Reading through a couple of recent AUCC initiatives – notably: the “five commitments”and its new brochure on the value of universities, it occurred to me how much AUCC’s focus seems to have changed in the last few years. Though it hasn’t really been remarked upon, there seems to be a slow but dramatic shift in the way higher education lobbying occurs in Ottawa.
As late as 2000, AUCC still had an unrivalled lobbying presence in Ottawa. Individual institutions were starting to beef up their own government relations offices, but for the most part these concentrated on local issues and left Ottawa to AUCC. Over the past decade, though, the rise of the U-15 (formerly the G-13 and the G-10) has altered the landscape. Most if not all of these institutions decided that they needed to have their own lobbying presence in the capital. This didn’t mean having their own lobbying offices there, but it does mean their upgraded GR departments now spend a lot more time on calls and flights to Ottawa than they used to.
The apotheosis of this trend is the fact that the U-15 is now engaged in a search for a full-time president and is looking for someone of VP or even presidential rank to fill the spot. You don’t do that unless you’re looking to upgrade your lobbying capability.
This means that Canada is about to head down the route of having multiple and overlapping groups representing the higher education sector. That’s hardly unprecedented or even negative; both the U.S. and the U.K. do something similar (ACE and UUK represent the broad sector, but a series of smaller organizations such as AASCU and NAICU, or the Russell Group and Million+, represent specific groupings). But it does change the nature of AUCC’s role.
In a sense the change started two years ago, when the organization hired Paul Davidson. Basically, having spent 14 years run by former mandarins (Claire Morris and Robert Giroux) whose stock-in-trade was behind-the-scenes access to government officials, AUCC hired someone whose strengths lay much more in public advocacy. In that respect, it’s notable, for instance, how the “five points” and the brochure both seem to be aimed at influencers outside government.
After a decade-long winning streak, higher education is starting to face a more skeptical reception in Ottawa. What seems to be happening is that AUCC’s role is to play defence for the sector by mobilizing public support on behalf of the sector as a whole. Meanwhile, the U-15 get to keep playing a more offensive role, lobbying for more specific policies, mainly in research.
Where that leaves the rest of the sector is anyone’s guess.