Reality check for a big idea

What the provinces think of the Big Five’s revolutionary ideas for university reform

Diane McGifford, Manitoba’s minister of advanced education and literacy, has a bone to pick with Canada’s “so-called big five” universities. She’s not alone.

Last month, the presidents of five of Canada’s largest universities approached Maclean’s for an interview. Over the course of a 90-minute video conference, the presidents of McGill University, the Université de Montréal, and the universities of British Columbia, Alberta and Toronto, outlined their vision for a veritable revolution in Canada’s post-secondary system—one that could, they claimed, launch our universities to the top of the international ranks. The one-size-fits-all-mentality that governs higher education policy, they argued, must be replaced with a model that funnels research dollars to top-performing schools and lets the rest focus on undergraduate education. And to get there, they went on, Canada needs an aggressive, national innovation strategy.

These bold propositions, coming from five of Canada’s most distinguished academics, have created a buzz, not least among other universities who are unwilling to cede research hegemony to a handful of large schools. But one thing is clear: without support from the provinces—which, more than any other sources, fund post-secondary education—the Big Five’s big ideas are unlikely to be translated into action. So Maclean’s asked provincial education ministers to give us their impresssions of the proposals.

In short, they’re not impressed.

All the ministers interviewed were adamant that no “strategy that zeroes in on just five” institutions is likely to be championed by the provinces, as John Milloy, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, explained. But the degree of opposition ran the spectrum from more to less muted criticism. Milloy “has trouble with the idea” that Canada has fallen behind in the first place. Rob Norris, Saskatchewan’s minister of advanced education, employment and labour, finds “the specifics [of the proposal] a little bit adrift.” And Manitoba’s McGifford is “skeptical” of what she feels, quite simply, is “not a very good idea”: the division of universities into research and non-research institutions.

For McGifford, the proposal reeks of too much federal influence. A cohesive national strategy on post-secondary innovation, she says, would allow the feds to encroach on a domain that constitutionally belongs to the provinces. “It would almost demand a federal education minister,” McGifford explains, “and that would be a huge political problem.” She concedes that those provinces with a Big Five school might be more inclined to back the proposed reforms. But in her case, the call is clear: “We don’t want a federal minister dictating or directing us in this field of post-secondary education.”

For Saskatchewan’s Norris, the source of discontent is not that the plan entails too much federal co-operation, but that it allows for too little. He wants “a pan-Canadian approach” built on more “inclusive dialogue” among all provinces. A two-tiered initiative that focuses on just a few schools, he says, can’t serve as a foundation for a national crusade. Instead, he adds, we need “shared objectives” that jurisdictions can address together.

Reactions from the Big Five’s home provinces were decidedly more mixed. Ministers from B.C, Alberta and Ontario (Quebec’s education ministry declined to comment) were in agreement that universities are not the breeding grounds for innovation that they could be. B.C.’s minister of advanced education and labour market development, Moira Stilwell, summed it up with the example of Finland—“the poster country of national innovation.” “They hire 16 R & D [research and development] people per 1,000 workers,” she says. “In B.C., we hire about 4.5.” The ministers also concede that a more focused national discussion would be helpful.

Still, the ministers tempered those concessions with the more politic observation that each institution is special and has a place in Canada’s post-secondary family. Sure, big universities, with their more extensive infrastructure, are likely to attract research dollars. But Alberta, B.C. and Ontario argue that the best strategy for directing funds is still the current peer-review system, which evaluates every research proposal on the basis of its merit (and under which, by the way, the Big Five already attract a substantial portion of funding). “I have trouble with the idea of somehow carving out a sum of money for particular institutions,” Ontario’s Milloy cautions. “I prefer to have the situation that’s in place.” The three also touched on a range of other concerns: that specialization would diminish the quality of undergraduate education, for example, or that a national innovation strategy would threaten universities’ intellectual autonomy.

But underlying the provincial response to the Big Five’s goals is a fairly consistent critique. Universities, many ministers argue, are more than conduits for national innovation; they are also, and just as importantly, engines of local economic development that should both capitalize on and serve their communities. For Manitoba, for instance, the issue has a lot to do with water. “Research in water quality is extremely important to the University of Manitoba,” McGifford explains, “but also to our province because there is a lot of concern about Lake Winnipeg. If research was concentrated in those Big Five, who would be interested in doing research on the water in Lake Winnipeg?” Norris agrees, pointing to research at the University of Saskatchewan that’s focused on the province’s oil sands. Milloy, meanwhile, emphasizes the role that northern universities play in forestry research. We must “recognize how important [the post-secondary system] is, not just to the economic and innovative fabric of the country, but to our social fabric totally,” argues Stilwell. Adds Milloy: “It’s disconcerting to see how narrow the Big Five’s emphasis is on research excellence.”

The provincial challenge, it seems, might well be to the Big Five’s very idea that our priority should be maximizing innovation at all costs. Stilwell doesn’t like the Big Five’s plan because she’s “more egalitarian in spirit,” she says. And Milloy characterized the real “public policy question” as: “How do we work together to make Canada the smartest country in the world?”—not the “most innovative.” In fact, a number of ministers went so far as to deny the Big Five’s core belief in Canada’s lagging competitiveness—or our status as a second-tier destination for foreign academics. “I don’t think that is an accurate picture for how the world perceives Canada,” Saskatchewan’s Norris insists. “I would disagree that we’re not excelling at an international level,” argues Milloy.

They might be missing something. In the Times Higher Education ranking of world universities, only five Canadian schools made the Top 100. Australia, with a smaller population than ours, boasts seven. As to cutting-edge research? Canada has won only 19 major academic awards since the 1940s, putting us at 12th in the world, tied with Israel. And the money backing our system? There are five universities in the United States alone that each have more resources than all Canadian universities combined.

Ultimately, the ministers were hesitant to offer much support for Big Five proposals—like the call for an “innovation summit” with industry leaders, governments, and universities—that could impinge upon areas of provincial authority. Still, it seems some provinces, especially those with a Big Five school, have gone some way toward adopting a Big Five attitude.

Case in point: Alberta—“the first province to have developed a differentiated system for advanced education,” explains Donna Babchisin, spokesperson for the province’s Ministry of Advanced Education and Technology. A few years ago, the province instituted a strict, six-sector model that divides and classifies all post-secondary schools—from big universities to technical colleges. That allows it to stream funding into the “Comprehensive Academic and Research Institutions” category. “Alberta is moving very much in the direction of focusing its research,” says Babchisin. But does that mean it dictates what schools must study? “It doesn’t delineate what the priorities are,” she stresses. “It provides a way for the research system to get together to work on priorities.”

B.C. and Ontario also say that they have taken steps toward a differentiated post-secondary system, whereby it is understood that not all schools will be undertaking top research. “I would say that the institutions in B.C. know each other and know of each other,” says Stillwell, “and are good at recognizing each other’s strength and understanding their own.”

The same provinces also say they’ve taken aggressive measures to forge stronger links “between the dream and the drugstore,” as Stilwell says—that is, between universities and industry. B.C. praises its industrial liaison offices and innovation council. Alberta has streamlined its innovation infrastructure, amalgamating 10 research and innovation organizations into five. And for Ontario, Milloy is both minister of training, colleges and universities and head of the recently developed Ministry of Research and Innovation.

Still, while some provinces acknowledge the need for broad-based change, they suggest that institutions already exist to make it happen. Norris, for one, underscores the need to “re-invigorate” Canada’s Council of Ministers of Education rather than trying to bring together industry, government and universities at one table. “I think an ongoing dialogue through the institution that already exists—that is, CMEC—can do a fair amount of work,” Norris says. And while many acknowledge that education is underfunded, they are more likely to extol the need for an across-the-board spending boost than to pledge support for a system that would more narrowly direct funds to priority schools.

In the end, the provinces are calling not for radical reform, but for more of what we already have. Still, there are signs that more provinces are on the road to trading post-secondary equity for a more strategic innovation policy. “We’ve got a lot of inquiries from other [Canadian] jurisdictions” about the differentiated system, says Alberta’s Babchishin. Could this be the Big Five’s influence at work? “It’s quite recent,” she says. “It’s a real desire and appetite to have clarity and alignment.”