Reverse triage is a losing game

Maclean’s interviews the “big five” university presidents in Canada:

Over the course of a 90-minute video conference, the big five presidents said their institutions must be given the means and mandates to set themselves still further apart from the rest of Canada’s universities—to pursue world-class scientific research and train the most capable graduate students, while other schools concentrate on undergraduate education. The vision they described would be a challenge to the one-size-fits-all mentality that has governed Canada’s higher education system. […]

An hour into our conversation, the five presidents had called for more research money, the ability to concentrate more on graduate education, fewer undergrads, more international students, and the right to charge higher tuition in return for increased financial assistance to the least affluent students.

The self-selected Big Five are the University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, University of Toronto, McGill University, and Université de Montréal. And what about everyone else?

A system of winners and losers, in other words? Naylor is quick to argue the opposite. “Canada would probably be well-served to have a large number of small liberal arts universities, more than we have now. And to see those as somehow losers in a game of higher education strikes me as wrong.”

The presidents of smaller universities don’t see the logic of improving Canadian science by cutting off their faculty from research opportunities. There are indeed excellent researchers at smaller schools such as McMaster or Waterloo. They have never signed up to work at “small liberal arts universities”.

But what if such a solution were good for Canadian science overall, if not for the small universities in particular? I don’t believe that. You don’t have to take my word for it – see this Inside Higher Ed article on a recent study of the “much-ballyhooed decline in the international standing of American higher education”:

The paper, “Is the U.S. Losing Its Preeminence in Higher Education?” (which is available for purchase from NBER [the National Bureau od Economic Research]), acknowledges that the closing of the gap in research productivity between the U.S. and other countries that intensified in the 1980s has resulted to a significant degree from the expansion of research in Europe and especially East Asia. But it also identifies a slowdown in research output in the United States beginning in the 1990s — a slowdown that is largely attributable, writes the author James D. Adams, to public universities. […]

Compensation for researchers, for example, rose 1 percent faster a year at private universities than public ones throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the study finds, suggesting “reasons for top scientists to migrate from public to private universities.”

And while the rapid expansion of federal research funding benefited public institutions even more than private universities during this time, Adams finds, state obligations to cover Medicaid costs and equalize public school spending, among other demands, meant that “growth of mostly federal research dollars is canceled out by the slower growth of state dollars in public universities.”

Adams is then quoted as saying that if this trend is not reversed, “the decline in the U.S. share of world science will likely persist.”

It would appear that having a Princeton and a Harvard does not really compensate for the decline of the U.S. public university system. I suppose that it does not help that Harvard has its own share of problems – but that’s a different story. Because the point is, the public system is just as important for the overall U.S. excellence in research as its ivory towers. You can’t build a good ivory tower on a desert island: there needs to be a broad net cast out to catch the best brains and to send them both to the ivory towers and the best public universities. The Big Five presidents actually acknowledge as much later in their interview:

“Could it be that we simply aren’t producing enough radically disruptive innovators, breakthrough scholars, proportionate to our numbers?” Naylor asked. “It could be that we simply get to a certain point and don’t quite break through the ceiling.”

To produce or lure the world’s best scholars, UBC’s Toope said, universities need to graduate more students with higher degrees. “Both at the level of a master’s but even more importantly at the level of Ph.D.s, we are not producing at the level of our American colleagues, and actually many others in the OECD,” he said. “I suspect that’s an indicator of a relative lack of overall performance at the highest levels.”

But the problem starts even lower, Alberta’s Samarasekera said, with a limited supply of undergrads. “We do very well in terms of statistics on post-secondary education in the OECD,” she said, but those statistics can be misleading because they include Canada’s large population of community college students. “The actual number of university graduates per capita, we’re middle of the pack or lower. And that’s the group that eventually supplies the Ph.D.s and the innovators and the disruptive thinkers.”

Actually, that’s not quite how it works. Many of Canada’s best undergraduates get their Ph.D. degrees south of the border; conversely, Canadian graduate schools attract students from the U.S. and many other countries. Among those graduates who stay in the academia, it is common to hold at least one temporary position, often two or more, before settling down in a tenure-track job. Again, borders are often crossed in the process. It’s not necessarily the best Canadian undergraduates who end up in our graduate schools, nor are our faculty recruited directly from our graduate schools.

But on a higher level, the idea is sound: a thriving high-level research community does need a wide pipeline feeding into it. That pipeline should not come to an end with the binary sorting of entry-level faculty between ivory towers and community colleges. Here’s hoping that this is not what anyone had in mind.

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