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.