On Campus

Against specialization

Remember when choice and flexibility were good things?

With Nova Scotia’s O’Neill report in the books, and a similar report just released in Ontario, specialization is the new watchword for Canadian universities. Thus Bonnie Patterson, President of the Council of Ontario Universities: “the funding realities mean we’re going to have to build on the differences that already exist.”

Setting aside the question that the so-called funding realities are really funding decisions, the emphasis on specialization is troubling from the point of view of quality higher education.

Of course, some specialization is inevitable, or at least practical. Not every university can have a medical school, and a law school, and a major in South American Urban Geography. Fine. But I worry when I hear people like Harvey Weingarten, President of the  Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario say things like this: “If Ryerson were to say its priority is undergraduate programs that graduate the next wave of entrepreneurs, for example, it might be that the U of T wouldn’t have a program exactly like that.”

Related: B.C. PSE split sets dangerous precedent

Setting aside the fact that if Ontario really wanted to save money it could eliminate a few of these education councils, Weingarten’s comments hint that specialization is all about output. If Ontario needs graduates in various areas, the implication runs, it doesn’t need every school to fulfill that need. Put another way, if a student wants program x, she only needs one school to offer it and she can go there.

But the underlying assumption is that a university education is designed only, or mainly, as an economic investment. Universities are understood like factories, turning out useful products and thus should be specialized so as to be more efficient.

Setting aside the fact that it is inherently repugnant to think of people as products (the report calls for graduates who, like iPods should be “highly valued and competitive” [p.15]), the specialization perspective assumes that students know what they want to study when they go to university and will stick to that field of study all the way through. Anyone who teaches at a university  knows that these assumptions are actually false, and idealists like me see them as deeply troubling.

For one thing, circumstances mean that students are not infinitely mobile.  A student in Sudbury may not feasibly be able to move to Windsor to study. Consequently, specialization means limiting choices. The report claims that “differentiation” will mean more variety of programs overall (p. 6) but later reveals that claim to be false by insisting that universities must work with their existing programs (p.10). In other words, the Kingston girl who might have been a world-class artist may end up toiling as an accountant because Fine Arts was only available at Western, not Queen’s. Such things may happen even now, but they become more likely the more specialized institutions become.

More generally, students should be encouraged to go to university to discover what they want to study and that can only be done if there is a wide range of choices available. It matters because students are not always familiar with lesser known disciplines like Classics or Anthropology. It matters because what a student thinks is true of a discipline may be false (first year Psychology is often a huge surprise for students who think it’s all about mental illness and find themselves learning neurobiology). By the same token, students may discover they love a discipline they didn’t know they loved or hate one they thought they would adore. I wanted to be a history major until I was two months into my first-year history class.

Such changes happen all the time, and not just within the arts. Science students change majors, too, sometimes leaving science disciplines altogether.

With more specialized universities, students will feel even more pressure to decide on their educational path before they really know what that choice means. When they do make their choices, they will feel less able to change them and feel more pressure to stay with a program that is not right. The report barely indicates that this is a problem, and indicates that it can be solved by making credit transfer system more “robust” (pp. 10-11) and allowing for students to borrow more money (p.15) to move, but that often flies in the face of lived reality. Family, work, health, and, of course, debtload, might all force a person to stay put. Let’s face it: less choice means less choice.

In any case, what will the specializations be? The report refers vaguely to all elements of the university being equally valued. But this is the same report  that refers to universities as “powerful levers . . . to acheive public goals of greater quality, competitiveness, accountability, and sustainability” (p.2). Will the “differentiated” university system reflect the wide expanse of human intellect and culture, or will they range only so far as the quotidian priorities of myopic politicians?   Entrepreneurship is mentioned as one potential program in the report, and so is engineering: are all the specializations going to be driven by economic and business needs?

The report begins by saying universities can choose where they want to specialize, but then later emphasizes that universities must meet the “outcomes expected of them” and refers ominously to “the negotiated mission” of each university (p.14). Still later, in its “Roadmap” section, it explicitly states that the mission statement of each university will have to be approved by the government (p.17).  In other words, the priorities will be priorities of the politicians, not the universities. The report eventually says this bluntly: “Universities will do what you fund them to do” (p. 19). The nightmare scenario is not hard to imagine: one university dedicated to “entrepreneurship,” another to “innovation,” a third to “globalization” and so on and so on through the list of the bureaucratic and corporate buzzwords that themselves recur throughout the report. The new Ontario “roadmap” will be redrawn along the lines of a Dilbert comic.

Which Ontario university will be designated as a specialist in Drama, I wonder? Which one will specialize in Philosophy? Which one in Literature? If the answer isn’t none of them, I will personally apologize to the President of the Council of Ontario Higher Education Councils.

(Editors note: This post has been updated since it was first published).

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