Ontario Report: The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sector – Executive Summary and Preamble

About the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario is an arm’s-length agency of the Government of Ontario dedicated to ensuring the continued improvement of the postsecondary education system in Ontario.  The Council was created through the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario Act, 2005. It is mandated to conduct research, evaluate the postsecondary education system, and provide policy recommendations to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities with a view to enhance the quality, access, and accountability of Ontario’s higher education system.

The report is available here: The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sector


The Ontario university sector is already somewhat differentiated. A policy decision to increase the differentiation of the postsecondary system brings the following benefits:

• Higher quality teaching and research programs
• More student choice with easier inter‐institution transfer and mobility
• Greater institutional accountability
• A more globally competitive system
• A more financially sustainable system

Ontario’s postsecondary system can transition seamlessly and incrementally to greater differentiation with the judicious and strategic use of funding strategies already familiar to government. This transition to a more differentiated university sector is guided by principles including:

• Equal value on the teaching and research functions of universities
• Forging a contemporary relationship between Ontario’s colleges and universities
• Linking the differentiation policy to funding decisions
• More effective use of multi‐year accountability agreements and performance indicators to evaluate whether universities are meeting expected goals and targets

A roadmap is provided indicating how the government can advance the current university system to a more differentiated one. The cornerstone of this transition is a comprehensive agreement between each university and MTCU identifying the expectations and accountabilities of each institution including its expected enrolment and student mix, its priority teaching and research programs and areas for future growth and development.

In contrast to the practice with the current multi‐year accountability process, incremental
funding to the institution would be aligned with its mission agreement, annual progress
would be evaluated using an agreed‐upon set of performance indicators, and institutional
funding would be continued or removed based on progress towards agreed‐upon goals and
 targets. The document addresses several operational issues relating to the linkage of
these accountability agreements and funding including ways that government can modulate
the pace of the move towards more differentiation.

Finally, an Appendix is provided demonstrating how other Canadian provinces and
other countries have organized their postsecondary systems and are using a policy of
differentiation to increase the quality, competitiveness and sustainability of their higher
education sector for the benefit of students and public.


In July 2010, the Deputy Minister of Training Colleges and Universities, Deborah
Newman, asked the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) to explore
“…whether a more strongly differentiated set of universities would help improve the
overall performance and sustainability of the system, and help Ontario compete
internationally… [and] … how to operationalize a differentiation policy, should
government be interested in pursuing this as a strategic objective.”

To help frame and inform this analysis, HEQCO convened a Working Group consisting
of: Max Bluow (President, Wilfrid Laurier University); Linda Franklin (President,
Colleges Ontario); Dominic Giroux (President, Laurentian University); Ali Ghiassi
(Chief of Staff, MTCU); David Johnston (President, University of Waterloo); Sheldon
Levy (President, Ryerson University); David Naylor (President, University of Toronto);
and Deborah Newman (Deputy Minister, MTCU). In addition, HEQCO solicited
comments from a broad range of relevant stakeholders including college and university
presidents, and student, staff and faculty groups.

We recognize that a commitment to increase the differentiation of Ontario’s university
sector is not current government policy. This report presents our analysis, findings and
recommendations in response to the Deputy Minister’s request. The views expressed in
this paper are those of the authors and are based on the analysis conducted and the
advice received.

Overall, we believe that a more differentiated postsecondary sector offers considerable
advantages to both students and the public.

A more differentiated university system offers students a wider variety of unique and
quality programs at both graduate and undergraduate levels. A more differentiated
system is purposeful and cohesive, enhances the quality of the entire system and
clarifies student choices. It offers a system that builds on institutional strengths and
niche areas of expertise; recognizes the value of teaching and learning activities; and
rewards competitive innovation and entrepreneurship activities.

A more differentiated system is part of a government vision of a progressive, modern,
accessible, higher quality postsecondary system. It strengthens a commitment to
student mobility through system wide credit transfer. It supports access by recognizing
a heterogeneous student population with varying needs and demands. It supports
labour market ‘readiness’ of students and enhances the competitiveness of some
institutions to compete in the global arena of top research universities. A differentiated
system is supported by a strong commitment by government and institutions to
accountability and transparency through multi‐year accountability agreements that
optimize outcomes desired by students, public, labour and government.


The following are some “axes” of differentiation that capture the various ways the term
“differentiation” has been used. These axes are not mutually exclusive. However, they
reveal how different people use the term “differentiation” and help understand the
degree to which the Ontario university system is already differentiated.

1. Differentiation on the basis of structure such as size (large or small) or funding
(private or public) or legislated mandate (undergraduate only or mixed
undergraduate and graduate student bodies).

2. Differentiation on the basis of the type of program offered such as research
intensive or teaching intensive, technical/design school or comprehensive

3. Differentiation on the basis of how research, teaching or services are provided
by the institution (on‐line university or a residential university; co‐op or

4. Differentiation on the basis of institutional status, prestige or rankings.

5. Differentiation on the basis of differences in the composition of the student
populations served (Bilingual or Francophone or Anglophone; First Nations and
other indigenous students; denominational colleges; mature students or direct
from high school).

Differentiation can be vertical or horizontal. Vertical differentiation refers to the
ranking of institutions by a dimension – such as research intensity or reputation – that
alludes to a stratified hierarchical system where institutions differ in their value and
prestige, perceived or real. Almost all media‐driven higher education ranking systems
have this approach (even if they differ in the particular dimension along which
institutions are ranked). Horizontal differentiation suggests a coordinated system
composed of institutions with a diversity of missions and mandates that are equally
valued but that may serve different students in different ways. The postsecondary
framework in Alberta has this underlying philosophy (in fact, in that province all were
discouraged from saying that the system had different “levels”; it had different


The Ontario university system is already quite diverse. In fact, it would be surprising to
find a uniform or homogeneous system in place given the regional, population,
geographic, economic and cultural variations in the province, as well as the range of
founding histories of each institution.

The first broad level of differentiation in Ontario’s postsecondary system is between the
historical mandates of its colleges and universities. The distinctions between these two
streams – as two forks of a postsecondary stream ‐‐ were established in the 1960’s.
Today, the college and university sectors continue to be presented as having different
mandates, even though the migration of students between these two systems,
curriculum developments and the liberalization of credentials offered have blurred this

Postsecondary education in Ontario is delivered through 20 publicly assisted
universities and their affiliates; 24 publicly assisted colleges of applied arts and
technology; three agricultural colleges affiliated with the University of Guelph and a
school of horticulture; one applied health science institute; 17 privately funded
institutions with restricted degree‐granting authority; the federally funded Royal
Military College; about 570 registered private career colleges; and many more nondegree‐
granting private institutions offering postsecondary education or training that
do not have regulatory oversight in the province.

Within the university sector itself, the history of Ontario’s universities captures some of
their diversity. The oldest universities grew up independently – and often with
religious affiliations ‐ and date back to the early to mid 19th century; while a group of
newer institutions were established in the mid 20th century in response to a growth in
student demand, first following the second world war and then again in the 1960s and

Most publicly‐assisted universities offer both undergraduate and graduate degree
programs, although some, such as Brock, Nipissing, and Trent, tend to focus on
undergraduate education. A handful of larger universities offer second entry
professional programs, such as medicine, law, dentistry and engineering. Two
universities: Laurentian and Ottawa, offer programs in both English and French. York
Universityʹs Glendon College also offers liberal‐arts programs in French.
In addition, the Collège dominicain de philosophie et de théologie, is provincially funded and
operates at the university level.

The University of Toronto, with a total enrolment of more than 60,000 students, 129
academic departments, and 75 doctoral programs, is the largest English‐language
university in Canada, ranked as one of the country’s best, and a major centre for
research and graduate studies. Algoma University in Northern Ontario is the smallest
university in Ontario, with a student population of just over 1200.

The University of Ottawa is North Americaʹs oldest and largest bilingual university,
offering a wide range of programs in both English and French. A number of
universities, such as Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and Laurentian University in
Sudbury, serve regions with large Aboriginal populations and have developed
academic programs that support those communities.

There is a wide range of examples of innovative practices and specialized programs in
Ontario universities. For example, the University of Waterloo is a world leader in the
field of cooperative education, combining academic studies with on‐the‐job training.
Ryerson University specializes in applied professional programs and has a large school
of continuing education. McMaster has been a leader in problem based education in its
medical programs. The Ontario College of Art and Design University focuses on
degrees in design and fine arts. Laurentian University is the first university outside the
United States receiving accreditation for its forensic science programs. In addition, a
number of universities deliver collaborative programs with local colleges.

In short, history, geography, regional development, innovation and response to student
demand and the labour market have created an organic diversity in the Ontario
university system and a good base to build on for further differentiation.

For the rest of the report, please go here: The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sector