Canadian universities strive for differentiation and elite (global) standing

YVRI’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.

YVR2First, 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!

Kris Olds