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“G5” University Presidents propose academic rethink

July 29, 2009

Maclean’s has published an interesting two-part series (here and here) based on an in-depth discussion with the leaders of Canada’s largest universities, the so-called “G5”. The presidents of the Université de Montréal, McGill University, University of Toronto, University of Alberta and University of British Columbia propose that Canada’s egalitarian approach to post-secondary education is ill-suited to the competitive global marketplace for talent and ideas. Instead, these leaders suggest differentiating the large, research-intensive universities from smaller, undergraduate-focused liberal arts institutions, thereby allowing each to focus on core strengths.

The presidents cite numbers from the recent STIC report that show that, though Canada sits at the top of the pack in post-secondary education, our numbers are inflated by the large number of Canadians who attend community colleges.  Canada is in the middle of the pack, or worse, in the numbers of post-graduate degrees granted, which bodes ill for Canada’s future competitiveness. Furthermore, our research-intensive universities are ill-suited to increase graduate student enrolment, or to attract high-calibre international research talent, due to a too-broad mandate. An approach that allows schools to focus on either research or undergraduate training will be to the benefit of the institutions and the students who attend both.

The G5 presidents aren’t proposing a radical change in funding allotment, noting that their universities already receive more than 40% of research funding in Canada. Not surprisingly, they suggest that research funding needs to be increased generally, especially in light of research funding cuts in the most recent federal budget, and they seem nervous about how university budgets will fare when the government needs to make cuts to address the deficit. The presidents also suggested they needed to increase tuition rates while providing increased financial aid, and needed to attract more international students and researchers.

More important than these individual suggestions, though, is the need to adopt an overall strategy to make our academic system world-class. To this end, the presidents suggest a “first-ministers’ conference on the innovation economy”. This summit would include political and academic leaders but would also include leaders from industry who, together, would seek to improve the process of translating research innovation into private sector success. The need for industry participation is clearly made by David Naylor, President of UofT:

Right now the heat is on economic recovery. A big part of the issue is how we move discoveries and innovation from university bench tops out to the marketplace. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say again, universities don’t commercialize. Commercialization is done by companies, not by universities. So much as I’d like to be party to a lot of special pleading about post-secondary, I think the heat right now is on the innovation economy, and we’re part of that. But we’re not a driver.

What sorts of topics might be included in such a summit? Again Naylor has suggestions. The federal system of tax credits for research and devlopment needs reexamination: “It’s incredibly expensive, it’s often inefficient. At a time when we have falling government revenues it needs a close look”. Naylor also questions the role of the NRC: “We spend $850 million a year on the NRC: is it doing what it needs to do as an applied research and commercialization entity? There’s open questions about that.”

The initiative on the part of these presidents (they apparently initiated the interview with Maclean’s) is to be applauded, even if (and perhaps especially if) one can’t agree with all of their suggestions. I understand that some may chafe at their suggestion to make explicit the distinctions between large and smaller universities, though this distinction is already implicitly recognized through reputation and funding success. I think the changes will benefit both undergraduate and graduate students; undergrads who attend the big universities are often dismayed at the size of their classes and the remoteness of the faculty, whereas graduate students at small universities may feel isolated by relatively small research communities. Regardless, a targeted discussion about the role of the university should help to clarify what exactly Canadians expect from these institutions, which have developed and evolved through ad hoc responses to changing government directives instead of a coherent strategy.

A targeted discussion of how to improve Canada’s innovation is also to be encouraged, and industry’s participation can’t be understressed. Though differences in approach may be suggested, an overall strategy for innovation should be much better than the “forest of boutique programs”, as Paul Wells calls them, created over the decades by shifting governments.

The academic community seems to be positively bristling with readiness to engage in this discussion. The media is showing an interest and willingness to open a dialogue space. Despite having received several detailed reports about research and development this year, the government hasn’t yet shown a public commitment to engage in the discussion, and industry has been almost entirely silent. Everyone agrees Canada’s innovation and competitiveness need to be improved – the first ministers’ meeting would be a powerful and symbolic show that Canada is addressing the issue.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    July 29, 2009 14:26

    It could be worse in Canada. Here’s an excerpt from the AAAS policy alert than mentions Congress voting to cut three grants on HIV prevention that were recommended for funding. At least our government isn’t doing that yet…..

    “The House passed the FY 2010 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill (H.R. 3293) on July 24. The bill includes $31.3 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a 3.1 percent ($942 million) increase over FY 2009 (not counting stimulus funds) and 1.6 percent ($500 million) more than the President’s request. Approved by voice vote was an amendment by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) to de-fund three peer-reviewed NIH grants related to HIV/AIDS prevention, a move to which AAAS and other scientific and medical organizations strongly object.”

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