The need to compete

We should award our research dollars based on a school’s merit, not its reputation

The need to competeShould Canada’s university system be more elitist? The country’s five largest universities think so.

Last month, Maclean’s readers got a first look at a controversial proposal from the presidents of the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, the University of Toronto, McGill University and Université de Montréal. In an exclusive round-table discussion with senior columnist Paul Wells, they outlined a plan that would see their schools receive favoured government funding to promote their world-class research and graduate student education. The remaining 100-odd schools in Canada would become primarily undergraduate institutions, with commensurately reduced budgets and expectations.

Since our three-part series, furor over this idea has spilled across newspapers and onto online discussion forums. The idea of picking favourites within Canada’s post-secondary school system strikes many as unfair.

Yet refocusing Canada’s post-secondary scientific research effort for maximum effect does have merit. And many smaller universities would benefit from limiting their focus to undergraduate degrees rather than trying to be everything for all students. The question is how we go about it.

Since they already enjoy the lion’s share of existing research grants, fellowships and the like, the presidents of the Big Five universities argue in favour of even more specialization and rationalization. To the extent their plan seeks to hothouse research in locations with a proven track record, it seems sensible and logical. But the arbitrary decision to privilege these five schools above all others is not.

Many of Canada’s smaller universities excel in particular areas because of coincidences of geography, personnel or simply wise leadership. The University of Waterloo isn’t part of this Big Five, but its leadership in computer science and math is recognized around the world. Plus, its presence has spurred a robust technology economy in Waterloo Region. Why would we want to create a caste system to impede such happy occurrences in the future?

Rather than allowing the Big Five presidents to decide on their own who ought to belong to their club, it is better to award funding on a competitive and open basis. Let all schools, big or small, prove themselves.

Consider the federal government’s new Canada Excellence Research Chairs. This $28-million-a-year program will provide seven-year university research grants in areas of science and technology. It is precisely the sort of major funding the Big Five presidents are talking about.

A few months ago Ottawa announced 40 finalists for the 20 available CERC grants. As might be expected, the Big Five figure prominently. U of A and U of T received five nominations each. But Montreal received none. And Waterloo had four, as many as UBC or McGill. All told, 13 smaller schools set for relegation under the plan garnered 22 CERC nominations—four more than the Big Five combined.

Excellence can be found in both large and small schools. The secret is to exploit it efficiently and effectively. And the best way to do that is through stiff competition for available funds, not a system that rewards reputation above all else.