewhere decides what PSE is going to look like in Ontario long term. Which creates the problem of the second point, Brock and Laurier lag significantly behind in terms of research because they never were research intensive institutions and are now desperately trying to catch up with Universities who have strong track records in this area. Without knowing what the Government has planned it remains a difficult task to promote and grow research when all the while it might be eliminated tomorrow (Again dependent on which model of differentiation is implemented), so why would researchers subject themselves to this uncertainty?

    • Hi Christopher,

      Yes, I completely agree. Something I’d like to explore in further research is if the four institutions identified as ‘somewhere in-between research and teaching’, Brock and Laurier belong in a separate cluster centered around applied innovation (entrepreneurship, applied sciences, tangible research outcomes, etc). These innovation institutions would follow a model similar to what Ryerson has developed as a center for major innovation. It could be an intelligent way to cluster and differentiate these institutions without disrupting their overall focus on research and teaching, rather enhancing it around a common theme of entrepreneurship.

      Thanks for your comment,

      Chris Ventura

  2. I’m reading a book right now – “The graduate school mess” (Cassuto, 2015) that argues (amongst other things, including giving a very good history of higher ed) that things like SMAs, while inviting differentiation, actually make the institutions follow similar models – and therefore [un]intentionally the universities end up more similar. He points out that historically universities grew to cater to the needs of the immediate community (and Brock is one fine example – check out the photos at Alphie’s). Recently, even community colleges are beginning (in some cases, anyway) to lose that local connection – without it, and given today’s technology, I cannot see how one can argue that a university needs to be in any given location. It seems to me therefore that I’d want to see northern universities articulate the ways in which they are focusing on the north, with southern universities focusing on problems of the south in their research and students of the south in their teaching.

  3. Interesting rigor regarding Ontario’s Post-Secondary Education (PSE) sector specifically the language used for Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs). Institutions use a variety of language such as community engagement language to express their agreements. Trent University – as you recall -caught my attention with their language. “Trent has a culture of inclusivity and has placed a significant emphasis on improving access to postsecondary education by underrepresented groups including Aboriginal, first-generation postsecondary, LGBTQ, and international students” (Trent University & Government of Ontario, 2014).

    Southern Ontario’s Post-Secondary region education institutions better be doing the same -and if not more. Take for example Toronto, it is a huge populace. How much more partnership should educational institutions have with each other and their community especially in bigger geographic regions, such as Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Niagara Region, London – and you get it? – schools be interconnected? There is huge impact these schools have on the social, economic, and culture life of the populace in the locally and not so locally area – and too the vast regional area.

    As was mentioned, the discussion in the area of the fundamental differences between institutions based on location, space and time is one of itself yet a collaborative partnership with the other is something also one of itself! As Nicola mentioned, well her book – Messy! “The graduate school mess” (Cassuto, 2015). North vs the South in any populace area is dicey! Southern Ontario Education Institutions vs the Northern Ontario Education Institutions – well not against them but in contrast. In a human geographer’s term, the higher education urban educators – well where they play! It brings something to mind – what do you, as educators/life-long learners aspire in your work?

    Looking on the bookshelf of ideas, I came across this specific framework the Aspire Model which is a systematic approach to include practice such as encompassing issues related to people, program, policies, and procedures (Armstrong, D. E., & McMahon, B. J. (2006). Inclusion in urban educational environments: Addressing issues of diversity, equity, and social justice. IAP.) Discussing higher education issues as a geographic space and time, how is urban different? Yet how are they all different yet all similar? As Nicola mentioned, the dialogue articulating the ways in which north focuses on themselves and southern on themselves. How do you fit in the geographical difference of higher education?
    Great discussion here for sure – thank you for thought=provoking ideas!

  4. Thanks for this assessments of the SMA’s. While I agree with your third point in principle (I think the government can always be clearer), I’m not sure that clarity would have served their purpose in this case. If the ultimate goal is differentiation, then allowing institutions to define what they think they are good at and where they think they are heading seems like a good first step. What I think will be interesting will be to see if institutions change their path based on knowledge of other institutions mandates. I’m also curious to see how this process becomes tied to funding over time (if at all).

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