Perhaps we are not putting too many words into the mouths of the presidents of Canada’s largest universities when we say something is nagging at them. A sense that things have become skewed in Canada’s higher education system, and more broadly in the way Canada’s economy and society face an uncertain future.
How else to explain the decision by these five top university presidents to approach Maclean’s for an interview? And how else to explain that—after their aides and helpers took care to assure us that the five presidents had “no specific ask” when they offered to talk—they showed up with an agenda for major change in their own institutions and in Canadian society at large?
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.
But these five are not only concerned with their own institutions’ place in the pecking order of Canadian higher education. The presidents called for what one of them, David Naylor of the University of Toronto, called a “first ministers’ conference on the innovation economy.” The question that would face the Prime Minister and the provincial premiers at that conference would be: how can Canada improve its performance at putting new ideas to work in the private sector?
Such a summit-level attempt to grapple with Canada’s lagging competitiveness would amount to another sea change. And it reflects a growing consensus among academic leaders that the biggest failure to adopt new ideas doesn’t lie with universities or governments but with a timid and risk-averse corporate culture. That’s why, if first ministers do meet to discuss innovation and the knowledge economy, “having industry leadership there with government and universities is absolutely crucial,” said Heather Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill University.
If anyone is occupationally bound to worry about the future, of course, it’s these five, superb academics and gifted administrators. Along with Naylor and Munroe-Blum, we talked to Stephen Toope, the president of the University of British Columbia; Indira Samarasekera of the University of Alberta; and Luc Vinet of the Université de Montréal.
They have had a bit of a wild year. The economic crisis has played havoc with the endowments that pay some of their bills. Governments looking for shovel-ready stimulus projects have more than made up the difference, but the presidents can’t be sure that taxpayer-funded largesse will last: in the 1990s, the last time federal and provincial governments got serious about eliminating budget deficits, they did it through painful short-term cuts to university and college budgets. Will that happen again?
It certainly will if political leaders continue to regard universities as a nice place to cut ribbons, but not as important resources in addressing Canada’s broader challenges. The big five presidents worry about drift and lack of direction in our higher education system. That direction can only come from political leaders. So all of the presidents, even Montreal’s Vinet, called for Ottawa to pay more attention to what happens on Canada’s campuses.