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U of O president says Ontario’s push for differentiation ‘not an unreasonable way to go’

File photo by Mico Mazza

The move toward university specialization and differentiation in Ontario shouldn’t be considered “a threat to the value of a degree,” according to University of Ottawa president Allan Rock.

The Senate has been discussing how the university may focus its programming to meet the recommendations of a Government of Ontario framework proposal that was leaked in late September, which urged universities to specialize or risk losing provincial funding.

Rock said the university intends to invest in “special strengths and an international reputation” in order to produce “a better result for the graduate.” The intention is for employers to see graduates from specialized programs as the best in the field.

“You studied with the best in the business, you must be terrific,” he said.

In November, Rock said the Senate has looked at health, science, and public policy as potential areas of specialty, while others like the U of O’s journalism program—which had its admission suspended for the 2012–13 academic year—may fall through the cracks.

The government consulted with schools while drafting the document, and Rock said the general response was that it was “not an unreasonable way to go.”

“For decades, universities and faculties have been developing profiles that reflect special profiles, special strengths,” he said. “It’s always been that way.”

He said the government is inviting universities to “deepen those, broaden them, and formalize them—and we can live with that.”

With this approach, prospective students can be expected to pick a school based on its areas of strength more than ever before, rather than other factors such as proximity, environment, and a familiar concern, cost. Critics may argue that it widens the gap between the best and the rest, and students who choose a university for other reasons than its academic strengths may feel shortchanged studying in a field in which the university doesn’t specialize.

“I concede that point,” said Rock. “It’s arguable.”

The ideal situation is to maintain 10 strong faculties at the U of O, each with specific areas of expertise, he said.

For example, in the Faculty of Science, the university would be known for photonics, catalysis, and chemistry; the Faculty of Law would specialize in international, environmental, and telecommunications law; and the Faculty of Social Sciences would focus on public policy and administration, governance, and international relations.

In pursuant to the policy framework, each university is required to enter into a strategic mandate agreement in which it will identify its areas of strength. The province will then apply metrics against which each school’s performance in achieving or pursuing those strengths will be measured.

“Some of us think that in the long term, the government may tie funding to our performance under those metrics, as sort of a carrot to make sure we comply with the strategic mandate agreement,” said Rock. “So let’s keep our eye on that.”