I’m sure many of you saw Western President, Amit Chakma’s, op-ed in the National Post last week, suggesting that Canadian universities need more government assistance to reach new heights of excellence, and “own the podium” in global academia. I’ve been told that Chakma’s op-ed presages a new push by the U-15 for a dedicated set of “excellence funds” which, presumably, would end up mostly in the U-15′s own hands (for what is excellence if not research done by the U-15?). All I can say is that the argument needs some work.
The piece starts out with scare metrics to show that Canada is “falling behind”. Australia has just two-thirds our population, yet has seven institutions in the QS top 100, compared to Canada’s five! Why anyone should care about this specific cut-off (use the top-200 in the QS rankings and Canada beats Australia 9 to 8), or this specific ranking (in the THE rankings, Canada and Australia each have 4 spots), Chakma never makes clear.
The piece then moves on to make the case that, “other countries such as Germany, Israel, China and India are upping their game” in public funding of research (no mention of the fact that Canada spends more public dollars on higher education and research than any of these countries), which leads us to the astonishing non-sequitur that, “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”.
This proposition – that public funding of education is a leading indicator of economic performance – is demonstrably false. Germany has just about the weakest higher education spending in the OECD, and it’s doing just fine, economically. The US has about the highest, and it’s still in its worst economic slowdown in over seventy-five years. Claiming that there is some kind of demonstrable short-term link is the kind of thing that will get universities into trouble. I mean, someone might just say, “well, Canada has the 4th-highest level of public funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP in the OECD – doesn’t that mean we should be doing better? And if that’s indeed true, and our economy is so mediocre, doesn’t that give us reason to suspect that maybe our universities aren’t delivering the goods?”
According to Chakma, Canada has arrived at its allegedly-wretched state by virtue of having a funding formula which prioritizes bums-in-seats instead of excellence. But that’s a tough sell. Most countries (including oh-so-great Australia) have funding formulae at least as demand-oriented as our own – and most are working with considerably fewer dollars per student as well. If Australia is in fact “beating” us (a debatable proposition), one might reasonably suspect that it has at least as much to do with management as it does money.
Presumably, though, that’s not a hypothesis the U-15 wants to test.