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Academic in-civil war

September 1, 2009

Summer is a fallow period for politics – legislatures close, politicians return home to consult their constituents (especially those who happen to be at the cottage…), and the government’s legislative agenda sits dormant through the long days of July and August. Typically, heated policy debate takes the summer off – without a steady supply of government announcements and activity, what’s to get worked up about?

Well, if all else fails, fight amongst yourselves. This summer, the leaders of this country’s pre-eminent research universities, perhaps bored with the lack of policy action, launched a policy suggestion that has stirred up a hornet’s nest of debate among academics across the country. The leaders of the so-called “G5” group of universities have suggested that they should be recognized, and receive support commensurate with that recognition, as distinctive, elite research institutions, and should therefore have different mandates and functions than the rest of Canadian academe. I’m not convinced anyone in the broader public is paying much attention to the discussion, but it hasn’t stopped the development of an internecine battle between the bigs and the smalls.

UBC, UofA, UofT, McGill, and UdeM are already recognized as our “elite” research universities by the granting agencies – they receive the lion’s share of research money in this country, and do so by winning competitive awards. Presumably, an “elite” university should have no problem succeeding in a meritocratic granting system – so what’s the point of making the distinction?

Perhaps making a distinction between the G5 and the rest will free the big schools to concentrate on graduate education and research, and will allow smaller schools to concentrate on undergraduate teaching. Again, though, this is already the case, absent any official decree – undergraduate education isn’t a priority at the G5 like it is at smaller schools, with enormous classes and fleets of teaching assistants. Small universities already tend to focus on undergraduate education. St. Francis Xavier isn’t trying to be UofT, and vice versa. So again, why bother?

Though the G5 are already de facto “elite” research universities in Canada, perhaps a renewed national academic strategy is necessary to compete with the best internationally. As I blogged previously, though, Dr. Jamil Salmi’s research indicates that to be a globally elite university you need international academics and students, huge endowments, and autonomy. It isn’t clear how the G5 proposal will address any of these issues, or why policies designed to address them wouldn’t be equally well-applied to smaller institutions.

In fact, I really don’t understand the motivation behind the G5 proposal. With a government that has shown a willingness to cut research funding budgets while engaging in profligate spending elsewhere, why not join voices with institutions across the country to argue for strengthening research funding policy, generally?

Worse, the big universities risk a major backfire. The smaller institutions who have been rankled by the G5 suggestion are numerous and widely spread across the country. The G5 (with the exception of UofA) are in ridings the Conservatives have no hope of winning, whereas the smaller universities are often in the suburbs and small towns that are the Conservatives’ bread and butter. Furthermore, the research money that goes to these smaller universities tends not to be in the form of enormous CIHR biomedical grants, but rather supports smaller, targeted research projects that align with the government’s current agenda. Finally, this government is consistently anti-elite, populist, and mistrustful of authority. Do the G5 really think Stephen Harper’s conservatives are going to side with them against the criticisms from places like Lethbridge, Windsor, and Charlottetown? It will be easy for the Conservatives to argue that the G5 are bloated, self-centred, elitist ivory towers who want to keep small, hard-working schools in their place. It’s the same argument they use against the Liberals, and – frankly – there may be a ring of truth to it.

Canadians should be rightly proud of our big research universities, but should also be proud of the rest. Yes, there are problems with research and innovation and connections between academia and industry. The system may be broke, but I don’t know that this is the right way to fix it.

I’ve attached links to a number of articles across the country:

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    September 1, 2009 15:14

    I too am non-plussed at the strategy of the G5 and I work at one of them. Part of the frustration is that there is not enough funding to go around. However, as you note, the fat cats are unlikely to gain much sympathy and they are simply out-numbered by the many smaller institutions. Our system does tend to give support to smaller labs and institutions. It is much harder to win a second grant when you have one, let alone a third when you have two. This is as it should be since it is also easier to conduct cutting edge science when you are surrounded by professors who do more research than teaching.

    My feeling is that this move is an indication of an underlying malaise that will soon get ugly. The big universities are struggling to make ends meet due to their insatiable need to build competitive research programs, insufficient indirect costs and decimated endowments. But the solution is not to create a two tiered system. Rather it is to make the case for indirect costs to reflect the true cost of research. At U of Toronto, tricouncil indirects are less than 18% whereas in smaller institutions they can be as high as 80%. Is there economy of scale in supporting research? Unlikely. But raising indirect costs would result in a reduction of direct funds. So, we are faced with the problem of subsistence support compared to international peers, which will ultimately lead to a loss of competitiveness. There are no silver medals in research.

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      September 1, 2009 15:18

      Great response, Jim.


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