Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), North American integration has continued to accelerate. Trade liberalization, combined with the rapid growth of a knowledge-based econ- omy, has generated increasing pressures in North America for skilled and geographically mobile workers. The competi- tive nature of business today fuels a growing demand for workers equipped with a global outlook and capabilities.

Institutions of higher education play a central role in meeting the needs of this new operating environment. A series of major conferences (Wingspread, 1992; Vancouver 1993; Guadalajara, 1996), have made large contributions to defining the issues facing North American higher education and developing an agenda for action. A vital part of this agenda is the building of linkages among North American institutions of higher education such as faculty and student exchanges, foreign student enrolment, joint research programs and cosponsored conferences, and the vitally important activity ”” given the new funding reality higher educa- tion institutions face ”” of corporate involvement in and engagement with the higher education mission. In short, linkages are all about developing global partnerships and capabilities in an increasingly global world.

This article presents the results of two recent surveys of a cross-section of Canadian (late 1999) and US (late 2001) institutions of higher education. A parallel survey of Mexican institutions is still underway. Using information from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, we sent a survey to all Canadian universities (N=89) and com- munity colleges (N=142). The response rate for universities was 33.7 percent (N=30) and 32.7 percent (N=46) for com- munity colleges. A representative sample of US universities and colleges was prepared using information from the Higher Education Directory for 2001. We sent surveys to a 30-percent repre- sentative probability sample of 1,715 two-year private and public colleges and a 30-percent representative proba- bility sample of 2,443 four-year col- leges and universities. Of a total of 515 two-year colleges to which a survey was sent, 152 institutions responded, a response rate of 29.5 percent. Of 755 four-year universities receiving a sur- vey, 258 institutions responded, a response rate of 35.2 percent.

The same questions were used in both surveys. The central purpose of the surveys was to elicit information on the extent to which Canadian and US institutions of higher education were involved in North American linkages with other institutions (either bilateral or trilateral), how beneficial the linkages were consid- ered to be, the fields of study involved in linkage activities, direct outcomes or consequences of linkage activities and sources of funding for linkage development.

The surveys clearly show that Canadian higher education institu- tions lag behind their US counterparts in a number of North American link- age activity areas. Unfortunately, the lag is greatest in those fields of study and outcome areas that have the great- est strategic significance for economic development and competitiveness in an increasingly globally oriented and knowledge-based world economy.

The magnitude of current North American linkage activity by Canadian and US institutions of higher educa- tion is presented in figure 1. A majori- ty of both Canadian (46.1 percent) and US (49.4 percent) higher education institutions have trilateral linkage rela- tionships (that is, with the US and Mexico, in the case of Canadian insti- tutions, or with Canada and Mexico, in the case of US institutions). Bilateral linkages account for 23.7 percent of the linkage activity of Canadian insti- tutions and 26.8 percent of the linkage activity of US institutions. Canadian and US institutions of higher educa- tion are overwhelmingly likely to report that their existing North American linkage activities have been beneficial for their institutions (90.6 percent reporting ”œbeneficial” in Canada and 88.8 percent reporting ”œbeneficial” in the US).

Despite the benefits acknowledged by institutions that do report linkages, slightly over 30 percent of Canadian institutions have no linkages at all. The corresponding number for US institutions is nearly 24 percent. Moreover, a much larger proportion of Canadian institutions have no plans to establish such linkages in a year’s time (69.6 percent) compared with their US counterparts (33.7 percent).

Figure 2 presents data for eleven fields of study and the extent of linkage involvement by Canadian and US insti- tutions of higher education for each field. US institutions are ahead of their Canadian counterparts in all fields. The smallest differences between the two countries are in the fields of public administration and production man- agement, but as the chart also shows, neither of these fields are particularly active venues for the establishment of North American linkages.

Of far greater significance is the US lead in the fields of business administration (+22.8 percent), finan- cial services (+22.3 percent) and software development/internet appli- cations (+18.8 percent), fields that have considerable strategic signifi- cance for economic development and competitiveness compared with social sciences, humanities and environmen- tal studies, where the Canada/US dif- ferences are somewhat smaller.

Figure 3 (see page 48) presents the eight direct outcomes of North American linkage activities as reported by Canadian and US institutions of higher education. The outcomes are ordered, on the basis of Canadian institutions’ results, from greatest to least significant. As the figure shows, US institutions are ahead of Canadian institutions in all linkage out- comes. The two countries are closest together in the areas of joint research programs, co-sponsorship of conferences and student exchanges.

The US lead is most pronounced in the outcome areas of program expan- sion (+30.4 percent), increased corpo- rate involvement (+28.2 percent), faculty exchanges (+26.2 percent) and increased foreign student enrolment (+26.0 percent). These are strategically important areas for institutions of higher education and, more generally, the sort of contributions such institu- tions can make to economic develop- ment and competitiveness. Being able to expand programs with an interna- tional focus increases the effectiveness and relevance of higher education institutions in today’s environment. Faculty exchanges are central to devel- oping the pool of internationally capa- ble intellectual capital that is crucial to the knowledge economy. Bringing in foreign students with new and differ- ent perspectives simply accelerates the development of international aware- ness and capabilities in the institu- tions. As for corporate involvement, we have already noted how vital it is for higher education institutions in the current funding context (which is tending toward much greater expecta- tions of practical relevance in both teaching and research).

Figure 4 presents data on the rela- tive importance of funding sources for North American linkage development. As the figure clearly shows, two funding sources dominate the field ”” federal governments (43.5 percent in Canada; 39.6 percent in the US) and home insti- tutions (39.5 percent in Canada; 48.6 percent in the US). The greatest dispari- ty between the two countries occurs in the area of foundation support. Such support is highly significant in the US (31.8 percent) and minimal in Canada (1.3 percent). In part, this is a reflection of the smaller foundation sector in Canada. However, it also reflects the fact that North American issues do not typically enjoy a high priority in the Canadian foundation sector, a situation that clearly needs to be changed. The data underline the minimal signifi- cance of the Canadian, Mexican and US corporate sectors as sources of funding for North American linkage activities in Canadian higher education institu- tions. Given the heavy demands already being placed on federal govern- ment funding and home institution funding, creative program/policy initia- tives are needed to stimulate greater foundation and private sector funding support for North American linkage- building activities in Canadian higher education institutions.

Our data show that some institu- tions are simply not ”œin the loop” ”” they do not have North American link- ages and do not intend to pursue them. But what is most troubling is that we know that Canadian community col- leges almost invariably lag behind Canadian universities in North American linkage development activi- ties. This is a significant waste of poten- tial. By the very nature of their mission, colleges have much to offer countries like Mexico in such areas as middle-level labour force upgrading. Colleges could serve as an important entry point for Canada to this rapidly expanding mar- ket for educational services. In addition, the strong tradition of co-op programs in the college sector provides a foundation to build upon. Put simply, co-op pro- grams need to be more international. There us great potential for added value from the college sector. The same is also true for many smaller universities.

From our discussions with higher education leaders in Canada, we have ascertained that it is typically the smaller, less research-intensive institu- tions that experience the greatest diffi- culty in developing North American linkages. Within the context of exist- ing linkage development programs (such as the North American Mobility Program), greater use should be made of targeted seed money and proposal development assistance initiatives to build capacity in these relatively disad- vantaged institutions. There is also a need to identify best-practice models and success strategies for linkage development and mechanisms to ensure that information about these is widely and effectively disseminated.

To conclude, on the basis of the foregoing discussion, the following are actions that we believe would be in Canada’s national interest.

  • Given the pace of North Americanization and the prospect of increasing Canada’s participa- tion in the process, the develop- ment of linkages among North American institutions of higher education is a policy/program field of rapidly rising importance. The Canadian government is a major source of funding for the North American linkage develop- ment activities of Canadian high- er education institutions, but this funding needs to be increased.

  • The federal government needs to build more and better partner- ships with provincial govern- ments, the private sector and foundations. What is needed are cost-shared initiatives (which would of course also involve the higher education institutions) tar- geted to high priority North American projects and issues where practical and measurable results can be achieved.

  • Some higher education institu- tions in Canada simply cannot get access to funding programs. They lack the staff and resources to develop the detailed proposals required. Funding program procedures need to be adapted, with seed grants and entry level initia- tives ”œto get institutions started.”

  • Research is needed into why some institutions are successful in North American linkage develop- ment. ”œBest practices” and ”œwin- ning strategies” need to be identi- fied, disseminated and presented so they can be used throughout the system.

  • We need more systemically gath- ered, time series data to determine whether North American linkage development among Canadian higher education institutions is improving, getting worse, or remaining largely unchanged. Surveys like the ones on which this paper is based should be repeated on a periodic basis.

North American integration is proceeding at a rapid pace. In today’s knowledge economy institutions of higher education play a strategic role, and this paper has shown that Canadian institutions could be doing more in certain areas. The issue goes beyond North American higher educa- tion collaboration, extending to what role Canada will play in the evolving North American agenda. The outcome will influence the strength and effec- tiveness of our national voice in future continental policy debates.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, Human Resources Development Canada, and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (US State Department).

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License