University chiefs fret about commercialisation of science

Concerns about the commercialization of Canadian research funding and international student recruitment were front and centre as Canadian higher education leaders gathered in Ottawa Monday.

The Canadian Association of Graduate Studies 50th Annual Conference, held at the Chateau Laurier from Nov. 4 to 7, brings together students and professors from over 58 Canadian universities that offer graduate programs with federally-funded grant agencies and other higher education stakeholders.

More than 250 participants gathered Monday morning at a session discussing the future of graduate education in Canada. The panel was moderated by incoming CAGS president Noreen Golfman of Memorial University. Golfman was joined by Alex Usher of the Higher Education Strategy and Harvey Weingarten of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

High on the agenda was the topic of research funds, in light of the government’s recent innovation policy reforms.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s March budget introduced a shift in innovation and research policy from an indirect form of funding, normally achieve through tax credits, to direct government grants. The aim of the policy change is to promote research in areas that have promising commercial output, better serving the business sector.

For Usher, this policy change is due to lack of results over decades of investment in basic and fundamental research.

“We’re not seeing some of the benefits I think governments thought we could offer 15 or 20 years ago when we were putting bigger investments into higher education. We haven’t seen the kinds of returns that we expected and so governments are going to shift footing,” he said.

Usher said it’s time graduate researchers at Canadian universities work to align their work with the economic strengths of the country and consider applied research that can reap immediate financial benefits.

Golfman said she expects the government’s policy shift to result in increased investment in applied research that is “patentable, marketable, brought directly from the lab to the market” in such sectors as oil, high-tech, medicine and pharmaceuticals. But she said this policy shift will make it difficult for researchers to access funding for more fundamental research that may not produce immediate results.

“What you need is balance, moderation. You don’t want universities tilting completely in that direction. I think it’s a challenge for the granting agencies too, the federal ones, to ensure that they are still supporting fundamental, basic research,” said Golfman. “There’s a lot of arguments for benefits for basic research. A lot of great stuff has come out of accidental deep-time research.”

Weingarten said Canada faces a unique “funding crisis” because it can’t turn to increased tuition fees or rising enrolment for money as it once did; those options have been exhausted. He argues that universities must explore to two new options: offering more professional graduate degrees, which will encourage enrolment, and attracting more international students, who pay expensive tuition fees.

But according to an recent Ipsos Reid report, Canada is not a “top-of-mind” destination for international students from major markets such as China and India. The report found that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s $5-million-dollar “Imagine Education in Canada” brand is failing to interest international students, who opt for prestigious and highly-ranked universities in the U.S. and U.K.

Golfman acknowledged the problems highlighted in the report and said Canada needs to rethink its branding on the international level.

“We certainly have very uneven and uncertain practices around internationalization,” said Golfman. “I think it’s fair to say that outside McGill, the University of Toronto and maybe the University of British Columbia, we are just unknown. We are completely invisible.”

Golfman said she does not believe Canada needs an national strategy for international university student recruitment, as do nations like Australia. She said she hopes the discussions at this year’s conference will get universities on the same page and revitalize Canada’s international post-secondary image.

By Michelle Zilio | Nov 5, 2012 6:50 pm

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