Can higher ed reach higher?

Canada’s leading universities want to, writes Paul Wells, but big dreams call for big changes

Can higher ed reach higher?There’s a paradox to being the president of a large Canadian university: on most days you get to feel more influential and more powerless than most people can imagine.

In next week’s Maclean’s, we’ll talk with the presidents of Canada’s five largest universities about the challenges they face, and what they think needs fixing in our university system. It’s first worth examining, however, just how big a footprint these five make in Canada, and how Canadian universities in general stack up internationally. The institutions in question—the University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, University of Toronto, McGill University, and the Université de Montréal—are an elite bunch. They have nearly 22 per cent of Canada’s undergraduate student enrolment and produce nearly 45 per cent of the country’s doctorates.

There are nearly 100 universities in Canada, depending how you count it, but these five alone receive 46 per cent of all the money Canada’s main granting councils disburse for research every year. They receive an even larger share—47 per cent—of the money the Canada Foundation for Innovation pays to build new labs and research infrastructure.

At their best, Canada’s largest universities—call them the “G5” as they sometimes refer to themselves in private—have shown a dedication to quality, not just quantity. All by itself, the University of Toronto counts 17 of the 27 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences who serve on Canadian university faculties, and nearly half the country’s Gairdner International Award winners and Guggenheim Fellows. The future is built in these institutions.

Which is not to say they are immune to the headaches of the present. First, they face the problem every university president faces, which is that the extent they can be said to “run” anything is open to debate. Universities are highly decentralized organizations dedicated to the free pursuit of knowledge. Almost all their cherished conventions—tenure, peer review, academic freedom—are designed to safeguard against central control. Within the university gates, presidents must contend with faculty associations, student unions, and boards of governors; beyond the gates they are buffeted by the whims of city, provincial and federal governments.

But the challenges of academic administration are eternal, as are the fiats of governments. The bigger, institutional challenges facing Canada’s big five universities could perhaps be divided under two big topic headings.

First, they are hobbled by one-size-fits-all rules and mandates even as they have begun to try to compete, not against other Canadian universities, but against the best in the world.

Second, they have begun to realize that it matters little how well universities perform their role as incubators of new ideas if those ideas never take root in a broader, innovative society.

David Naylor, the deceptively soft-spoken medical researcher who has served as the University of Toronto’s president since 2005, has been a leading spokesman on both sets of issues. In a December 2006 speech to the Women’s Canadian Club of Toronto, he called for Canada to unabashedly seek to have some of the world’s greatest universities. And since they can’t all meet that goal, Naylor said our generic distribution of roles and resources has to end.

“We need a rationally differentiated system of universities and colleges,” he said, “one in which different institutions are valued for their different missions.” How so? “That could well mean that undergraduate enrolments at large research-intensive universities in Canada, and certainly in Ontario, are capped or even reduced. There tends to be a view that one baccalaureate is pretty much the same as others. I don’t believe that’s true or that it’s the best way forward. The experience of undergraduate education in a big research-intensive institution is different from a small undergraduate-oriented university. Why not reinforce and clarify that differentiation?”

This is heresy, of a genteel Canadian sort, because it suggests that the evolution of Canadian universities into different roles should be encouraged instead of reversed. It’s something we’ll explore with Naylor and his colleagues in next week’s magazine. But one has the distinct impression the G5 presidents know they won’t make many friends among their colleagues for such talk.

But if the big five presidents are preoccupied, on one hand, with the challenges that come with their unique role at the head of Canada’s research effort, they are also increasingly worried that the rest of Canada’s innovation system isn’t getting enough attention. Or to put it another way: coming up with new ideas is their business, and it will always be a challenge. But implementing new ideas is the private sector’s task—really, it’s a job for the whole of Canadian society—and we’re not doing well at it.

“A key reason” for Canada’s middle-of-the-pack spending on research and development, Naylor told the Economic Club of Canada in May, “is Canada’s disappointingly low level of spending in business R & D. In fact, R & D spending by Canadian businesses has been decreasing since 2002.”

And that trend is not about to turn around. “The majority of the private sector investment in R & D is actually done by a small handful of companies,” Naylor said. “In 2007 the top two private R & D investors spent more on R & D than the next eight investors combined. Those top two were Nortel and BCE.” Nortel, of course, is now being torn apart and sold piece by piece, and BCE has had its own distractions of late.

McGill’s Heather Munroe-Blum is a member of the new Science and Technology Innovation Council, or STIC, which the Conservatives created in 2007 to advise them on the global knowledge economy. The STIC’s first report in May suggested Canada does quite well against other big countries on university research, but that business innovation lags badly.

There’s an irony here, because to the limited extent that parliamentarians and news organizations spend any time at all discussing productivity and innovation, it’s usually to mull over arcane details of university research funding. But Munroe-Blum says that, to some extent, “the fact that we’ve spent a decade asking, ‘What’s wrong with university research?’ has become part of the problem”—because it distracts from broader questions about how new ideas are implemented in the economy.

But if the problem lies outside the university gates, it’s an open question what university presidents’ role should be in addressing it. The remarks of Canada’s big five presidents, when we publish them next week, will be likelier to spark a national conversation than to be its last word.

Next week, Part II of our Special Report: the presidents of five leading Canadian universities talk about reforming the system, Canada’s challenge, and what it will take for them to be the best in the world.

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