Backing our winners

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Heather Monroe-Blum

The German government has set aside $3.6 billion to make Germany’s best universities synonymous with the world’s best universities. China is doing the same on an even larger scale, investing $11.4 billion to supersize its 100 top universities. The U.S. and the U.K. are providing incentives for research excellence. And Canada?

We’re proud that a few of Canada’s research-intensive universities are recognized around the world as top performers. This is how we build Canada’s place in the world.

We’re proud of a strong university system that produces and disseminates knowledge in diverse ways. We have universities that are primarily focused on undergraduate programs. We have comprehensive universities offering a range of larger undergraduate programs and selected graduate and research programs. We have medical-doctoral universities, with large research, professional and graduate student programs across a broad array of themes – and global collaborations that make strong international impact. Together, these professional universities drive forward a prosperous, enlightened society.

We’re doing many things right.

Notwithstanding, we’re under-leveraging our assets at great risk, and we’re in trouble.

Canada requires a handful of universities that are a permanent fixture in the world’s top 20, and in the top 100. This is how we will enhance the health, security and social well-being of Canadians. This is how we will continue to grow trade, attract outstanding talent and boost economic prosperity.

There’s no mystery about the value of globally significant research-intensive universities. Such institutions:

  • Attract and retain outstanding faculty and students from at home and around the world;

  • Send a message that we are serious about higher education and advanced research;

  • Prepare specialized professional personnel who have a global perspective;

  • Drive R&D and foster innovation through direct breakthrough discoveries, by graduating students who bring a creative mind-set and solutions into the workplace, and by creating jobs that add local value and compete globally; and

  • Contribute to a country’s global standing, competitiveness and the ability to shape global progress, as do our programs in the neurosciences and aerospace, as two examples.

Other countries understand this. They’re taking action to create strong, globally competitive universities. Canada needs to get in on this race before we’re too far behind to catch up.

The recently launched State of the Nation 2012 report notes Canada’s competitive advantages: a strong general talent base and scientific discovery and knowledge of high quality. However, there are significant gaps: we are not producing enough doctoral graduates, and Canada’s expenditures on higher education R&D as a proportion of GDP have declined in the past three years, in comparison to peer countries, as have business and gross expenditures on R&D.

We need to act now, but before we can move forward with reinforcements for Canadian world contenders, we need to think about three questions:

  1. Who gets to play? Canada, like other jurisdictions, has a limited amount of funding available for science, technology and innovation. We need to make every dollar count. Some must reward key programs on global standards of excellence and performance. As a priority we require, in addition to strong collaborations, healthy competition and incentives for top performance and strong accountability.

  2. How do we measure excellence? Achieving success in obtaining peer-reviewed funding goes hand-in-hand with having targeted outcomes and metrics that benchmark productivity and impact. Institutions that are awarded funding through peer-reviewed competitions have demonstrated research excellence. Let’s ensure that institutions that have demonstrated excellence are rewarded for performance.

  3. How do we ensure return on investment (ROI)? All funding should be linked to appropriate mechanisms of accountability and transparency, ensuring that public and private investments yield the greatest ROI. A high-level customized framework agreement – reporting on a few mutually agreed-to performance indicators – will recognize institutional size, talent mix, partnerships (at home and abroad) and special assets related to mission-specific distinctiveness. Indicators can reflect Canada’s priorities, such as the need to build our reserves of talent and to address our demographic deficit – increasing the numbers of research-stream graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, international graduate students, global players and global networks in key priority fields – as well as those metrics that reflect citations, publications, distinguished prizes and commercial benefit.

The clock is ticking. The time is now to commit to strategic performance-driven investment, and to create a concerted plan to build the much-needed momentum for the global success of Canadian research-intensive universities.