Over the last few years, two new players have been introduced into the Ottawa higher education lobbying ecosystem. One is Polytechnics Canada – essentially, the country’s largest, most technologically sophisticated, and most research intensive colleges; the other is the U-15 – essentially the country’s largest, most technologically sophisticated, and most research intensive universities. For a variety of reasons, both of these new players have had a pretty good run in Ottawa, lately. Certainly, in the the U-15’s case, it’s often seemed like the tail wagging the AUCC dog (see CF-REF stories, passim). But for an organization with such clout, its membership criteria is fairly opaque.
The U-15 had its origins in a caucus of five research-intensive Ontario institutions (McMaster, Waterloo, Toronto, Queen’s, and Western) in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, the group expanded to include the big three Quebec universities (McGill, Montreal, and Laval), plus UBC and Alberta, and was renamed the Group of Ten, or G-10. Then, in the mid-2000s, Ottawa, Dalhousie, and Calgary were added, and more recently the inclusion of Manitoba and Saskatchewan has added some geographical balance. The “G” changed to a “U” and voila! U-15.
That the U-15 is a coalition of research intensive universities is clear. But the decisions about which institutions get to join, and which do not, seem remarkably arbitrary. Are they the 15 biggest universities? Obviously not, or York would be there. Are they the 15 universities with the largest granting council incomes? No; if it were, then Guelph would be in and Dal would be out. How about the 15 universities with the largest research incomes per faculty? Nope; you’d have to include INRS, ETS, and Victoria. Research impact? Depends on the measure used, but you could make a pretty good case for Simon Fraser on some of these.
Put it this way: the original G-10, plus Calgary and Ottawa, have a pretty good case to be a U-12. Dal, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba are not manifestly different on most performance indicators from Simon Fraser, Guelph, Victoria, and York. So why are the former members, and the latter not? The answer, in a word, is politics. Meteorological conditions in the underworld would need to be unseasonably frosty before UBC lets another BC institution into the club (Toronto and York have a similar issue). Meanwhile, the Dal/Man/Sask trio give the organization a more pan-Canadian patina – without them, the club would be confined to the country’s four largest provinces. This extra breadth goes a long way in Ottawa to convincing people you’re a truly “national” organization.
Now, of course the U-15 isn’t really alone in being a self-appointed elite, with fuzzy boundaries between itself and the rest of the pack. Just last month, an article in the Oxford Review of Education came to the same conclusion regarding the UK’s “Russell Group”, saying that on most measures, only Oxford and Cambridge really stand apart from the rest of the country’s pre-92 universities (in the UK, a pre-92 university is a university that was purpose built as-such; a post-92 university is one that was originally a polytechnic – think of the dividing line between “research” and “regional” universities in BC, and you’ve more or less got it).
But it’s not always the case. In Australia, the G-8 really are the top 8 in research almost any way you slice it. And in the United States, the American Association of Universities (which, by a weird historic fluke, also includes McGill and U of T) actually has quite a detailed set of membership criteria: research expenditures normalized by number of faculty, number of National Academy members, National Research Council faculty quality indicators, faculty honors, and scholarly citations. In fact, it’s strict enough that four years ago the organization actually kicked out Nebraska (Syracuse subsequently withdrew voluntarily so as not to suffer the same fate).
However, this is Canada: asking elites to meet some established criteria for proving eliteness isn’t really a thing here. Because, you know, someone might fail. Embarrassment would be caused. And that wouldn’t do, not for someone already “in the club”. So the likelihood of any U-15 members being asked to leave is pretty slight. And while the U-15 would probably prefer that the top tier of non-members go and form their own club, as they have done in other Anglophone speaking countries (e.g. the Innovative Universities Group in Australia, or the [now-defunct] 1994 Group in the UK), the likelier outcome is a gradual process of letting on new members – eventually. Guelph will come first, because it causes the least political friction with an existing member. SFU and Vic would be the next obvious candidates.
Of course the problem is that if the group is insufficiently exclusive, the top tier may walk away themselves and form their own, even more exclusive group. U-5, anyone?