On Campus

Our universities can be smarter

Canada’s ‘big five’ presidents have an ambitious plan for fixing our schools, says Wells

Perhaps we are not putting too many words into the mouths of the presidents of Canada’s largest universities when we say something is nagging at them. A sense that things have become skewed in Canada’s higher education system, and more broadly in the way Canada’s economy and society face an uncertain future.

How else to explain the decision by these five top university presidents to approach Maclean’s for an interview? And how else to explain that—after their aides and helpers took care to assure us that the five presidents had “no specific ask” when they offered to talk—they showed up with an agenda for major change in their own institutions and in Canadian society at large?

Over the course of a 90-minute video conference, the big five presidents said their institutions must be given the means and mandates to set themselves still further apart from the rest of Canada’s universities—to pursue world-class scientific research and train the most capable graduate students, while other schools concentrate on undergraduate education. The vision they described would be a challenge to the one-size-fits-all mentality that has governed Canada’s higher education system.

But these five are not only concerned with their own institutions’ place in the pecking order of Canadian higher education. The presidents called for what one of them, David Naylor of the University of Toronto, called a “first ministers’ conference on the innovation economy.” The question that would face the Prime Minister and the provincial premiers at that conference would be: how can Canada improve its performance at putting new ideas to work in the private sector?

Such a summit-level attempt to grapple with Canada’s lagging competitiveness would amount to another sea change. And it reflects a growing consensus among academic leaders that the biggest failure to adopt new ideas doesn’t lie with universities or governments but with a timid and risk-averse corporate culture. That’s why, if first ministers do meet to discuss innovation and the knowledge economy, “having industry leadership there with government and universities is absolutely crucial,” said Heather Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill University.

If anyone is occupationally bound to worry about the future, of course, it’s these five, superb academics and gifted administrators. Along with Naylor and Munroe-Blum, we talked to Stephen Toope, the president of the University of British Columbia; Indira Samarasekera of the University of Alberta; and Luc Vinet of the Université de Montréal.

They have had a bit of a wild year. The economic crisis has played havoc with the endowments that pay some of their bills. Governments looking for shovel-ready stimulus projects have more than made up the difference, but the presidents can’t be sure that taxpayer-funded largesse will last: in the 1990s, the last time federal and provincial governments got serious about eliminating budget deficits, they did it through painful short-term cuts to university and college budgets. Will that happen again?

It certainly will if political leaders continue to regard universities as a nice place to cut ribbons, but not as important resources in addressing Canada’s broader challenges. The big five presidents worry about drift and lack of direction in our higher education system. That direction can only come from political leaders. So all of the presidents, even Montreal’s Vinet, called for Ottawa to pay more attention to what happens on Canada’s campuses.

“Of course it is a touchy issue given the jurisdictional aspects,” Vinet said, referring to the way Canada’s Constitution assigns education to the provinces, not the federal government. “But I really think that as a nation Canada should give itself some standards, some objectives, some goals. This is not, a priori, incompatible with constitutional powers.”

The penalty for drift, Naylor said, is that Canada could be perceived as a second-tier destination for foreign academics and international students. As changing demographics reduce the supply of Canadian-born students, Naylor perceives “very real opportunities for Canadian universities, particularly the leaders, to draw a large number of international students, larger than ever before.”

But for Canadian universities to be attractive, the best among them have to stand out among the best in the world. “Could it be that we simply aren’t producing enough radically disruptive innovators, breakthrough scholars, proportionate to our numbers?” Naylor asked. “It could be that we simply get to a certain point and don’t quite break through the ceiling.”

To produce or lure the world’s best scholars, UBC’s Toope said, universities need to graduate more students with higher degrees. “Both at the level of a master’s but even more importantly at the level of Ph.D.s, we are not producing at the level of our American colleagues, and actually many others in the OECD,” he said. “I suspect that’s an indicator of a relative lack of overall performance at the highest levels.”

But the problem starts even lower, Alberta’s Samarasekera said, with a limited supply of undergrads. “We do very well in terms of statistics on post-secondary education in the OECD,” she said, but those statistics can be misleading because they include Canada’s large population of community college students. “The actual number of university graduates per capita, we’re middle of the pack or lower. And that’s the group that eventually supplies the Ph.D.s and the innovators and the disruptive thinkers.”

But if the pipeline from undergrad to Ph.D. to breakthrough scholars is too narrow, then some universities are going to have to concentrate on that mission of intensive research and scholarship. These five presidents want to volunteer. “Canada maybe is beginning to recognize the need for differentiation,” Samarasekera said. “The view that everybody needs to be equal”—in resources, in academic mission, in mandate—puts fewer noses out of joint. “But the reality is, that doesn’t produce the winners.”

So what are these five asking for? Not special budgets just for being who they are, they insist. These universities already outperform other institutions in peer-reviewed competitions for research funding, infrastructure and research chairs. In the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s latest grant round, for instance, the big five together earned over 40 per cent of all funding. So partly they just want that process to continue.

“If you strongly support the very highest forms of international peer review,” Samarasekera said, “and you drive toward excellence, and you create pools of funding where people can compete at an international standard, you will then encourage and enable certain institutions to differentially excel.”

A system of winners and losers, in other words? Naylor is quick to argue the opposite. “Canada would probably be well-served to have a large number of small liberal arts universities, more than we have now. And to see those as somehow losers in a game of higher education strikes me as wrong.”

So: more resources for the large research universities to support their ambitions. And more latitude for smaller liberal arts universities to excel at that mandate. But if the small schools would worry less about research, the big ones would put less of their resources to undergraduate education. The University of California at Los Angeles, a big public research university in the U.S., has three undergraduates to every graduate student, Samarasekera said. At the University of Alberta, it’s five to one. “That’s not a good ratio.”

Funding needs to reflect the fact that grad students, who use specialized labs and other materials and need close attention from leading scholars, cost more to educate than undergrads do. Right now in British Columbia, it doesn’t, Toope said. He’d like to welcome fewer undergrads, send those students to new universities the provincial government has created in the past three years, and then put more money toward graduate education and research. “I think we can get to a much healthier balance.”

An hour into our conversation, the five presidents had called for more research money, the ability to concentrate more on graduate education, fewer undergrads, more international students, and the right to charge higher tuition in return for increased financial assistance to the least affluent students. It’s a tall order. And yet, Toope argued, “over the course of the last 20 years we have seen the creation of programs that actually move in the directions we have been suggesting.” The only problem—and it’s a big one—is that there’s been “no overall strategy,” Toope said, no “overarching commitment that relates to what the feds are doing and what the provinces are doing.”

So the discussion was moving from ends to means—from the world the presidents would like to move in, to the mechanisms for getting Canada there. A decade ago, Jean Chrétien was meeting with the premiers every few months to address strains in the health care system. Was that the sort of thing this crew wants now? Were they calling for a first ministers’ conference on higher education?

Naylor’s answer about instead having a first ministers’ conference on the innovation economy was surprising. What’s the difference? Well, a meeting about universities, given Canada’s constitutional niceties, quickly becomes a jurisdictional dispute. A meeting on broader questions avoids that pitfall.

But the five presidents were also eager to recognize that Canada’s most pressing problem is the ailing economy, and that universities are only part of the solution.

“Right now the heat is on economic recovery,” Naylor said. “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.”

Munroe-Blum is a member of the federal Industry Department’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council. That group’s first report, in May, showed that Canada’s private sector performs far lower than comparable countries in implementing new ideas in manufacturing and services. Hence her insistence that any innovation summit must also include industry leadership along with government and universities.

This thing is starting to get a bit unwieldy: federal government, provincial governments, academia, industry. What are its chances of actually getting anything done? Munroe-Blum said the odds of such a meeting succeeding will increase if everyone concentrates on achieving practical results. “It may be that we aim for some pilot project. Choose a sector or two from an industry point of view, business point of view, and bring together the government and university and industry leaders who want to work together.”

And if they have time to talk about some other issues, the sky’s the limit. Naylor rattled off a half-dozen topics that could use government attention. The maze of tax credits for corporate research and development, for instance: “It’s incredibly expensive, it’s often inefficient. At a time when we have falling government revenues it needs a close look.” Or the National Research Council, the feds’ in-house research branch. “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.”

After a decade during which governments from two different parties competed to create a forest of boutique programs to encourage the transfer of new ideas from the laboratory to the market, “it’s alphabet soup,” Naylor said. “It’s almost impossible for anyone who’s trying to build a company to navigate that.”

By the end of our discussion, then, the five presidents had established, at a minimum, that there is a lot more to discuss. Canada’s academic culture gives a serviceable education to millions and is home to pockets of genuine genius, but it often falls a little short of the world’s best. The schools that would like to win by that most exacting standard have precise ideas about how they should change to attain those goals. And they are eager to start a broader conversation about how to help Canada make it through the current economic crisis and get back on the path to greater prosperity.

Coming after a year of constant crisis in Parliament during which very few of the debates were about such substantive matters, the five presidents’ remarks came as a tonic but also as a warning. These are the topics our leaders could discuss, if they could only look up from their tactical skirmishes for a moment. And these are the issues the rest of the world will discuss, and act upon, whether Canada gets its act together or not.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.