Does America need "fewer but better" research universities?

Leading U.S. universities call for number of research universities to be cut; dollars focussed on top schools

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (subscription site) that the head of a group of leading U.S. universities is calling for government research funding to be focussed on a small, elite group of U.S. universities. Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), said that “fewer but better” top research universities are needed.

Mr. Berdahl’s association represents 60 American universities that together award more than half of all U.S. doctoral degrees and 55 per cent of science and engineering degrees. Berndahl first raised the matter in a letter to sent last February to Sen. Lamar Alexandar, Republican from Tennessee and a former Secretary of Education. The letter was obtained by The Chronicle.

According to the weekly paper, Mr. Berdahl’s letter asked a series of questions that included: “How many research universities does the United States realistically require in order to maintain its agenda of innovation and advanced training?” The AAU has not made any recommendations as to how this policy could be put into effect or how many universities would have to be cut or downsized, but it has asked the National Academies to study the issue.

The Chronicle notes that “the recommendation to reduce the number of research universities may face some opposing forces on both the state and federal levels.” No doubt

Similar noises have been made by leading universities in the United Kingdom.

The questions raised by Berdahl’s letter are particularly relevant to the Canadian university system. When it comes to research funding, we have, even more than the Americans (or the British), tended to spread the wealth around: we have a smaller number of universities than the Americans, but a very high percentage of them are big players in the research game. Thanks to the imperatives of politics and regional development, we don’t have small number of top-tier research universities and a much larger group of less research-focussed institutions. Instead, we have a lot of universities with big stakes in the research game, including small institutions that, less than a generation ago, were traditional liberal arts colleges focussed on undergraduate teaching. Everyone gets a piece of the pie. For a small number of top Canadian universities that want to compete in the big leagues against Harvard and MIT, it’s an impediment. Is that merely a harm to their institutional egos, or a negative for the country’s education, innovation and economy?

Is Canada’s current “spread the research around” approach best, or would concentrating top-flight research at a small number of super-institutions be better? Does the former approach open research up to more academics and students? Is that more egalitarian and, in the long run, better for Canadian education and innovation? Or does it just fritter limited research dollars away on ambitious projects often sited at institutions that do not have the institutional capacity to take full advantage of them? Would the latter approach create a Canadian Harvard, a Canadian MIT and more/better research?

As David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto noted in a speech last month, Canadian universities (including his) do a lot research — but the country as a whole punches below its weight when it comes to world-beating, highly influential research.

In research productivity, Canada punches well above its weight as a country with a small population. For example, at the University of Toronto, we publish more scholarly papers than any other university in the world except Harvard and, perhaps — depending on how you count publications — another U of T – the University of Tokyo.
That said – and in the presence of John Polanyi, our most recent Nobel laureate – I am disappointed, as are many observers, that Canadian universities are not doing better in the race to win major international research prizes. According to last week’s report from the STI Council, between 1941 and 2008, Canada received 19 such prizes, tied for 12th with Israel, a country not even established until 1948. Ahead of us: the United States with 1403, the UK with 222, France with 91, Germany with 75, even Australia with 42 prizes.

Naylor didn’t raise the point in this speech, but I will: would we get not just more research, but more superb research, if we concentrated our efforts?

I plead ignorance. All I know is that it’s a very important question that Canada’s university system needs to ask, and answer. It’s a problem in need of some good research.