The Differentiation of the Ontario University System: Where are we now and where should we go?

Data visualisation

The differentiation of the Ontario university system: Critical pathways forward

For more than six years , HEQCO has conducted research on the differentiation of Ontario’s public postsecondary system , where institutions build on and are accountable for their specific strengths , mandates and missions. A new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) identifies clear distinctions between universities in terms of their research and teaching missions. The data point to critical pathways to achieve the benefits of greater differentiation. The goal is a system that is more cohesive , more sustainable and of higher quality.

Following on an overview of university differentiation in 2010 , a subsequent HEQCO report that examined Ontario universities’ research performance identified four university clusters: the internationally competitive University of Toronto , six research-intensive universities , nine mostly undergraduate universities and four “in-between ” institutions.

Project description

The current report , The Differentiation of the Ontario University System: Where are we now and where should we go? extends that analysis by going beyond research and examining differences among Ontario universities on four additional dimensions:

  • Equity of access: the enrolment of under-represented groups and Ontarians from lower socio-economic backgrounds;
  • Demand: student preference and university selection;
  • The learning journey: the learning environment , student experience and completion rates; and
  • Graduate outcomes: resultant success on the job market and with the repayment of student loans.


This comprehensive analysis , which includes an innovative data visualization , reinforces the existence of distinct clusters among Ontario’s 20 universities. It also offers a deeper appreciation of how these clusters differ from one another and provides greater clarity on the distinctive nature and role played by those institutions previously classified by HEQCO as “in-between ” and now termed regional universities. This analysis suggests policies and practices within a differentiated system that would lead to more equitable access and success for all students , higher quality outcomes , and greater financial sustainability of the system and its institutions. Among key recommendations:

  • Recognize and fund equity of access as a significant differentiating feature
  • Support the University of Toronto as Ontario’s flagship institution
  • Build on the role of regional universities
  • Concentrate research expansion for greater impact
  • Seize the opportunity for a bold strategy with Strategic Mandate Agreements
  • Drive differentiation through funding

As evidenced by its initiation of Strategic Mandate Agreements with the province’s 24 colleges and 20 universities , and the release of its Differentiation Policy Framework , the Ontario Ministry of Training , Colleges and Universities has clearly signaled its intention to position differentiation as “a primary policy driver for the system. ” The authors conclude that “the time is now to boldly apply university differentiation across Ontario. “

Authors of The Differentiation of the Ontario University System: Where are we now and where should we go? are Martin Hicks and Linda Jonker , HEQCO.​​