Tiers of Academe - Macleans.ca

Tiers of Academe


There’s been a lot of free-floating hand-wringing in the wake of a proposal to have Canada concentrate its research spending in a relatively few universities. Most of the complaints have been about the dangers of “elitism” — as if university was about something else. Canada already has a de facto two-tiered university system, and within each university, there is a two- if not three-tiered hierarchy of instructors. The solecism the five schools seem to have made is a) pointing it out, and b) suggesting that we might as well acknowledge the hierarchy and make our funding formulae reflect it.

Except not so fast, Alex Usher argues. The real problem, he says, is that “almost nobody in this country has a real idea what works and what doesn’t in terms of research and innovation policy.”

The fact that faculty with stronger research records would migrate to the big five while everyone else would have to sit tight, make do with less research money and, you know, actually teach some undergraduates might be massively inconvenient for all those second-tier universities trying to raise their research profiles, but it might be quite efficient from the point of view of public expenditure.

Or not. Despite the billions spent every year, we just don’t know.

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Tiers of Academe

  1. …which raises the question that thousands of undergrads face every.single.semester: should I attempt to learn from a really brilliant researcher who has no idea how to teach, grade, or impart his knowlege to others, or from a professor who is great at communicating the best a field has to offer, but who has limited research experience himself?

  2. I'd have to wonder, also, about what constitutes an elite for universities.

    For example: Carleton would be considered "elite" when it comes to graduating journalists, but not necessarily MBAs. McGill would be "elite" for graduating medical personnel but not geologists. UBC would be "elite" for forestry but not for journalists.

    You see what I mean? Whether nor not a university is considered "elite" depends a great deal on which subject specialty you're talking about.

    • To be honest I think this phenomenon is often overstated a little. Some universities sometimes have a program or two with a very strong reputation, far ahead of the institution in general.

    • This is quite true and, instead of forcing universities to fill different roles in all subjects, I'd rather see them do all roles in only a few subjects. In my area, Guelph has a great agricultural sciences program, better than anything out of the big five. UW's computer science program is on par or better than anything out of U of T or UBC. Even undergrad-focused Wilfrid Laurier has a noteworthy business program. Almost every school has at least one or two stand-out programs, many have more than that.

      And yet, each one also has a multitude of mediocre programs that produce relatively little and drain resources from the university and academia in general. This is the real second tier in Canadian universities – it's not between institutions, but programs. We need to recognize which programs are working, which ones aren't, and allocate resources (and students) accordingly.

  3. The argument made by the "big 5" is simply the prestidigitation of conjurers. Research is not done by universities – it is done by researchers. Allocation of resources should therefore be based on the performance of individual researchers, not based on the "reputation" of the university in which he/she works. This, incidentally, is exactly how the various funding agencies work now. To agrue otherwise is to claim that a less quailfied researcher in one of the "big 5" should obtain more funding than a more qualified researcher working in one of the other universities. If any university wants to obtain more funding then it simply has to attract better researchers.

  4. There is one remarkable nonfact in Usher's statement. The provinices in their contributions to Universities do indeed discriminate in all of the funding that is not directed at undergraduate education. Of the 5 proponents of the changes, 4 (Toronto, Montreal, Alberta, UBC) are the "provincially designated" university for science, medical research. This is possible because provincial funding of research in Canada has never had a strong tradition of peer review. Indeed it is generally either based on matching a federal program or aimed at economic development (often both are mixed).

    At the federal level, Canada has a strong tradition of peer review and indeed until recently NSERC, SHERC and CIHR were seen as international leaders in the review of research proposals. Unfortunately this has been eroded, and recent programs (CFI, CERC, etc) have become too massive to be effectively peer reviewed. However all of the recent changes are designed to allow the rich to become richer. I am puzzled by the 5's recent strategy… they already have won so what are they on about.

  5. The "big five" have had no real idea what to do with undergraduates, other than use them as cash cows, for quite some time. In the absence of any serious thought of how to address this, other than "charge them more" and "encourage them to come here from farther away", they're shrugging and asking the government to just make undergrads go away. Not exactly an advertisement for their forward-thinking administrative dynamism.

    Letting the elite universities drive the debate about the structure of higher education is a bad idea — letting them drive the debate about funding innovation in the overall economy is an even worse idea. Usher is spot-on in that there is no one single way to run an educationally and economically relevant university system. We think and debate about the kind of economy we have and want, and from that basis we make decisions about how our universities fit into that. Not the other way around.

    With our highly regionalized and resource-based economy, his description of the Finnish model is intriguing. Certainly more intriguing than throwing money at a handful of universities and commanding them to arise and vanquish Oxford and Berkeley.

  6. It strikes me that it is one thing for a government to allow elitism in a negative way—by stepping out of the way and allowing hierarchical system to develop—and another thing altogether for it to positively fund the creation of an elitist hierarchy. This is reflected in the stated (perhaps not the actual) reason for most university funding, to improve access and quality for everyone. Most Canadians would, I think, object to the positive approach and I think they'd be right to do so.

  7. "I'd have to wonder, also, about what constitutes an elite for universities"

    I'm sure Potter will be around shortly to expand on his statement about our de facto two-tier university system.

    • Maybe 2-tiered based on reputation. But I would not agree that U of T and Queens are any better in quality than most 'second tier' universities

      • I agree and would add that reputation is a vague concept. Worse it tends to be based not on what a university is doing now so much as what it was doing 30 to 40 years ago. To take the most obvious example, something has obviously gone wrong at Queens. How wrong and what, if any, impact it will have we won't know for a few decades.

        You also have to wonder at the quality going in. There is lots of evidence that the high school students feeding the system in Ontario significantly under perform compared to those in other provinces.

      • Well, we'll never know, I guess.

    • As a university prof, I would say that the three tiers are as follows:

      1st tier: Tenured , well-published profs who are employed by large comprehensive or medical/doctoral universities. They get the highest salaries, do well as a group in funding competitions, and often get undergraduate teaching deferments. The top of this bunch also tends to avoid the administrative responsibilities that less respected profs are saddled with.

      2nd tier: Tenure or tenure track profs who are unemployed by undergraduate-focused or smaller comprehensive universities. They tend to live in smaller cities, have heavier admin and teaching loads, and have lower salaries. Their admin and teaching responsibilities also tend to complicate their ability to publish in high-ranked journals or to secure large research grants. However, on account of these factors, they aren't expected to publish as much 'high-end' research, so they often enjoy less stressful lives with fewer hours devoted to work during the week.

      3rd tier: The poor, PhD-holding or PhD-seeking, part-time university instructors who work in universities across the country. They can teach up to 50% of the undergrad courses in a given school or department. They are paid little and must therefore accept heavy teaching loads to get by. Because they teach so much, they rarely have time to focus on their research or publish the articles that could get them a permanent job. Many of them have to move every year to find work; sometime they have to move to a new city every semester. They're the academic proletariat: underpaid, under-appreciated, over-worked, but the undergraduate programs could not exist without them.

      • re: the third tier – and eventually they give up and move on to the non-academic sector where they are appreciated and paid something closer to what they are worth.