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Two of G5 presidents make statements, seek to move on

September 8, 2009

The so-called “G5” plan to rejig Canada’s post-secondary strategy has dominated academic headlines during the latter part of summer.  Universally negative reaction from small and mid-sized universities has dominated headlines since the original Maclean’s articles appeared, with little reaction from the G5 members themselves.

Now, two leaders of Canada’s self-styled “academic elite” have made statements seeking to clarify their respective positions. Judging from the statements made by McGill’s Heather Munro-Blum and UofA’s Indira Samarasekera, the “G5” concept may have caught the imagination of academe, but isn’t reflected in any sort of unified plan from the 5 member universities. For her part, Dr. Samarasekera argues that she simply wants to increase the number of graduate students at her school, and suggests that this is motivated partly by the benefits this will have for undergraduate education. On the other hand, Dr Munro-Blum, in a message emailed to students, faculty, and alumni, seeks to distance herself from the whole concept altogether. She suggests that the G5 presidents were misquoted, misunderstood, and had their views “distorted”. She suggests they were simply talking about “innovation”, and that everyone needs to be included – business, government, and universities of all sizes.

While I haven’t seen any comments from the leaders of UBC, UofT, or UdeM, I think these comments – especially those of Dr. Munro-Blum – serve as a death announcement for the “G5” idea, whatever it represented. Just in time, too, since a fall election beckons, and academia will be well-served using its energies to argue for a place at the budgetary table rather than engaging in this sort of infighting. Unity of message and purpose will be even more important when the stimulus hens come home to roost, and provincial and federal governments look to make cuts to balance the books.

Here are a few excerpts from Drs. Samarasekera and Munro-Blum.

Dr. Samarasekera (as quoted in UofA’s student newspaper) :

It’s important when you have 90 or so universities in the country, each one of them doesn’t do the same kind of thing, that you have a range of educational opportunities for students…

The colleges in smaller towns should still have access to a major research library if they need it, but we shouldn’t have to duplicate them everywhere…

Right now, the U of A has about 6,000 graduate students, and about 30,000 undergraduates students… What I’m saying is the U of A should have 10,000 graduate students and 30,000 undergrads.

If we get another 4,000 graduate students over the next number of years, that will have to come with additional professors. Those additional professors will also teach undergraduates, so the undergraduates who are at our university will actually have a better experience, and more research opportunities should they choose to pursue them.

Dr. Munro-Blum (in a personal message to the McGill community):

There has been much recent comment across Quebec and Canada by university leaders and journalists about the roles and the contributions of universities in improving Canada’s performance vis à vis innovation and competitiveness in the world…

Some of the propositions reported from this discussion have understandably provoked controversy; but the reports present an incomplete and much distorted view of the purpose of the meeting, and of what was said.  Simply put, nowhere in that interview with Maclean’s did any of the five of us state, as was cited in the original Maclean’s article, that our five universities must be given “the means and mandate to set themselves still further apart from the rest of Canada’s universities”, or, as cited in their editorial column of this week (week of August 31st) that “the remaining…. schools in Canada would become primarily undergraduate institutions”…

Let me restate here my views on the issues discussed during that meeting, as you have heard them before and will again.  If Canada is to compete effectively with other leading countries, universities, all levels of governments, the private sector and community organizations must collectively accelerate our efforts to encourage innovation, harness and grow our brainpower, and turn research and scholarship into applications that can be developed and promoted for societal benefit…

The dominant theme presented by the group in a lengthy exchange, was the importance of science, scholarship, research and university education to our country, each of our provinces, our regions and metropolitan areas.  Ultimately, these are critically important issues for all Canadians.  Our exchange with Maclean’s focused on these key priorities…

Canada is blessed with a strong, distributed system of universities with various missions, cultures and histories.  After a disabling period of constraint in the early 1990s, Canada and our provinces have seen a burst of innovative new government and university programs that encourage universities to reflect on and develop their institutional strengths and priorities.  Many, if not most, Canadian universities have done just this and done it successfully.  They have assessed where their distinctive contributions to teaching, research, scholarship and the communities we serve can best be strengthened by developing student enrolment targets and faculty recruitment and research plans strategically targeted to play to their distinctive missions, strengths, and community needs…

Differing university missions in Quebec and across Canada have allowed strong success and contributions to research and education to take place in many different institutions independent of their size, history or location – and this is how it should be…

The main thrust for achieving excellence and distinctiveness is, and must remain, the central role for Canada’s highly regarded peer review system in appraising excellence as the basis for the allocation of direct support to research.  It serves all of us well and rewards universities not on size or location, but on their expression of excellence as measured by high provincial, national and international standards.  Now, we must find as well common cause in harnessing and celebrating this excellence and achievement within Quebec and across Canada while striving for leadership in the provision of high-quality and accessible education at all levels – primary, secondary, post-secondary (including a stronger commitment to the education of research masters and doctoral students) at the national and international levels. This leadership will depend on bringing governments together with educational institutions, industry and prominent members of the community to encourage innovation and the advancement of knowledge.  These are the elements that are required to build a socially just and economically successful civil society.

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