The president of the University of British Columbia, Stephen Toope, has suggested recently that Canada should consider fostering greater stratification in higher education. Stratification means more hierarchy β€” a few strong, prestigious universities, others with regional or academically specific mandates and still others as primarily teaching institutions.

Reporting on President Toope’s suggestion in the Globe and Mail last October, Gary Mason finds the prospect attractive, especially the idea of a handful of universities that would compete with the likes of Harvard and Oxford. A few Canadian institutions aspire to the upper reaches of the global league tables, but most observers agree that Canada has no institution close to the top 10.

For university presidents the competition generated by league tables is a tremendous motivator, and a stark reminder of where they sit in the game of academic ambition. The cynic might wonder if the distinction they seek for their universities is a thin guise for their own needs, but there are reasons to think that a concentration of talent and resources, and the attendant prestige, might generate more than higher presidential salaries. In other words, perhaps there are direct benefits and positive externalities associated with elevating a few universities to the academic stratosphere.

One direct benefit would presumably be the breakthroughs or advances that intensive, high-quality research produces. Attracting faculty members who can achieve these advances depends on having the resources to sustain their work, and getting those resources depends in turn on having a high research profile in the first place. A Catch-22, which might be overcome if some universities were simply designated research Goliaths.

Of course, the search for prestige via research excellence does not attract universal support. For many faculty members prestige is not an altogether noble goal, especially when set against the ideals of teaching and learning. Even for these doubters, however, a case might be made that prestigious institutions have their benefits. Many young Canadians find places in Ivy League universities every year, while very few Americans look to Canada. Might we not improve our ability to retain strong students and attract others from abroad if Canada had some internationally recognized universities?

No one should be faulted for raising the question; it is, as Toope has observed, a public policy issue. Can we overcome the alleged deficiencies in our post-secondary performance by explicitly developing university mandates backed by funding formula and accountability measures? Let’s consider that possibility, not from the perspective of the universities, but from an instrumental public policy point of view.

The place to start is at the top of the league tables, where American colleges and universities hold a dominant position. True, the renowned private institutions whose names are synonymous with elitism were not conceived as such by legislatures; many evolved from religious roots and built their capacity on the strength of generations of alumni. But others, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), could not have achieved their current prestige without the help of the US government, specifically in MIT’s case the Department of Defense.

In the land grant institutions, the US government created a specific type of university that was dedicated to the needs of the local community. The intended community was agricultural, in the first instance, but land grant institutions have expanded their public service responsibilities to occupy an important niche within the array of American post-secondary institutions. Meanwhile, large states like California and New York have built their own systems on mandates that allow for the concentration of research energies in flagship institutions, such as University of California (UC), Berkeley, while creating a layered combination of teaching and research missions in others.

Whatever the appeal of hierarchy and structured mandates, Canadian governments have so far resisted these ideas. In fact, to the consternation of large universities, recent federal programs have provided more support for smaller, less research-intensive institutions than linear formulae would have allowed. The Canada Research Chairs program is a case in point, as is federal support for the indirect costs of research.

It would be natural to attribute the federal government’s reluctance to create structured mandates to its limited constitutional authority in post-secondary education. Certainly, constitutional constraints were on the minds of those who fashioned the major programs of research support in the past 10 years, and care was taken not to offend provincial education responsibilities, particularly in Quebec. But those same constraints did not prevent federal governments in the 1950s from expanding direct support to universities (a short-lived involvement, to be sure) and, as we all know, constitutional obstacles have not blocked other kinds of federal intrusions, such as the Canada Health Act.

Note, however, that the original idea for medicare came from the provincial level before it became national policy. By contrast, in the case of post-secondary education, the provinces have been no more willing than has the federal government to openly discriminate amongst universities. Although offered the chance to do so in a 1981 report it commissioned (Report of the Committee on the Future Role of Universities in Ontario), the government of Premier Bill Davis declined to anoint the University of Toronto as a “comprehensive” institution, or to create a club of four or five others that would be permitted to offer a limited range of high-quality programs.

Since then, provincial governments have adopted the view that they are primarily financiers of higher education, whose principal role is to ensure access for students and accountability for funds spent by university administrators. Tuition levels, not academic quality, have been the abiding concern, and with an eye to providing a middle-class subsidy, governments have imposed firm limits on how far universities can fend for themselves in the academic marketplace. The objection that tuition regulation locks all institutions into the same financial strait-jacket has been met with indifference. It is apparently more important to keep universities on a short financial leash than to create a system in which they are obliged to cultivate their natural strengths. So it is not just a matter of reluctance to be proactive on the stratification file; governments have pursued a policy agenda in direct opposition to differentiation.

It is easy to understand why governments avoid a dirigiste approach, given the political calculus that underlies their priorities. Any provincial government that openly discriminates among universities invites a torrent of objections from the universities themselves. Since only a handful will be favoured for world-class status, most will be appropriately suspicious that their own funding will be siphoned off for a chosen few. If this were the US, where universities have more diverse funding sources, then perhaps favouritism could be tolerated. But in Canada, where most alumni think governments should provide the bulk of university funding and parents want higher education subsidized, financing universities is very close to a zero-sum game.

There are other reasons for universities to be skeptical. It is not feasible to stipulate the international ascendancy of a few universities without affecting the mandates of everyone else. While politicians occasionally express enthusiasm for the elimination of duplication, not everyone has a thirst for consolidation or restrictions on local aspirations. Boards of governors, university presidents and local business elites do not easily tolerate the loss of nursing, engineering or education programs.

Finally, there is a niggling matter to which President Toope and others have alluded β€” the propensity of Canadians to resist elitism as somehow unseemly. Notwithstanding the storied history of Canada as a country of conservative values, our recent inclinations lean in the opposite direction. According to Michael Adams, author of Fire and Rain, Canadians (led by baby boomers) have increasingly abandoned their traditional deference to authority and adopted a more self-sufficient stance in the face of hierarchy. Their preferred model of governance is what he calls “heterarchy” or “egalitarian idealism,” in which authority is shared and there are no permanent leaders. In a message aimed at all efforts to institutionalize stratification, Adams argues that Canadians increasingly favour fluid arrangements in which today’s leaders may be tomorrow’s followers. This means that in the postmodern world that Canadians increasingly inhabit, whoever is the best on any given day and on any given subject should be determined by the evidence, not by ideology. Not all Canadians agree, of course, and values have shifted over time, but as Adams says, Canadians, far more than Americans, continue to honour “compromise, harmony and equality.”

In terms of the struggle for elite universities, these are sobering realities. Those who persist in the belief that Canada should take on the challenge of international selectivity face a formidable coalition in opposition. University faculty, most presidents, provincial governments and the public at large seem less than enthused. In the end there is no obvious constituency for the stratification project. That does not make it a bad idea, of course. In fact, in Canada coalitions of this kind are routinely constructed to resist any substantial change to the status quo. So let’s set aside for the moment the polit- ical realities I have just outlined and assume that having a few elite universities is a basically good idea. There are still some serious questions. First, is this something that requires active public intervention? Second, assuming it does, will active intervention work? And finally, are Canadians willing to bear the costs associated with achieving these objectives?

To look at the first question whether we need active, public intervention, it is useful to have some sense of where Canada stands among elite institutions. According to the 2007 QS Times World University Rankings, Canada’s McGill University is the 12th best university in the world, ahead of UC Berkeley, Stanford University and other highly reputable institutions. Alex Usher, vice-president of the Education Policy Institute, says that these results do not pass the “fall-down-laughing test,” and based on quantitative measures, he is certainly correct. Canada’s universities are, for the most part, public institutions, and public institutions, do relatively poorly on quantitative indicators, most of which are resource driven. Nevertheless, public universities do much better on reputation-based surveys, and the QS survey relies on reputation for 50 percent of its scoring. Does this make its results entirely unreliable? Not necessarily. After all, reputation is precisely what universities want in order to generate virtuous circles of investment and accomplishment. Note, however, that reputation scores bounce around from year to year (except at the very top), and they are generally considered more valid as measures of research profile than as anything else.

Setting reputation aside and looking strictly at the numbers generated by input and output measures, Canadian universities come down to earth. According to the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, which weigh research heavily (90 percent strikes me as heavy), Canada’s top university in 2007 was the University of Toronto, at 23rd in the world. McGill is Canada’s 3rd-ranked institution, according to this survey, coming in at a more sobering 63rd in the world. Still, not too bad given the competition from specific universities, and even better in terms of national comparisons. For example, in Canada, as in France, 4 percent of universities are in the top 100 of the Shanghai Jiao rankings and about 5 percent are in the top 500. This is a respectable showing, considering that Canada has about 60 percent of France’s population. Note, however, that Sweden does about as well as Canada with a far smaller population and economy, while all nations are dwarfed by the US, which captures over half of the top 100 places.

Everyone knows about the folly of rankings. Nevertheless it seems certain that rankings will be with us for a long time, and that reputation will continue to play a role in some, if not most, of them. And the good news is that Canada is not doing badly, even in the absence of a national commitment to ascendancy. Somehow McGill University has succeeded in penetrating an international audience, perhaps one moved by the egalitarian view that Canada needs at least one top-20 university. From that perspective, McGill is as good a choice as any.

I am not being cynical here. It is hard to fathom the biases that find their way into rankings. My suspicion is that longevity has much to do with it. Universities that have been around for a long time are assumed to have figured out how it is done and to have acquired some cachet as a result. The point, however, is that a university’s underlying reputation, not the one captured at any given time or in any given survey, is unlikely to change quickly. Harvard University, University of Oxford and the University of Tokyo started on their paths centuries ago, and they are sustained on those paths by powerful feedback mechanisms in the form of alumni, governments and the public at large. Reputations can be changed with strong policies and financial support, but it takes time for the results to show up.

A government announcement to the effect that one or more Canadian universities have been selected for stardom may affect the rankings on its own. But reputation secured this way is fragile, and there is an ever-present possibility of backlash. By and large, university presidents do not (and governments certainly should not) aspire to the kind of reputation that is secured by press releases. What they are after, rightly, is the reputation that comes with genuine accomplishment. It is not going to come without substantial selectively dispersed resources. The causal model is absurdly simple. But genuine improvement in reputation will not happen quickly. More important, from government’s point of view, is that in today’s research environment it is not clear that the reputation of individual institutions is in fact the route to national academic pre-eminence.

This brings us to the second question: can active intervention work and is it possible to achieve national prestige using an elite university model?

In the matter of research there are reasons to doubt the effectiveness of this strategy. Academic research is increasingly team-oriented, and collaboration is occurring on a national and international basis. One reason is that the scale of academic research, even in the social sciences, has changed. Individual academics are still working in libraries and laboratories, just as they did generations ago, but the escalating costs of instrumentation and experimentation have meant that the duplication of research facilities is now beyond the capacity of even the most willing of governments. Increasingly resources, including human resources, have to be pooled. That is the logic behind centres of excellence, and it is the reason why the Neptune Project β€” designed to map the physical, chemical and biological properties of the northwest Pacific Ocean β€” is a multi-tiered partnership of US and Canadian universities and governments and the private sector. It is also the reason why the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory is a multinational, multi-university project, and why the Canadian Light Source is a multi-government, multi-university resource.

One way to establish an elite group of universities would be to privilege the work of individual academics who produce excellent work using traditional models, if they are based at designated (i.e., elite) universities. Such a tactic would introduce a criterion for peer-reviewed support β€” university affiliation β€” that has little to do directly with the quality of their work. Obviously that would be hard to justify to researchers, even if measures were taken to ensure that standards at these elite institutions were invariably higher than anywhere else. And fixing standards and appointments to achieve national policy goals would require that governments become directly involved in university decision-making.

Alternatively, certain kinds of research could be directed to particular institutions in a kind of “guided” process in which peer review plays a role, but only after other requirements are met. From the perspective of rewarding merit, this strategy is only slightly less objectionable. It has the advantage of directing research to institutions with a critical mass and/or the required facilities, but those are considerations that enter into the allocation of research funding right now without the dirigiste assistance.

Governments do have a legitimate interest in concentration and rationalization, but it is doubtful that, for research purposes at least, it extends to overtly designating some institutions as research leaders. The University of Waterloo has established itself as a national champion in the realm of computer science, the University of Saskatchewan has internationally recognized vaccine capabilities, and Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador has invested in oceanography. To suggest that this kind of specialization should continue and that we should also invest in global preeminence in the form of designated universities simply raises the question: what for?

As long as public sector support for research remains at current levels, it is not clear that the national government should anoint some universities as international leaders in everything they do, while simultaneously encouraging specialized strengths in others. Only one of these strategies would seem to be even vaguely affordable, and the current research model, which relies on self-generated networks of researchers in search of peer-reviewed support, is easier to justify in terms of public expenditure. The only reason to reject this logic would be if prestige were so valuable as to be worth the risk (if not the certainty) of a suboptimal distribution of limited resources for research.

There is, however, another route to acquiring elite institutions, one that does not involve the research enterprise directly but instead emphasizes the character of the student body. Elitism in this case involves the creation of universities where the demand for places far outstrips the ability of institutions to accommodate it. Here we confront the third important question: assuming this strategy could work, are we prepared to live with the costs of success?

The simplest way for governments to achieve student-driven elite institutions would be to allow a few universities to set tuition in a manner that would make university education a luxury good. This strategy relies on the dynamics of conspicuous consumption and the need or desire for social distinction. It builds on the idea that consumer preferences are developed in a social environment. In the case of luxury goods, demand is subject to bandwagon effects because people seek conspicuous means of dissociating themselves from the less wealthy. On the other side of the coin, demand for undifferentiated goods, regardless of their quality, drops because people do not want to be associated with the multitude. Of particular importance for tuition is what has been called the Veblen effect, named for the author most closely associated with conspicuous consumption. You are witnessing the Veblen effect when the willingness to pay for something increases with its price. Examples in higher education include MBA programs where low tuition is assumed to mean low demand, which in turn discourages consumers. High price helps secure reputation.

There are sound reasons for increasing tuition β€” most of them involve the need to avoid subsidizing the wealthy β€” but increasing tuition for the express purpose of creating a Veblen effect is potentially wasteful on a large scale. Anecdotal evidence and student survey research confirm that prestigious universities that charge exorbitant fees do not deliver commensurate educational experiences. Put another way, the way Veblen puts it, luxury goods are wasteful. They purchase social distinction, but as long as there is a limited amount of status to go around, their production is socially problematic because real resources are being used to produce something that generates no direct economic return to society at large.

Indirectly, high-priced higher education might be considered a gift to the community by the status-conscious. The mere existence of elite universities, in this reasoning, generates a public good that is consumed not by the purchasers (they consume psychic status income), but by all of us who share in the prestige that one or two elite institutions generate. According to this reasoning, elite universities are useful as signalling devices, sending a message about the quality of education to be found beyond the one or two institutions that perch on top of the hierarchy.

The problem is that even if the highly select elite institutions could deliver the quality that drives reputation, there is no guarantee that everyone else can. And without that guarantee, or at least some assurance of a trickle-down effect, it is hard to justify governments engaging in a deliberate signalling game, with an intricate causal chain at its heart, in the hope that all institutions will benefit, regardless of merit.

It is perfectly legitimate for university presidents to ask governments for assistance in meeting the international challenge. A major part of their job is to frame those requests in such a way that it is sound public policy for governments to meet them. It is not clear, however, that direct government involvement in the creation of elite institutions is sound public policy. Some Canadian institutions have already shown they can compete internationally; every university should be given the chance to do so.

Governments can help. Providing operating funds for major science installations that already exist is one way; offering greater assistance to the granting councils is another. Canada’s best research institutions are already taking the lion’s share of support in both arenas. Governments should also take their collective foot off the brake in matters of tuition. Give universities greater leeway to meet the real costs of international competition and deliver a high-quality undergraduate education. Canadians, whether as voters or consumers, will place serious constraints on how far universities can go in this regard, and governments should not allow higher education to be turned into a luxury good. But right now universities are unjustifiably limited in their ability to distinguish themselves, at a time when information on educational quality and the real experience of students has never been better. Governments can do their share by rationing tuition increases, monitoring education quality, and providing more effective financial aid systems.

What governments should not do is try to pick winners. In Canada, elite research institutions are emerging, but they are not assembled in the conventional hierarchy that league tables imply. They are networked internationally in projects that draw on specific strengths. Governments should encourage these linkages, help faculty to make global connections and then step aside. The winners will be obvious to everyone.

Michael Atkinson
Michael Atkinson is a Professor Emeritus in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan campus.

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