Source: Martin, R. (2009) ‘Who Killed Canada’s Education Advantage? A forensic investigation into the disappearance of public education investment in Canada‘, The Walrus, 20 October.
I’ve just returned from Vancouver (pictured to the right), and my visit included a pleasant day at the University of British Columbia (UBC), my BA and MA alma mater. UBC is perched on the edge of Canada, and the Pacific Ocean. While it has always been a strong university, it is now striving to become a “world class” university, it seeks to position itself high within the two main global rankings, and it is currently fashioning a more strategic and effective approach for “international engagement and global influence”.
UBC’s ambition is to create a one of the world’s leading research universities; one “producing discoveries and innovations that advance human understanding and that make our world a better place” while acting as a “magnet for talent, helping to retain our most gifted students here in BC, and attracting bright and ambitious young people from across Canada and around the world”, while also functioning as a “connector — linking new ideas and best practices into our local communities, and bridging Vancouver and the Okanagan to global networks of innovation” (in the 2008 words of Stephen Toope, UBC’s President).
But how does one West Coast university, embedded in a provincially governed higher education system (national research funding, nonwithstanding), ramp up its game? In the Canadian context, it comes down to convincing the state to enable universities to become more innovative, more competitive, yet while always receiving significant levels of state support, especially financial largesse. Unlike the UK case (see ‘Privatise elite universities, says top VC‘, The Guardian, 1 June 2009), Canadian universities like UBC are seeking more state support, though in this case via an enhanced national presence in higher education.
Yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education captured this sentiment with considerable insight. The article (‘Canada’s Elite Universities Propose a National Strategy for Higher Education‘, 17 August 2009) put it this way:
Canadians have long held an egalitarian view toward their universities, generally agreeing that none should be treated as more special than any other.
But now the presidents of five of the country’s largest research institutions—the Universities of Alberta, British Columbia, Montreal, and Toronto, and McGill University—are banding together to suggest that perhaps some Canadian universities should be, to use a famous phrase, more equal than others.
Canada needs not only to improve its higher-education system as a whole, they say, but also to pay special attention to institutions like theirs. Their argument, essentially, is that if the country hopes to raise the international standing of its universities, then their group must be allowed to focus on graduate education and high-quality research.
“The Canadian way has been to open the peanut-butter jar and spread thinly and evenly,” says David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto, the largest institution in Canada.
“We’re not talking about having a system of first- and second-class schools,” he adds. “We need more liberal-arts universities, we need more polytechnics, and, of course, smaller universities will continue to do the research they’re doing.”
The idea, he says, is to develop a focused strategy that plays to each university’s strengths: what the five call a “differentiation” model for higher education—a model, they say, that would be adequately financed as well. (my emphasis)
The Chronicle article is well worth a read, and it matches the tenor of speeches given by many of these “elite” university leaders over the last several years. Yet, despite my UBC roots, I can’t but help flag a few noteworthy challenges.
First, is differentiation best scaled at the university (institutional) scale? What is the logic for excluding or devalorizing the disciplinary/field scale, or the city-region scale, or the research network scale? Universities like Waterloo, for example, have some units with considerably more research capacity than in any of the five self-identified elite universities. In short, more effort needs to be made to demonstrate that the university scale is the right scale for differentiation, assuming you believe this is indeed an objective worth supporting.
Second, and I speak here as an advocate of statecraft, is it realistic to expect a national Canadian higher education strategy to truly emerge. There are multiple ironies (like Alberta – Canada’s Texas or Montana – advocating a stronger federal role in any sector!), and some blinkered thinking going on. Look at the challenges of crafting a national higher education brand (‘Canada’s new branding effort: “Education in/au Canada”’, GlobalHigherEd, 3 October 2008). In my biased view the aesthetically challenged branding effort expresses the problems of achieving action on a national scale in Canada in some sectors. Might not more effort be focused upon engendering new forms of provincial and local scale statecraft; statecraft associated with genuine innovations in policy-making, program development, and project framing/implementation? One could argue that the City of Edmonton, or the Province of Alberta, could do more for the University of Alberta than could Ottawa, for example.
Finally, what are the pros and cons of encouraging more dependence upon the national government? Besides Madison in the USA, I’ve also been based in Singapore, France and the UK, and dependence upon a national government is a double-edged sword. University missions would have to increasingly reflect national priorities, and university leaders (not to mention faculty) would have to accept reduced power, less autonomy, more hierarchy, all the while coping with temporal shifts in priorities come national electoral cycles. Yet, as the Chronicle notes:
More broadly, the five are calling for a national higher-education strategy. While they have shied away from asking for the creation of an education ministry, they argue that without federal coordination of resources, along with a clear vision for the future of Canadian universities, the system will fail to raise its stature internationally.
Given what I know about my motherland, and what I have experienced in much stronger national systems, I seriously doubt that Canadian universities would be willing to accept what comes with greater “federal coordination of resources” and a “clear vision”. I don’t doubt that university leaders like UBC’s Stephen Toope, or Alberta’s Indira Samarasekera have legitimate claims (and gripes), but they should be cautious regarding what they seek: their objectives might come to light, and enhanced dependence mixed with unhappiness with the direction of the national vision is not an ideal outcome. And what national government is going to craft a strategy, and hand over more monies, without a greater role in governing universities? This is a Pandora’s box if there ever was one.
This is a debate worth watching as all universities – including those in Canada – seek new ways to achieve and legitimize their increasingly “global” objectives. Canada’s elites seek more state action (and defacto dependence) while some of their equivalents in the UK seek to privatize to reduce dependence on the state, and all with the same end objective (elite global standing) in mind!
Note: our thanks to Jean-Philippe Tachdjian, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT), Government of Canada, for permission to post his slideshow here. CMEC is the acronym for the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. Kate Geddie’s earlier entry (‘Canada’s new branding effort: “Education in/au Canada”’), along with one by Nick Lewis on New Zealand (‘“New Zealand Educated”: rebranding New Zealand to attract foreign students‘) are worth reading in association with this slideshow.
Source: Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (2008) Trends in higher education – Volume 3: Finance, Ottawa: AUCC.
Canada’s approach to internationalization has been quite unique, in large part because there has been no meaningful national approach or federal government strategy in this area. Looking at internationalization as a policy area provides an interesting way of illustrating Canada’s highly decentralized higher education system.
Canada is a federation of ten provinces and three territories (see the political map above), and under the Canadian constitution the responsibility for education was assigned to the provinces. Viewing education as a local responsibility is common to most federal systems, but few have maintained such complete local authority over higher education. In Australia the federal government has assumed the central responsibility for higher education, and in Germany there is a complex arrangement of shared responsibility between the central government and the lander. Canada’s approach is even more decentralized than the United States; there has never been a federal department of education or a national higher education act in Canada.
Canada’s federal government has been involved in the higher education sector in a wide range of ways, in fact it was the federal government that provided the financial support for Canada’s expansion from elite to mass higher education following the second World War. However, the federal government’s involvement in the sector was almost immediately contested by the provinces, and in the context of Canada’s constitutional debates and the rise of Quebec nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, federal support for higher education shifted to a system of unconditional transfers to the provinces. The provinces can use these funds in any way they choose, including choosing to not spend these transfers on postsecondary education. The federal government has assumed a central role in a number of policy sectors that are directly related to universities, such as student financial assistance and research funding, but higher education policy is the responsibility of the provinces.
This arrangement presents some very interesting challenges for the internationalization of Canadian higher education. While higher education is the responsibility of the provinces, foreign policy and international trade are in the hands of the federal government. There are tremendous coordination challenges associated with discussions of international student recruitment, international scholarship agreements, and even the terms and conditions of visas for international students. There is no national strategy for internationalization, and Canada’s national efforts to market or “brand” Canada in the recruitment of international students have been pitiful [e.g., compared to New Zealand]. It is the provinces, rather than the federal government, which have taken major steps towards local internationalization strategies and encouraging student mobility, especially the provinces of Quebec, British Columbia, and, most recently, Ontario. Like all areas of higher education policy, the Canadian approach has been decentralized, fragmented, and largely uncoordinated.
For the most part, internationalization has been left in the hands of individual universities. The absence of a national strategy or approach means that there are few government resources available to support internationalization initiatives, there is virtually no national infrastructure for recruitment or student mobility programming, and there is little coordination among the various federal departments that have some responsibility in this policy area. On the other hand, the absence of national policy in this area has also meant that the universities have had considerable flexibility to determine their own priorities and develop their own initiatives. Unlike their Australian peers, Canadian universities have not been pressured to view international students as a mechanism for revenue generation. There has been considerable space for local discussions of internationalization, including discussions of internationalizing the curriculum, and the place of international student recruitment and development activities within institutional priorities. These local conversations are frequently linked to discussions of inclusive curriculum as institutions respond to the increasing diversity of the Canadian student population.
Canada’s approach to internationalization, therefore, has been highly decentralized. Several Canadian provinces have developed student mobility programs, and most Canadian universities have developed institutional strategies and approaches for internationalization, but there is no evidence to suggest that Canada is on the way to having something approaching a national strategy or major federal government supported initiatives or program in this important area.
Editor’s note: the global boom in fossil fuel production is generating uneven development processes that are reverberating through higher education systems. For example, the boom has fueled the breathtaking expansion of indigenous and foreign university campuses in the Middle East (e.g., King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), Qatar Education City, NYU Abu Dhabi). Canada, the US’ largest supplier of oil (a fact off the radar screen in the current geopolitical climate) is also witnessing a vast economic transformation as an “empire from a tub of goo” (the Alberta oil sands) emerges. The national Globe and Mail newspaper is current running a series of stories on this historically unprecedented development process. This transformation has been praised and criticized from a social and environmental perspective. It is, though, also interesting to see how economic development proceeds (esp., increased revenue) are impacting the Albertan higher education system. Today’s guest entry is by a professor of anthropology (Alan Smart) at the University of Calgary. Professor Smart is an economic anthropologist who mainly works in China. We’ve commissioned this piece after reading an interesting Globe and Mail article (“Will Alberta’s energy boom revolutionize higher education?” January 2, 2008). Given our knowledge of Professor Smart’s ethnographic skills we felt that he had the capacity to develop an informed and grounded commentary regarding the inevitably uneven impacts of this transformation in his own university and province. We also recommend that you look at this commentary by Martha Piper (a former senior university official in Alberta and British Columbia).
When I read Elizabeth Church’s glowing account in the Globe and Mail (“Will Alberta’s energy boom revolutionize higher education?” January 2, 2008) of the post-secondary sector in Alberta and its prospects, I immediately thought, “that’s exciting, I wish I was there instead of in a university where we continue to suffer from budget cuts and lack of direction”. But then I realized that I was there, the University of Calgary to be specific, in the heart of Alberta’s economic boom, but the experience of the liberal arts faculties bears no resemblance to the gushing prose such as “People will look back at this time and marvel” (Dr. Samarasekera, President, University of Alberta). Many of us at U of Calgary are already marvelling: at how there can be such disarray, budgetary crisis, and abysmal morale in a place where so much money is sloshing around. To be fair, the reports from U of Alberta sound much better than at U of Calgary: Dr. Samarasekera apparently recognizes the importance of liberal arts in the university.
The shocking thing is that in almost twenty years at the U of Calgary, I do not recall a period when morale among faculty was lower than it is at present, and that includes during the 23% cuts over 4 years in the early 1990s. The only faculties that seem to be benefiting from our President’s vision are Medicine and Engineering. Some might argue that this is a sign of the corporatization of the university. It might indeed be, but only in the sense that the university concentrates on things that the dominant business community would like to see done, not in the sense that the university is acting like a profit-seeking enterprise. If it were, we might expect to see investment in profit centres at the expense of other units, but it tends to operate the other way around. The Faculty of Social Sciences, with the largest number of students on campus, has a budget that is basically equal to the tuitions paid by its students, even though Alberta policy is that tuitions should not be higher than 25% of the operating budget. Obviously, given this, Social Sciences (and the other core arts and sciences to a somewhat lesser extent) are being treated as a cash cow for Faculties that cannot cover their own costs. One could point to the substantial research funds brought in by Medicine in particular, but this has little positive effect on the university’s financial situation since grant overhead payments are very low in Canada, unlike the situation in the United States. In any case, the usual pattern when a medical researcher has a breakthrough or receives a major grant is that they get offers from other institutions and turn to the administration to say that they couldn’t justify staying without a new lab, additional colleagues, postdocs, graduate students, etc. This doesn’t produce any real advantage to the administration’s budget, unlike the large number of bums on seats in the arts and sciences faculties. Especially when those bums on seats are being taught by sessionals. A sessional being paid $5,250 for a one-semester course with 400 students paying $500 each for that course generates a profit of $194,750, or a return on investment of 37 times. What profit-oriented business would turn down returns like that? Yet, because tuition goes to the central administration without any direct return to the department or faculty offering the course, such courses provide no benefit to the unit offering the course, despite intense student demand. If this is a corporate model, it would seem to be a very dysfunctional corporate model. But I think that it follows a different logic, one based on status. Presidents like to brag about their neurology or cancer treatment or energy research centres, and transferring resources into sexy high profile fields makes it possible for them to swagger when they get together with other Presidents or potential donors, and hopefully step up to a better job before the house of cards collapses around them.
The Province of Alberta must bear its share of blame. Funding per student in Alberta compares quite well with other provinces, apparently. But the lack of understanding and mistrust of universities by the Conservative Party has been so great that most new funds have been tied to particular new programs, projects and buildings that the Provincial Conservatives and their supporting interest groups see as useful. The proportion of university grants that don’t have strings attached dropped precipitously after the election of Ralph Klein. And the problem is that these grants bribe us to do expensive and unsustainable things. There is never quite enough money to do them, so subsequently money has to be channelled from sustainable things to finish off the shiny new building or keep the sexy new program afloat. If we could simply allocate all the money we get from the province and tuitions to the most sustainable and sensible things, we would be in pretty good shape. The amazing thing is that most of these are the things that universities (at least those without massive endowments) should be doing, providing a well-rounded education in the liberal arts and sciences, with a smaller set of appendages in the professions doing the far more expensive but ‘sexier’ things. Instead of being seen as essential, the body of the U of Calgary is being gutted to support a host of showcase programs and projects much larger than the modest financial reality can support. Thus, the ‘fiscal conservatives’ in the ruling Conservative Party of Alberta and the downtown business community (who dominate our Board of Governors) have seduced and bribed us into a fiscally disastrous route. And the answer? Ever more of the same. Marvellous, indeed.
GlobalHigherEd has made several entries over the past month on changing trends in international student mobility, including one that situates the Canadian experience, and one that ponders what impacts the fast rising Canadian $ (the Loonie) might generate. A report released last week by the Canadian Bureau of International Education (CBIE) makes explicit a emerging strategy in relation to student mobility: retaining international students upon completion of their studies to contribute to the needs of the local and/or national labour market.
In a new report titled Northern Lights: International Graduates of Canadian Institutions and the National Workforce, the CBIE presents results of a survey with over 900 international students upon the completion of their studies in Canadian universities. The findings suggest that international students are “anxious and cynical” about employment opportunities in Canada upon graduation. Despite the recent introduction of work permit programs enabling international students to remain in Canada for one or two years after their studies (permits are limited to one year for students having studied or seeking work in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal), only 1/3 of students felt they would participate in such schemes, whereas another 1/3 expected to return home, and 1/3 were considering seeking employment elsewhere.
In assessing these findings, the authors take a clear strategic policy stance. Framing these results within a looming labour shortage due to the imminent retirement of Canada’s aging baby boomers, the report’s authors argue that retaining international students post-graduation is a complementary initiative to existing Canadian labour market development strategies, such as the skilled immigrant worker program and encouraging continued workforce participation among the aging population. The existing challenges are identified as an ever-heightening national competition for talent with greater opportunities for graduates abroad, as well as unnecessary complications to enter the Canadian and reluctance among employers. In conclusion, the CBIE directly calls for the Canadian government to both strengthen Canada’s weakening position as an international education destination and then to enhance retention rates of graduates through improved information dissemination among officials, institutions, and students.
The multiple benefits accrued by nations attracting large numbers of international students have long been recognized. In recent years, the positive benefit has been primarily discussed in terms of the direct short-term financial contribution provided by high foreign student fees to national higher education sectors. This report’s emphasis, notably coming from a non-governmental membership organization representing Canadian institutions from the K-12 to postgraduate levels, as well as public and private sectors, with research collaboration from Queen’s University and with funding from the Canadian Council of Learning, suggests a shift in interest towards the longer-term potential gain that international students might provide as potential knowledge workers in the global competition for talent. It seems national strategies of brain drain or brain circulation may be replaced with the brain ‘train and retain’ of international graduates.