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Margin Notes

Institutional drift in postsecondary education


An interesting report came out mid-February that sought to identify gaps in Ontario’s postsecondary education system. The report, Degrees of Opportunity: Broadening Student Access by Increasing Institutional Differentiation in Ontario Higher Education, was commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and was authored by Glen Jones and Michael Skolnik, both professors at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

The report, as advertised, examines the situation in Ontario, but I think anyone involved in higher education policy in Canada would find it of interest.

Two of the gaps identified by the authors are not that surprising, and filling those gaps seems reasonable enough from a policy perspective. One of these gaps is the absence of any institution that plays the role of an open university. All Ontario universities offer online courses, but they don’t follow the philosophy of a truly open university, which is an open admissions policy that is not based upon prior academic achievement. Fair enough.

The other well-known gap is the lack of a formal system of credit transfer between Ontario colleges and universities, as exists in Alberta and B.C. Everyone seems to accept this as a worthy goal, but “progress toward this goal has been exceedingly slow,” the authors note, “and no one in a position to move the ball forward has taken ownership of the issue.”

But it is the third gap they identified that raised my eyebrows: the lack of a primarily undergraduate university. The authors envision “an institution with a primary mandate to provide students with an excellent undergraduate experience. Faculty would be expected to devote far more time to teaching than to research and the institution would not have a mandate to compete with existing universities for major research funding.”

This strikes me as problematic on a couple of levels. Such an institution might be less expensive than a full-service, research-intensive university, but wouldn’t it risk being seen as a cheap, second-class alternative to a “real” university? The headline on a Toronto Star article sums it up: “No-frills university urged in [Greater Toronto Area].”

But I think the greater problem with such a proposal is the tendency for institutional drift, or mandate creep. Community colleges want to become polytechnics and offer applied degrees; university colleges (and even some colleges) want to become universities; primarily undergraduate universities want to add graduate programs and become more research-intensive. In other words, what might start out as a “no frills” undergraduate institution focusing on teaching will not stay that way. The force of institutional drift is too great.

I would have called the author’s proposal simply naïve, but to their credit they do acknowledge this drift:

There seems to be an inevitable tendency for universities to gravitate toward a common ideal that has the following characteristics: considerable effort goes into the development of graduate programs, including doctoral programs; the norm for faculty is that of scholar-teacher and the expectation is that faculty will divide their time approximately equally between teaching and research; and theoretical knowledge is more highly valued than applied knowledge.

They further state: “The power of academic drift is so strong that sometimes even with legislation, it is impossible to resist. In California, it has taken constant vigilance by the executive and legislative branches of government to maintain the system of institutional differentiation.”

This leads me to wonder: why is there this tendency for institutional, or academic, drift? Honestly, I’m kind of stumped. Does anybody have a good theory they’d like to share with our readers as to why this happens? Is it a natural evolution? And what of the idea, in general, of a primarily undergraduate university focused on teaching? Is that a good idea, and if not, why not?

Addendum, Mar. 3, 2009: On a related note, Lakehead University President Fred Gilbert released an open letter critical of the HEQCO proposal for a new Toronto-area university, adding that he was “taken aback” that the option of establishing satellite campuses of existing universities was rejected as a solution.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jeremy Schmidt / February 25, 2009 at 15:09

    There are a number of interesting, timely and problematic issues here. I can speak from rather limited experience as a junior non-tenured academic. First, as to why there is this institutional drift, among the contibuting factors must be counted: a). the heavy emphasis that government and SSHRC has put on the expansion and funding of graduate programs; and b). the desire of many faculty to teach at the graduate level, for a variety of reasons (because such teaching speaks to their more specialised research agendas, because of the kind of students, because it might be considered less work than undergraduate courses). Both are part of the increasing and somewhat reasonable pressure on academics to be productive in terms of publication and research programs.

    Second, as to whether or not having institutions with a primary mandate of undergraduate teaching is a good idea, sure the answer must be yes. In institutions in which the drift is towards stronger committment to graduate teaching and programs and faculty research agendas, the slack in undergraduate teaching is increasingly picked up by sessional positions, to the extent that as a non-tenure track instructor in the humanities I have had undergraduate students asking me to write letters of recommendation for graduate school who have not done coursework in their major with tenured faculty. Is this disconnect between undergraduate teaching on the one hand and an emphasis on research and graduate teaching on the other desirable? If it is, then undergraduate teaching institutions have a place; if not, the drift needs to be addressed.

    Third, I would submit that if graduate programs are going to be expanded, if that is what the university community wants, they need to be rethought, particularly in the humanities. Currently, they are designed to reproduce academia, and there is increasing pressure very early on in graduate studies to professionalise (publish, present, etc.,). But the reality is that the majority of graduate students will not find academic employment. Programs which have an applied focus are not the answer; programs which think outside the box in terms of requiring the development of skills and knowledge which is “transferable” and marketable, and of actively cultivating awareness as to the connections between academic work and the “world of work”, are clearly desirable.

    Fourth, at least in the humanities and social sciences, what can be accomplished in a Master’s program which can’t be accomplished in a good undergraduate honours programme? If they have the support of faculty, such programs combine rigorous learning and research opportunities for advanced undergraduates without the dubious professionalization of graduate education.

  2. Subhadeep Chakrabarti / April 9, 2009 at 18:00

    I don’t buy the point on primarily undergraduate universities (or the lack thereof) in Ontario. what are institutions like Trent U, Ryerson, OCAD if not primarily undergrad universities ? Even, York U (with some great exceptions) could be taken as an undergrad institution.