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A Big Step Forward

The Ontario and federal governments have signalled a serious commitment to globally competitive research excellence

Veteran advocates for post-secondary education in Ontario have gained a lot of sympathy for Sisyphus. In recent decades, they have rolled many stones up University Avenue to the doorstep of the Legislature, only to see them roll back down, drawn by the gravity of populism, electoral considerations or fiscal austerity. They have experienced a similar phenomenon on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, too.

But our efforts may now be bearing fruit. In recent months both the Ontario and federal governments have signalled a serious commitment to enabling our research-intensive universities to compete more effectively in the global arena. The one-size-fits-all mentality in funding post-secondary education – as a result of which we have many similar, good institutions, but few uniquely great ones – is giving way to the principle of differentiation.

Simply, this means that in an increasingly competitive, globalized knowledge economy, we need to foster excellence of all kinds – from undergraduate-focused institutions to graduate intensives and from regional comprehensives to global research powerhouses. It also means, crucially, that we need to allocate resources accordingly. In jurisdictions around the world where differentiation is already well established, we see that it leads to more choice and a better educational experience for students. It creates greater efficiency and value for taxpayers by reducing duplication and allowing institutions to focus on what they do best, raising the quality of programs across the board. Most important, it enables countries to develop universities where top talent gathers, world-changing discoveries are made, and new fields and industries emerge – institutions that are critically important to our long-term prosperity.

Last fall, in its Differentiation Policy Framework for Postsecondary Education, Ontario stated that “the government has opted for differentiation as a primary driver for the system . . . : Our overriding goals . . . [are to] help focus the well-established strengths of institutions, enable them to operate together as complementary parts of a whole, and give students affordable access to the full continuum of vocational and academic educational opportunities . . . required to prosper in our contemporary world.” As a first step in implementing the policy, the province is entering into a Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) with each institution.

As Ontario’s most research-intensive university, it makes sense that U of T should enrol a greater share of the province’s graduate students, and be supported in leveraging its vast research enterprise to enrich the undergraduate experience. On the latter point, the university’s research strength enables us to create a unique experience, in which students learn from some of the world’s greatest scholars and have unparalleled opportunities to join them in advanced research. We’ve made a lot of progress in strengthening undergraduate education over the past decade, creating more small-group and experiential learning opportunities and entrepreneurship incubators for students across our campuses and faculties. But we need to do more; and, perhaps paradoxically to some, funding commensurate with our research strength will be a key part of our success.

So, at the provincial level things are going in the right direction, and if our forthcoming SMA document guides future resource allocation – as it is intended to do – this bodes well for our prospects. But, as they say, there’s more.

In its 2014 budget, the federal government announced the creation of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which will reach $200 million annually by 2018–19. What’s new about this fund is that allocations will be based on competitive, peer-reviewed research excellence, enabling Canada’s universities to “leverage their key strengths into world-leading capabilities that will generate benefits for Canadians.” Through this major new investment, Canada’s most competitive research universities will be given sustained means to support established and emerging areas of excellence. It’s a big step forward, placing our country more in line with other jurisdictions around the world.

Ultimately, U of T’s research success stems directly from the superb faculty, staff, and students we are able to attract and retain. As the university continues to develop its unique strengths, it will be better positioned to serve the needs of its students, compete internationally and contribute to a prosperous future for Canada.

Meric Gertler

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