No to a second-tier educational model

The following opinion piece by Roseann O’Reilly Runte, president of Carleton University, was published in the Globe and Mail on Tuesday, August 25, 2009.

Competition and collaboration are good – why import an intellectual caste system?

We have a wonderful university system in Canada. We must maintain it, especially now – when the economy lags, universities play an important role in providing additional education and training. Universities provide the creative spark for setting up new ventures, for attracting business. We need to develop the brilliant ideas generated not only in Toronto or Montreal, but in small communities across the country.

Canada’s five largest universities recently proposed a new system for classifying and funding universities, arguing an elite group should focus on research and graduate education. Their proposal places all the other universities in a second tier, removing their ability to compete or collaborate equally.

It takes only one brilliant mind to change the world. Think Einstein. Salk. Pearson. Bethune. One patent in 1,000 will result in a fortune. Canada needs to create an environment in our universities, our cities, our provinces that will support and generate such innovation.

This will not happen by closing the door to potential players or instituting an intellectual caste system. When you limit potential, when you make it impossible for everyone to excel. You put a damper on innovation, on energetic and enterprising individuals and groups. What’s wrong with competition? Doesn’t it keep the best institutions on their toes and encourage others to pursue excellence?

It’s common for Canadians to look to the United States for models. In many states, universities receive more government support and students pay more tuition in general. Donors are more generous, bolstered by favourable tax laws. But unless our conditions are comparable, imitation is inappropriate. Without increased government support, more fee revenue and amended tax laws, we would seriously disadvantage Canadian universities by attempting to import this model.

While “flagship” American institutions are generally capable of hiring more Nobel laureates, for example, ordinary institutions are just as capable of producing future laureates. There are more flagship institutions in the United States, but there are also more institutions that are financially and intellectually poor. Policy codifying stratification leads inevitably to the creation of institutions of lesser value. Policy is followed by perception. The best faculty and students will favour the universities with the best reputations. Students capable of paying for the highest tuition graduate from these universities. To compete, other institutions must offer lower tuition. Lower salaries follow. When the hierarchy becomes evident, it becomes even more difficult for these schools to obtain the best professors.

If we import this model, graduates of our top-tier schools will want to work only at top-tier schools. They will form a kind of club that makes it very difficult for students from other schools to matriculate, do graduate work or teach. The result could be good graduates leaving the country to work in a less stratified environment.

When we limit possibilities, we limit opportunities. We need to open doors and minds. We need to avoid labels. We need to allow the smallest institutions to join the competition. The large schools already receive the lion’s share of the grants. This is to be expected. They have the size, the labs and the resources. Yet, small schools do win occasionally, inspiring other scholars there to work harder.

Competition is good for the system. Collaboration is also good. We cannot achieve a collaborative environment when there are clearly established “haves” and “have-nots.” Small universities should not be colonies of the large; they should be intellectual partners. This will occur only when policies favour such partnerships.

I have seen researchers from major and minor institutions collaborating successfully in the United States. But I have also witnessed the tagging of certain institutions as eligible for certain grants, removing any motivation to collaborate. Valuable expertise is lost.

Rather than predetermining the winners, Ottawa should continue supporting the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which hold competitions annually. There should be additional funding for research and funding for strategic themes. There could also be funding for collaborative partnerships. One model is the state of Texas, where universities compete for state research money. Some is dedicated to research teams, which must include at least one small institution.

We are fortunate to have a system where all institutions are capable of winning, all faculty can excel and all students can strive for excellence. Where all can compete and collaborate. Rather than placing institutions in straitjackets, we need to allow them to be creative and innovative. They should all be encouraged to surpass expectations. We must not limit their ability to shine. Canada will certainly benefit from the results.

Roseann O’Reilly Runte is president of Carleton University.