A Smart Canada and Higher Ambitions for Higher Education

Amit Chakma and David Johnston
Presidents of the University of Western Ontario and the University of Waterloo

Recently an important debate on higher education has received public airings in the national press. Should universities be viewed and funded as if they are all the same or should we distinguish those that emphasize teaching from those with more research? Higher education is of significant national importance and as such, a public debate on the future of higher education is welcome. In a globalized world we need to excel in areas that are important to Canadians if we are to maintain and enhance our high standards of living and quality of life. The global community also needs Canada to share its values in making the world a better place. To achieve these goals, Canadian universities must provide the highest quality of education to our next generation and feed the innovation through creation, discovery and interpretation to give Canada a competitive edge in attaining and enhancing knowledge and wealth for its own citizens and those of the world. In the game of discovery and innovation, second place is not good enough. Canada and Canadian universities must seek gold. Since we cannot be at the top in all that we do, we need to select areas within our own institutions that are of strategic importance to this nation and where each can excel. Thus, we strongly believe in institutional differentiation for the sake of attaining global excellence. The question is how? We suggest the following:

  • Canadian Universities are chronically underfunded. Average funding per student in Canada is one of the lowest in North America. We need to raise this level of funding to at least the North American average. Without this, our hopes and dreams of achieving global excellence will remain unfulfilled. Individually, universities will have occasional successes in advancing research and teaching due to sheer luck and philanthropic contributions from generous Canadians, but we will not have a systemic capacity to excel.
  • All major Canadian universities are publicly funded. In recent years, the provinces, including Ontario, have been investing more in post-secondary education. The current economy has diminished provincial resources. If we are to achieve excellence, there is an alternative to the current funding system. The province could grant universities more latitude to manage their own financial affairs, including the setting of tuition fees within a broader regulatory framework and with a commitment that each university ensure all qualified students have the opportunity to attend.
  • It is not reasonable to expect governments to be the sole investors in raising the calibre of Canadian universities. A number of generous Canadians have helped our institutions build excellence in select areas. There is much more generosity that can be tapped if Canadian and provincial governments were to encourage philanthropists to invest in education by matching every dollar raised by all universities. Thus each dollar donated will translate into three dollars of investment. This matching is already taking place in many instances directly or indirectly. Making it transparent and institutional will attract private citizens to invest in building excellence in our universities.
  • Canada and the provinces also have the opportunity to improve our innovation capacity by doubling their investment in research and development. Current levels of support should be used to maintain the base with most incremental investments directed towards building excellence. The sole measure for deciding allocation of these incremental resources should be "excellence" in areas with critical mass. If excellence and obtaining critical mass of talents were used as the sole criteria for this incremental fund, the outcome will gradually lead to institutional differentiation. There will be no need to designate a handful of universities as research intensive universities. If a smaller institution seeks to be world class in a single area, this will allow that institution to do so.
  • Key government research laboratories should be fully integrated within the university system in Canada, along the models of U.S. national laboratories, to achieve increased synergies.
  • A blue-ribbon panel consisting of prominent Canadians, including those who are leading some of North America’s top universities, should be convened to advise the government on how to support excellence. The current presidents of Berkeley, Princeton and Johns Hopkins are Canadians as is Princeton’s immediate past president. They could all be invited to join this panel.
  • The report of the blue-ribbon panel can be the backdrop to a first ministers’ meeting as suggested by our colleague David Naylor of the University of Toronto.
  • We hope that the outcome of such a first ministers’ meeting will lead to the enactment of a Smart Nation Act-Canada Learning and Innovation Act, similar in its impacts to the Canada Health Act and will establish Canada’s aspiration and a multi-governmental framework for us to be a "smart nation".

Our undergraduate and graduate students have the intellectual ability, the desire and the discipline to compete with the best. But to achieve their goals, students need universities that are equally bold and ambitious. Canadian universities can compete and many of our institutions will rise to the top if a supportive environment is created.