While doing some research on an unrelated matter, I came across an interesting editorial which touched on the issue of university differentiation. Here is the key excerpt:
It is impossible nowadays, to make adequate provision for advanced work in all subjects at any given institution. Some tendency to specialise is the characteristic mark of every vigorous university. Uniform distribution of effort is proof of mediocrity. It is unmistakable evidence of the absence of any teacher whose fame attracts students, whose learning fits him to be leader of a School.
OK, that last line probably gives it away that this editorial is from a different era – although the first lines could easily have been written recently. The article is from Nature, vol. 89, no. 2224, pp. 385-386, published on … June 13, 1912.
I was thinking about this issue because of the recently published book, Campus Confidential by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, which I referenced in my last blog post. One of the points in their book was that “Canadian universities are all pretty much the same.”
I think that’s an overstatement. Students at St. Francis Xavier University, for instance, are never going to confuse their campus with that of, say, University of Toronto. And there are all kinds of peculiarities and regional specificities which set many of Canada’s universities apart from one another.
However, I concede their point that most Canadian universities “try to be all things to all people” and that you’ll find much similarity in program offerings from one institution to another. I also agree that there is strength in diversity and that, as the authors write, “wider choice and more variation … would better serve students.” A recent report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario also touted the benefits of greater differentiation.
But let’s not kid ourselves: this is not a simple issue. Few universities would willingly drop entire programs so as to better focus on others, or give up research funds or shutter graduate programs, for example, to focus more on undergraduate teaching and learning. Coates and Morrison note approvingly of the existence of “narrowly conceived” private universities in some countries “with a sharp focus on career readiness,” but again I doubt that’s likely anytime soon in Canada. And there would be great pushback from vested interests.
In other words, more differentiation is great in theory, but difficult in practice. Your thoughts?