Skip To Content


Research Article

◂ Back to Publications

The Two Towers of Transformation: The Compatibility of the Policy Goals of Differentiation and Student Mobility

January 2017

Authors: Stacey Young, Pierre Piché and Glen A. Jones (University of Toronto)

Project photo

Executive Summary

In the mid-2000s, the Ontario government began seeking ways to introduce greater financial sustainability in the postsecondary system through two major policy goals: greater institutional differentiation, as well as mechanisms that would enhance student mobility – chiefly by way of the tools of credit transfer and institutional articulation. Both are intended to deliver and expand postsecondary education in a more cost‐ effective and sustainable manner. 

This paper traces the evolution of those two “Policy Towers,” ultimately considering how they reside within the same system, either competing or complementing each other. This paper begins by examining the benefits of expanded opportunities for student mobility and differentiation with an attempt at identifying the degree of intersection between the two policy goals. The examination revealed that both policies are aligned from an efficiency/effectiveness and public good/social justice perspective. Both attempt to drive quality, reduce cost structures to government and students, as well as increase access to baccalaureate education. 

An examination of the policy levers and drivers that impact differentiation and student mobility in Ontario are first placed historically in order to provide context to the discussion and are examined by drawing from organizational and globalization studies. While there are number of policy levers and drivers that have been used by the provincial government to increase differentiation or student mobility, some levers have been identified as having a series of common elements between the two policy goals – central planning role of government, financial mechanisms, inter‐sector cooperation and collaboration, and competition. Although this paper argues that the two policy towers are indeed highly complementary and mutually dependent, differentiation as a policy goal requires a recognition that student mobility must be supported – there are a variety of policy levers that have not been used effectively (or used at all) in the pursuit of either one. 

This paper made use of a small number of case studies — beginning with the ‘partnerships’ funded by the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer, to draw out certain key characteristics that can be mapped against institutional types used in differentiating the higher education system by clusters of institutions. The study also examined the extent to which various institutional types have been engaged in credit transfer and compared and contrasted the various strategies used to increase credit transfers and provide support to transfer students and improve access to information. 

It was noted, among other observations that depending on their size, mission and demographic futures, institutions use different tools available to them to support the broader provincial policy goal of introducing greater student mobility in the system. It appears from our detailed analysis in the latter part of the paper that universities place a greater emphasis on credit transfer policies and protocols, or on the development of articulation agreements. The importance to universities of credit transfer and/or program articulation with colleges also reflects the demographic challenges faced by these institutions in the region in which they are located. 

The act of engaging other institutions in the formation of academic partnerships between institutions that yield pathways and create choice for students (e.g., for students who began their studies in the college sector and wish to pursue university‐level studies, or vice versa), is labour‐intensive, which involves a variety of different areas within the institutions. There are also risks to creating such partnerships, risks that are heightened in the current context when funding, student aid and other policies do not render such partnerships exceptionally beneficial to either party.



  • Student decisions, experiences, and outcomes