Specialize or risk losing funding, Ontario tells universities and colleges – by James Bradshaw (Globe and Mail – September 18, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Ontario’s government has taken its boldest step yet to compel universities and colleges to make hard choices about how they spend their resources, circulating a draft policy designed to stretch limited provincial dollars by narrowing some schools’ missions.

The draft framework for greater “differentiation” between schools was sent to higher-education leaders for feedback on Tuesday, marked “Confidential” but obtained by The Globe and Mail. After spending a decade investing in massive enrolment growth, the government is trying to climb out of a record deficit, and the paper argues that, without change, “Over time the sustainability of postsecondary education may be at risk.”

The paper sets the province and its schools on course for tricky negotiations, which could kick off before 2013 ends and drive some difficult shifts in priorities. Universities are ultimately free to set their own course, but where the province disagrees with a school’s direction, it can steer behaviour with levers such as funding, allocating extra student spaces and approvals for new programs.

“There are times when we may not need two institutions, in particular in the same region, offering the same course when one could accommodate the need,” said Brad Duguid, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, in an interview. “If we can find those niches and if we can find those roles, I’m not anticipating this to be a win-or-lose situation.”

The aim is to boost schools’ quality and competitiveness, but the impetus is clearly financial. “With institution inflation ranging from 5 – 8 per cent annually, and operating grants increasing by 1.1 per cent on average, existing cost structures are under pressure,” the draft framework says.

The document is couched in careful language, noting that driving differentiation “will require a careful balancing act between government stewardship and institutional leadership.” After years of discussions spurred by Mr. Duguid’s two predecessors, that interplay will come to a head in the negotiation of individual mandate agreements for each school, led by veteran public servant Paul Genest. A firm framework is expected in late October, giving universities until November to adjust their plans before talks begin.

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