On Campus

Smartening up

Presidents of seven smaller universities take aim at the big five

When the presidents of Canada’s “big five” universities discussed their ideas for how to improve our post-secondary system in the last issue of Maclean’s, there were bound to be counterpoints made by leaders at the roughly 95 other schools in the country, especially the smaller ones.

After all, the big five—the universities of Montreal, Toronto, Alberta, British Columbia and McGill—say they want to focus on doing more world-class research as well as graduate education. Other schools, they suggest, could concentrate on teaching undergrad students. The big five believe it’s time for Canadian institutions to break free from the “one-size-fits-all” mentality. Instead, they should consider adopting a “differentiation” model, where every university has a unique mission and resources. They’re also worried that Canada is at risk of being perceived internationally as a second-tier academic destination. And the big five say the country needs to do a better job of translating academic innovation into commercial enterprise.

PART I: Can higher ed reach higher? —Canada’s leading universities want to, but big dreams call for big changes

PART II: Our universities can be smarter — Canada’s ‘big five’ presidents have an ambitious plan for fixing our schools

To understand what other university leaders think about these issues, Maclean’s spoke with the presidents of seven small and medium-sized institutions. In separate, wide-ranging interviews, some themes emerged. Most said they agree that each university should fulfill its own unique mission and strive for excellence in particular disciplines. But they don’t think that the big five—or any five universities—should become more research-intense at the expense of other schools. David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo, which is the world’s largest work-experience institution, says that while Canada does need to stimulate higher quality research given how dismally it does on international rankings, an exclusive designation wouldn’t be a good way to do it.

The big five, some presidents point out, already get a disproportionate amount of research funding—combined, they get 40 per cent of the total. If Canada is dissatisfied with the research produced to date, the bulk of which comes from the big five, they say it’s illogical to funnel more money their way. “They had their opportunities to clearly demonstrate that they can make a difference,” says Frederick Gilbert, president of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., which opened a medical school with Laurentian University in 2005.

While small schools may not have the breadth of research of the big five, many boast superior work in particular areas. The University of Lethbridge, which often collaborates with the University of Alberta, excels in terrestrial imaging; Lakehead specializes in DNA-paleontology; the University of Guelph is renowned for its bio-scientific and veterinary programs. Its president, Alastair Summerlee, adds that “universities serve a very important regional, economic purpose,” and limiting research to a few jurisdictions jeopardizes that, an opinion shared by Ron Bordessa, president of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont., which is less than a decade old.

There’s also a concern that a two-tier university system could emerge, where research-intense institutions are perceived to be better than primarily undergraduate schools. St. Thomas University in Fredericton is a prestigious liberal arts institution, and its president, Michael Higgins, worries that if faculty felt less competitive or accomplished than peers at a research institution, it “could be rather demoralizing for the professoriate,” he says. What’s more, presidents such as William Cade of the University of Lethbridge believe that research is central to the university experience. “Research inspires teaching. If you have teaching without research I’m not sure you have anything beyond the community college or high school environment.”

Some of the presidents say they haven’t had trouble attracting foreign professors to their schools, so they aren’t fretting about their international reputation like the big five. But Higgins, Johnston and Michael Stevenson, president of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., believe that universities could be doing better. “It is absolutely true that Canada has been slipping as one of the major systems of international education in the world,” Stevenson says. Johnston concurs: “It is essential that we have some institutions or departments in this country that can say we’re best in the world and some others that can say we rank in the top three or four.”

The most critical challenge facing Canada, these presidents agree, is our ability to bring the research innovation developed at universities to the marketplace. That’s why the University of Waterloo encourages co-op work for undergrads and has a rare “creator owns” intellectual property policy that helps foster entrepreneurialism.

The other thing that everyone agrees on is that this debate has only just begun.

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