Over the past 15 years, the federal government has poured money into university-level research in Canada. Most of the new funding has gone into improving the quality of Canada’s universities by giving them more money to compete for the best global talent. The Canada Research Chairs program, launched in 2000, lets universities recruit and retain the outstanding but typically highly mobile faculty members who drive high-quality university research. The Vanier Scholarships program, launched in 2009, does the same for world-class doctoral students. And the more recent Global Excellence Research Chairs devotes unprecedented resources to recruiting a handful of top research teams to Canada. These efforts are complemented by the funding of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and other programs that equip Canada’s universities with the kind of world-class facilities and networks of excellence that attract leading scholars.

These efforts have paid off with international recognition. The Chronicle of Higher Education, the global news weekly for universities and colleges, featured the Canadian initiatives in February 2011. It noted how “unprecedented” government funding meant that, even in the face of “intensifying global competition for the best and brightest, Canada is on a roll.” The fear of a Canadian brain drain, so widespread in the 1990s, had been turned into a brain gain.

Over the next 15 years, Canadian universities will face a new pattern of competition for the world’s best academic talent. Traditional competitors in the United States, the United Kingdom and continental Europe are under extraordinary budget pressures, and those pressures will likely become more severe. Public universities in the UK and continental Europe have had their budgets cut quickly and sharply. By the time the US government has responded seriously to its fiscal crisis, its universities will have seen their funds shrink further. Private universities that have taken hits in their endowment portfolios face more years of low or zero bond returns and a dry well of alumni contributions.

At the same time, governments in emerging markets such as Brazil, India and China are trying to escape the so-called middle income trap by boosting investments in higher education and scientific research. Some of these governments hold enormous foreign currency resources and will be able to attract draw top-tier talent from around the world.

These trends present opportunities for Canada. Shrinking budgets in the advanced economies and expanding budgets in emerging markets will shuffle the established rankings of world universities. The elite global universities of today will have trouble holding their own against fiscal and financial crises at home and the scale of investments being made in developing countries. New and established academics will be looking for universities that can offer long-term, stable support for their research programs. Canada, as a peaceful, low-tax jurisdiction with a stable economy and a well-funded university system, is well placed to draw them in.

The success of the Global Excellence Research Chairs program proved that.

Despite all the funding that has gone to Canadian universities in the past 15 years, only a handful consistently rank in the top 100 universities worldwide.

Evaluating universities is a difficult and controversial enterprise. There are, however, three well-recognized efforts to rank the world’s institutions of higher education — the Times Higher Education rankings, the QS Top 100 and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. Three Canadian universities consistentlyplaceamongtheworld’stop100 in all these rankings — the University of Toronto, McGill University and the University of British Columbia (UBC). The University of Toronto ranked 19th in the Times Higher Education ranking for 2011-12, just ahead of Cornell. In 2011, McGill ranked 19th on the QS Top 500, ahead of Duke and University of California, Berkeley. And the Times Higher Education rankings put UBC 22nd in the world, ahead of Duke and Northwestern universities. UBC, McMaster University and the University of Alberta are also included among the top 100 in these rankings (see table 1).

Although these Canadian universities rank in the top 100 institutions worldwide, the truly elite top 10 rankings of universities are dominated by private and public universities of the United States and the United Kingdom.

These are the very institutions that will face severe financial constraints in the future, and therefore there has never been a better time to push some of Canada’s universities into the truly elite ranks of the top 10 universities of the world.

Despite all the funding that has gone to Canadian universities in the past 15 years, only a handful consistently rank in the top 100 universities worldwide.

Thanks to Canada’s strong fiscal situation, the federal government will be able to continue to support university excellence through another round of Global Excellence Research Chairs, Canada Research Chairs and Vanier Scholarships, and providing more rounds of Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) funding. These will ensure that Canadian universities do not lose ground as the global rankings are shuffled. But these programs, helpful as they are, are targeted efforts. They spread money across many institutions, and increasingly they target research disciplines selected by the federal government. The Global Excellence Research Chairs, for example, can be used only to recruit talent to Canada in a handful of disciplines. They have improved Canada’s ability to recruit truly excellent researchers in those areas. However, they will not lift Canadian universities across the board and will do little to help emerging areas of research.

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If Canadian students are to have access to truly elite universities close to home, a blunter, more ambitious effort is needed. Putting a few Canadian institutions into the truly elite ranks will require more funding. That funding should have fewer, but clearer, strings attached. It will have to let universities invest where they see the greatest opportunities — either in established disciplines or in emerging areas where they can gain international recognition over time. In exchange for major new resources, universities will need to accept clearer and more transparent accountability for their impact. New resources for university excellence should pay for performance.

I propose, as the next step in propelling the quality of Canadian universities, a global top ten challenge. For this new initiative, the federal government would offer, say, $1 billion, up front, to any Canadian university that wants to reach for top 10 status on a recognized, international scheme of rankings. Once a university agreed to take the funds, it could use the billion dollars in any way it saw fit — to recruit established faculty from elsewhere, to attract emerging researchers just starting their careers, to build libraries or labs, or to partner with other institutions around the world. Universities could use the funds to build whichever disciplines they want to stress. They would then have a set time — 5 or 10 years — to reach top 10 status in one of the agreed-upon rankings. Otherwise, the billion dollars would be repayable, interest free, over the following 20 years.

This kind of global top 10 challenge would involve a major federal financial commitment. In return, the universities that accepted the challenge would be required to meet clear, transparent and independently scored global accountability measures. The federal government would have to select the rankings systems it would use to make sure they rely on fair, stable methodologies. All parties involved would want to ensure that the rankings systems have robust conflict of interest and anticorruption rules. But in the end, the program should be based on the “pay for performance” principle.

The federal government might want to require universities to meet other conditions before they enter the challenge. It might be wise to ask provincial governments to commit to stable financing for the life of the challenge, as well as to obtain upfront support from faculty, students and alumni. Since probably only a handful of universities would want to take up the challenge of getting into a global top 10 list, the federal government might want to set a corresponding, less ambitious challenge for universities that want to reach a top 100 list.

It is difficult to capture all the complex facets of a single university’s performance in a single, one-dimensional ranking. But every year Canadian universities condense all the complex facets of a student’s performance into a single, one-dimensional measure that can be ranked against other performances in other programs, and they do it thousands of times a year. A global top 10 challenge could not rely on just one rankings system to judge results. Rewarding universities that place in the truly elite ranks of any of two or three established rankings systems would avoid casting too narrow a definition of academic excellence.

The federal government already participates in challenges and pays for performance programs internationally. Under the Advanced Market Commitment (AMC) for pneumococcal vaccines, for example, Canada and other governments set an incentive for developing new vaccines. Rather than having government officials pick which potential pneumococcal vaccine they think is the most promising from all those under development around the world, the AMC gives an incentive to research centres to develop and commercialize vaccines according to their own expertise. The AMC thereby frees up creative talent around the world to focus on critical issues of public health. At the May 2012 Los Cabos G-20 Summit, Canada launched AgResults, a pay-on-results program to support international research and development on food and food security issues.

The global top 10 challenge is an opportunity to take advantage of Canada’s relative economic strength and its progress in building great universities as a way of ensuring that Canadian students, business and governments have access, here at home, to truly elite institutes of higher education.

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Ian Brodie
Ian Brodie is associate professor in the Law and Society Program at the University of Calgary. He was chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper from 2005 to 2008.

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