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Margin Notes

Big five controversy keeps on going

Presidents of Canada's big five universities challenge "one-size-fits-all" higher education system.


I must admit I’m surprised that the “big five” controversy continues to generate headlines a full month after it first began. For the few of you who are coming to this cold, the controversy erupted with an article in Maclean’s magazine at the end of July in which Paul Wells interviewed the presidents of Canada’s top five universities (as measured by their share of research dollars): University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, Université de Montréal, McGill University and University of Alberta.

(This was actually the second part of the series; an introductory article promoting the upcoming interview appeared the week before.)

Mr. Wells says the five presidents approached Maclean’s with the idea for the article. The discussion appears to have been fairly wide-ranging and it’s not clear to me exactly what their agenda was or what precisely they were proposing. Here is how Mr. Wells summed it up:

Over the course of a 90-minute video conference, the big five presidents said their institutions must be given the means and mandates to set themselves still further apart from the rest of Canada’s universities-to pursue world-class scientific research and train the most capable graduate students, while other schools concentrate on undergraduate education. The vision they described would be a challenge to the one-size-fits-all mentality that has governed Canada’s higher education system.

In a follow-up piece, the presidents of seven smaller universities were interviewed; several dutifully pointed out that the big five already get a disproportionate share of research funding (roughly 40 percent of the total, according to Maclean’s).

Things were starting to die down until The Globe and Mail decided to stoke the flames with its own take on the story published on Aug. 24 (provocatively title: “Five universities team up to push for the lion’s share of research dollars”).

Roseanne Runte, President of Carleton University, responded two days later in an opinion piece saying no to a “second-tier” university model. Other university presidents had their say, including Daniel Woolf at Queen’s University, Alan Wildman at University of Windsor and Ghislain Bourque at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. Various newspaper editorials and additional media interviews followed.

The latest to wade into the debate, this past Saturday, was Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, who called the big-five proposal “a bad idea, poorly expressed.”

He also used the occasion to lament the “unsustainable” increase in faculty salaries, which have risen by a third since 2000. That should keep the controversy going for a bit longer.

What’s your say? Do the big five universities have a point, or are they being elitist and arrogant? And those supposedly fat-cat faculty, what about them? We’d love to hear from you.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / August 31, 2009 at 13:50

    This approach reminds me of the position taken in the UK many years ago by the government about “research selectivity”. Of course in the UK a portion of the block grant is for research and the selectivity was meant to apply to that. (There are also funding councils that run competitions for individual researchers similar to our granting councils.)

    In order to administer it, a whole bureaucratic system of evaluating the quality of research in departments across the country was set up along with a ranking system that would then be tied into this block funding. That system is the Research Assessment Exercise (or RAE) and is keeping a lot of administrators and media in business.

    No one is convinced that it is necessarily improving research in the country. In fact, a lot of departments are being closed or restructured.

    Arguably, the current system of granting councils rewards excellent research wherever it happens. So if those 5 universities are stronger, they will do better. The evidence seems to bear out their claims. But there are a lot of excellent researchers working in other places. Does the whole institution need to be excellent for them to deserve money?

    Instead of arguing for a larger share of an ever decreasing pie, maybe the big 5 should work more consistently with other universities to argue for more funding for research across the board. They stand to benefit disproportionately. Unless they think that all their best researchers are all being funded and the next tier really are in those smaller places.

  2. mikel a / September 10, 2009 at 12:51

    The problem is what defines ‘excellence’? What scientists often call ‘excellent’ is far from useful to the public, and increasingly, what government and industry call excellent is short term economic gain from patents and markets. Many of the larger universities tout ‘excellence’ as simply being attached to professors of high repute, and repute is not always the same as ‘excellence’.
    And there is also the issue of how much money is necessary for ‘excellence’. What society needs is new ideas, and those ideas largely come from graduate researchers, doctoral students, and post docs, and then the professors take the research up the chain. So the large universities are only benefitting simply because they are bringing in larger numbers of students. Is that fair? The next big ideas could come from anywhere, even undergraduate research, so in short that sounds like an argument against the big five.
    Just to add, as a maritimer this is all very familiar as during the second world war it was maintained there should be ‘two tiers’ of industry, one in central canada and quebec, and others in the periphery of eastern canada and manitoba. This led to government initiatives that located industry in one region to the disadvantage of another, and has led to forty years where ‘market forces’ drained one area to benefit of another. The result has been a permanent position as ‘have not’ provinces. Why anybody would want to repeat that ‘experiment’ at the university level is beyond me.

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