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By many measures, Canada is falling behind in the highly competitive game of knowledge creation and adoption.
Canadians should be concerned about this slippage as our future prosperity hinges on our ability to build and leverage intellectual capital in support of social and economic progress.
Canada can be a world leader in knowledge creation. To achieve this goal, however, we must first recognize the value in creating world-class universities, and then find the political will and public support to change how our universities are funded.
Some compelling arguments for this change are found in last month’s QS World University Rankings, and in Times Higher Education’s version of a similar annual survey released earlier this month. Both rankings held good news for a few of Canada’s top schools.
In the QS Rankings, for example, Canada placed a total of five schools on the list of the world’s top 100 universities, led by the University of Toronto at 17th overall.
But the QS also signals a trend that universities from other countries are faring better, in greater numbers, than Canadian schools as a whole.
Australia has two-thirds of Canada’s population and a lower postsecondary participation rate, yet it has seven universities ranked in the QS top-100 list — versus our five. The Australians have also overtaken Canada in the number of doctoral graduates they produce, with 26 PhDs per 100,000 population in 2010, compared to Canada’s 16.
Other countries are also upping their game. The U.K., Germany, Israel, China and India are all making more selective and aggressive investments to support research excellence in their top universities.
If universities in other jurisdictions are beating us on key academic and research measures, it’s not surprising that Canada is also being out-performed on key economic measures.
For instance, the OECD reports that Canada ranks 22nd in the proportion of our workforce involved in science and technology, and that more than 25% of Canadian businesses cite “lack of skills within the enterprise” as an obstacle to innovation.
Canada’s postsecondary sector needs its own gold rush
Given these standings, we need to ask some tough questions about how our university system can help Canada compete more effectively internationally. Those questions, I suggest, resemble those asked by our Olympic sports leaders a decade ago before they created Own The Podium.
Own The Podium’s philosophy embraces the idea of selective investment in excellence. Within its highly competitive system, training resources are allocated strategically to provide differentiated levels of support for the development of athletes demonstrating the greatest potential for success. The results spoke volumes when Canada won 14 gold medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where our athletes stood atop the podium more times than those from any other nation in a single winter games.
Canada’s postsecondary sector needs its own gold rush.
The current funding model and government policies, however, were designed long ago to maximize the number of students we teach. This “bums-in-seats” model fails to support excellence.
Innovation demands significant intellectual capital
For example, Canada’s top-ranked University of Toronto receives the same per-student funding as another Canadian institution that falls below the QS Rankings’ top 700 schools. Public policy also dictates that both institutions charge nearly identical tuition fees. Add to this the mounting indirect costs of research not covered by granting councils, and we have a recipe for mediocrity in a knowledge-based economy.
Innovation demands the creation of new knowledge — and the application of that knowledge — to improve productivity and to develop new technology, products, services and processes that will help us compete in the global marketplace. In short, innovation demands significant intellectual capital.
To win the race in creating and adopting new knowledge, Canada must first find the political will to make the competition a national priority. By removing the structural barriers and focusing on quality — rather than quantity — we can build a system that will close the gaps that threaten our future prosperity.
Amit Chakma is president & vice-chancellor at Western University, and chair of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities.