Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Barriers to Differentiation: Applying Organizational Studies to Ontario Higher Education

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Barriers to Differentiation: Applying Organizational Studies to Ontario Higher Education

Article excerpt


In light of financial challenges caused by the economic downturn of 2008, and due to anticipated waning enrolment growth, Ontario's Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) has identified "differentiation" as a key priority for its higher education system (MTCU, 2013, pp. 4-6). In a highly differentiated system, each college and university would have sufficiently distinct strategic mandates, research profiles, and academic programs. The common rationale for differentiation is to reduce unnecessary duplication, promote efficiency, and encourage effectiveness by incentivizing each institution to build on its particular, well-established strengths (Weingarten & Deller, 2010). Through such a strategy, the ministry seeks to trigger more differentiation by having each institution craft its own unique strategic plan and subsequently ensuring that each adheres to that plan. Through this process, it hopes to reshape the structure of Ontario post-secondary education (PSE).

But how might Ontario colleges and universities respond to this initiative? Our paper ponders some possible consequences of this centralized attempt to promote more differentiation. We use insights from the field of organization studies-an interdisciplinary field of research composed of organizationally inclined sociologists, economists, political scientists, and business management scholars-to examine how change often occurs among organizations such as universities and colleges. Based on our reading of this literature, we identify four forces that are likely to mediate the MTCU's efforts to boost institutional differentiation: (1) local market demand, (2) the tendency of colleges and universities to emulate high-status universities, a process known as isomorphism, (3) the capacity of institutions to engage in ceremonial compliance rather than substantive change, and (4) the tendency of higher education organizations to engage in status seeking. Before discussing the implications of these social forces, we begin by providing a basic overview of the landscape of the Ontario PSE system, then review the current public policy discourse on differentiation in the province.

The Landscape of Ontario PSE

The Ontario PSE system is composed of four main sectors: public universities, public colleges, private religious universities, and private career colleges. Public institutions are currently the only ones that receive stable and direct financial support from the provincial government via annual operating grants. Such grants are intended to support "general educational operations," such as staff salaries and the costs of maintaining physical facilities (Snowdown and Associates, 2009, p. 19).1 Data from the 2008-2013 academic years indicate that government operating grants constitute the main source of funding for public universities, representing 48% of their overall budget. The other prime source of funds is tuition (33%) (COU, 2014, p. 2). Ontario's 20 public universities and 24 public community colleges educate the lion's share of the province's post-secondary students, with combined full-time enrolments of approximately 650,000, 70% of which are in the university sector (Pizarro Milian & Hicks, 2014). Public universities focus on undergraduate and graduate education and are also the main producers of scientific research within the provincial PSE system (Weingarten, Hicks, Jonker & Smith, 2013). Community colleges focus predominantly on providing vocationally oriented certificates and diplomas (Hicks, Weingarten, Jonker & Liu, 2013). However, several colleges, such as Humber, Sheridan, and Seneca, have recently become more like universities, granting applied degrees and conducting applied research, although their penetration into the university sector remains limited (Hicks et al, 2013; Pringle & Huisman, 2011; Shanahan & Jones, 2007).

There are also two private sectors in Ontario PSE that do not directly receive funds from the province, although they indirectly receive funds when their students get provincial tuition loans and grants. …

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