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Alex Usher of the Higher Education Strategy Associates recently posted a summary of some surveys of students at Canadian universities.  He and his colleagues found that students at most Canadian universities answered questions about their university the same way.  Usher often suggests that he wants universities to become more diverse, but in this post he mentions with a hint of disdain another view, that universities exist to provide a uniform social service.  That strikes me as a very good description of the role which I would like Canadian universities to play.  Moreover, while I think his heart is in the right place, I can see a few disadvantages of greater “differentiation” which Alex Usher has not spelled out.

Since my readers come from many countries, I should begin with some background on universities in Canada which Usher assumes his readers know. At present, most Canadians live within a few hours’ drive of a public university which has 10,000 to 30,000 students and provides good undergraduate education and skillful research in most fields.  Most universities have a few strong points which are fairly well known; Halifax and Victoria publish excellent research in Ocean Science, while the University of Toronto has far more medievalists than any other school in Canada. The largest cities usually support diverse types of institution; a degree at SAIT or Emily Carr is very different from one at the University of Calgary or UBC. I was in Alberta when the provincial government proposed to close down “redundant” programs and focus some fields at a few institutions.  Some polite phrases from a recent article promoting a similar program in Ontario will give the flavour: “budget constraints … quality … accountability … moving quickly … cut duplication … making choices … asking universities that have expanded over many years to specialize … in-demand jobs … programs will have to adjust.” (“University Budget Reform Under Pressure,” Globe and Mail, 11 October 2014). Advocates of this idea often adopt the language of market fundamentalism, speaking of consumer choice and efficiency.

If human beings were atomic economic actors with a precise idea of their goals and the expected outcome of each choice, able to move wherever provided the best education at the lowest cost, such a system might work well.  People are not like this. Some people have jobs which tie them to a city.  Some people have spouses whose jobs tie them to a city.  Some people own property which ties them to a city.  Some people have dependents who can’t move easily.  Some people rely on support from friends and family in a particular place, whether that is living with their parents or sharing babysitting with a neighbour.  And quite a few people don’t know what they want to learn and are at school to try different things and find out what suits them.  They are unlikely to discover a field which is not taught at the university they chose.  When I decided to go back to school, I happened to be free of impediments and was able to travel first out of province and then outside of North America for school. I know people who would benefit from education just as much who did not have this freedom and had to make hard choices.  In a country as dispersed as Canada, there is real value in having universities which cover the basics of all fields of scholarship in every major city.

I also can’t help but notice that, as Usher also said, when people say that Canadian universities should seek excellence they often mean that they should look more American.  As many Americans also acknowledge (example and example), their highly differentiated university system helps to enforce class; Americans expect that someone with a degree from a famous university will be treated better than someone without, and once people on their way up all start attending the same universities this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Because Canadian universities are so similar to one another, graduates have to distinguish themselves by what they can do not where they studied.  That is a blessing not lightly to be cast aside.

But if Canadian universities are a social service, let them be a better one.  Let us open our libraries, our library databases, our interlibrary loan, and our special collections to the public.  Let us publish in more cheap or open-access journals.  Let us give more public lectures, write more for the public, and consider who will benefit from our research (the pleasure of discovery is certainly a benefit, as long as someone is interested in the results). Doing these things would be difficult, but they could be done without the costs of “differentiating” universities.