On Campus

Small but smart

Why some schools don’t want a Big Five monopoly on research

The University of Waterloo has emerged as one of the leading research centres in quantum computing and digital media. Its computer science and mathematics faculty is the largest in the world. In terms of the number of grants and funding it attracts per faculty member, it is among the most research-intensive universities in the country. But Waterloo is not one of the so-called Big Five universities, who recently proposed in an interview with Maclean’s a radical rethinking of the higher education system: boosting government research funding and resources to the biggest universities—i.e., them—while having other schools shift focus toward under­graduate education.

The proposal of the Big Five—British Columbia, Alberta, Toronto, McGill and Montreal—understandably doesn’t sit well with Waterloo’s president, David Johnston. “How sad it would be to say, ‘We don’t see Waterloo being of high priority for funding because you don’t happen to be in the Top Five universities,’ ” he says. “Simply because you’re big doesn’t mean you’re great.”

Waterloo isn’t alone in its unease with the ideas of the Big Five. The notion of creating a two-tier system, which would favour a select group of big schools, has caused concern among many smaller but highly regarded research universities, like McMaster, Queen’s, Carleton and Victoria. “To say universities of this size can’t compete on an international stage is at best misleading,” says Fiona McNeill, associate vice-president of research at McMaster University in Hamilton, which has done leading research in stem cells and robotic surgery. More than just controversial, the Big Five’s proposal now threatens to pit universities against one another—and potentially launch Canada’s system of higher education into a drawn-out, divisive fight.

Critics acknowledge that, at least in theory, there is some merit to the Big Five’s idea. Large schools might be best equipped to become major centres of research. In the U.S., a few prestigious schools—many of them private—dominate research, while hundreds of smaller liberal arts colleges feed them with well-trained undergrads. By contrast, Canada produces fewer Ph.D.- or master’s-level graduates, and fewer qualified undergraduates.

In reality, however, Canada’s higher education landscape appears to many to be ill-suited to the Big Five’s proposal. Of 95 universities, 40 to 45 do competitive research through their Ph.D. programs. Daniel Woolf, the incoming principal of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., points out that schools like Queen’s already excel in both research and undergraduate education. Like the heads of several other universities, Woolf says that rather than focusing on a few schools, “the dollars should follow excellence in research.”

Yet deciding how to divvy up funding is otherwise problematic. Canada’s system of publicly funded universities is not as flexible as the more heavily private U.S. system, where research centres enjoy large private endowments. In Canada, boosting funding to a few big universities means taking it away from others.

It could also have some unintended consequences, says Roseann O’Reilly Runte, president of Carleton University in Ottawa. “If you say to the small institutions, ‘You can’t compete,’ then they’ll just fold their tents,” she says. “And if you say to the large institutions, ‘You’ve got it, you don’t have to compete,’ they’ll be complacent.” David Turpin, president of the University of Victoria, suggests that by allowing both faculty and money to go where it wants, “you end up with a differentiated system. That is the key for success.”

If Canada really is going to excel, it would at least need to see many small, private U.S.-style liberal arts schools emerge, argues David Strangway, a former president of the University of Toronto and UBC. So far, only one school is like that: Quest, in Squamish, B.C., which Strangway founded. David Helfand, the president of Quest and a professor at Columbia University, sees problems with the Big Five proposal. Many universities would not be able to easily switch focus solely to undergraduate teaching, and asking them to do so is also inherently confrontational, he says: “Just by its framing, it says, ‘We are elite and you are second-tier.’ People don’t like to be called second-tier.”

Amid the talk of making Canada more competitive with the U.S., Helfand sees another comparison—to Britain over the past 20 years. The U.K. tried to rank research universities to determine which schools should get the bulk of research funding. The aim was to create two kinds of universities: those that excelled in research and others focused on teaching. But the effort created an elaborate system to win funding that was “totally absurd,” and is now being done away with. “It failed miserably in the U.K. at making two kinds of universities,” Helfand says, “and I suspect it will fail here.”

With Stephanie Findlay

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