The door is always open for friends in the North

January 21, 2005

Scots and Canadians share more than egalitarian ideals. They both have challenging neighbours, says Olga Wojtas.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau memorably described his country's relationship with the US as being like a mouse in bed with an elephant. No matter how friendly the elephant is, the mouse is affected by its every twitch and grunt.

The Scots are beginning to make zoological comparisons with their own southern neighbour in the wake of England's higher education legislation, which they fear could lead to a brain drain of Scottish academics. Scottish emigrants to Canada in the 19th century shaped universities including Toronto, Queen's and Dalhousie, and had a profound impact on the development of the higher education system.

Now it seems Scotland is learning from Canada's experience. The most recent Holyrood spending review boosted the Scottish higher education budget by 30 per cent over three years. This signals an acceptance of the importance of government funds despite institutions' success in raising external income.

Four years ago, the Canadian federal Government's response to a southward exodus of academics was also a massive injection of funds. Kerry Rowe, vice-principal for research at Queen's, says: "We did have a serious problem until recently."

Higher education cuts had left Canadians easy prey for so-called "raiding parties" from US institutions. An alarmed federal Government has not only beefed up general funding council resources, but in 2000 launched a C$900 million (£400 million) scheme to establish 2,000 Canada Research Chairs. The chairs, many of which have been filled by Canadians who might otherwise have been lured away, are aimed at internationally renowned researchers and young academics with leadership potential, with nominations assessed by high-powered central review teams. Chairholders can also seek funds for infrastructure from the C$3.65 billion government-created Canada Foundation for Innovation, which levers support from the provinces and industry.

Christine Tausig Ford of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada says: "The recent public investments in research infrastructure, in the direct and indirect costs of research, and in the recruitment and development of researchers, have generated a new sense of excitement and achievement on Canadian campuses. That's a real turnaround from a decade ago, when many feared that our universities were in danger of becoming a research backwater. These initiatives are making Canada a supportive environment for research and innovation. We're becoming known worldwide as a destination of choice for students and faculty."

Robert Birgeneau, former president of the University of Toronto and a physicist, says the two schemes have been invaluable and equally important in allowing Canada to recruit and retain staff. In his own area, an incoming researcher would need a start-up package of C$500,000 minimum, he says - a major burden on the institution.

The federal and provincial funding leaves the university with only C$100,000 to find, often through matching funds or receiving discounts on equipment.

Canada and Scotland share an inclusive, egalitarian approach to research funding. They see all higher education institutions as potential sources of innovation, rather than restricting support to elite universities. Scottish ministers never tire of highlighting the international success of the non-research intensive Abertay Dundee University in digital entertainment, for example.

At the University College of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, which has fewer than 2,500 full-time students, biologist Cheryl Bartlett has won a chair for groundbreaking work in developing science courses combining Western and First Nations (native Canadian) knowledge. Bartlett has a deep interest in the traditional teachings of the indigenous Mi'kmaq people. "And UCCB recently won a second pioneering chair in folklore."

Paul Cappon, former director-general of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, says moves towards greater differentiation between teaching and research institutions will be tempered by "Canadian moderation".

One reason is the number of universities with a regional mission, in which it is crucial for researchers to carry out work of local relevance, he says. "The other overwhelming reason is the notion of egalitarianism. If you don't have research vigour in some institutions, then you probably perpetuate relative underdevelopment."

Concern for equity, a priority for the Scottish Parliament, underpins the Canadian way of life. Many academics believe this is as important to recruitment as funding, and some are undoubtedly delighted by George W.

Bush winning a second term as USPresident.

Suzanne Fortier, Queen's vice-principal for academic matters, says:

"There's a difference in how people perceive the quality of life in Canada and the US. President Bush is helping us a lot. A lot of people don't want to live in the US just now because they don't agree with his policies and social values."

Canadians enjoy free healthcare and a "decent public school system", which means that parents do not feel obliged to pay for private education, Fortier says. Cappon does not ever see Canada's per capita gross domestic product overtaking the US. "But we have confidence that enough people prefer the style of life here. I'm pretty sanguine about our capacity to attract people and that's why I'm not in a terrible rush to adopt policies that resemble theirs."

It is easy to overstate the differences between England and Scotland, but post-devolution divergence is not limited to higher education: the Scottish Parliament remains committed to a comprehensive education system and has rejected moves towards foundation hospitals.

Jacqueline Murray, dean of the University of Guelph's College of Arts, believes that Canada's bilingualism and multiculturalism make it more sensitive to the diversity and complexity of the world. "We have a more open society, a social atmosphere in which diversity is not only celebrated but is more of a lived experience," she says.

And she suggests Canada's openness to different perspectives has a knock-on effect on research, with Canada both part of and separate from the Anglo-American tradition. "People find it an interesting intellectual climate to work in," she says.

But the Canadian experience of the past 15 years shows that quality of life alone is not enough. Birgeneau says: "One of the things which we repeatedly stress to our governments, both provincial and federal, is that, having made these investments, it's critical that they recognise that this is a very long-term commitment, that they must continue to make the investment for the indefinite future."

And Cappon has a message for Scotland, warning that failing to improve post-secondary education will mean losing out. "You have to continue to invest heavily in post-secondary education if you want to maintain your national integrity, your culture, your distinctiveness and your values. If we don't have a vibrant post-secondary system, this country will lose all of these things to the fast-moving Americanising movement."

THE CANADIAN DREAM

Jeremy Grimshaw was recruited to Canada from Aberdeen University's Health Service Unit after a cold call from the University of Ottawa.

Grimshaw was impressed by what was on offer. "The Canada Research Chairs give a lot of scientists the opportunity to work more or less full time, and they take away some of the competing demands that cause a lot of the burnout and stress in UK academics," he says.

As well as his chair in health knowledge transfer and update, Grimshaw is director of the Centre for Best Practice in the university's Institute of Population Health, and director of the Ottawa Health Research Institute's clinical epidemiology programme.

He earns the same as he did at Aberdeen, but his research team is double the size, and his new colleagues are able to devote 70 per cent of their time to research.

But he feels that Canada lags behind the UK in taking a multidisciplinary approach to applied health research, and hopes to promote better integration of subjects such as social sciences, economics and biostatistics.

However, he sees this more as a challenge than a drawback. He adds that, almost three years after arriving, he is still waiting for his honeymoon period in Canada to end.

By 2003, materials expert Kevin Plucknett had had enough of life in the fast lane - the fast lane being the M3-M4 corridor. He faced an exhausting commute to work at technology company QinetiQ and found the cost of living increasingly expensive.

After seven years in industry, he was also keen to get back into academe and welcomed the offer of a Canada Research Chair at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "My partner and I wanted something a bit simpler. We came over for a change of lifestyle."

Although the lifestyle is better - a house in four acres of woodland, 30 minutes from work and 40 from the ski slopes - he has found the change of pace is not quite as he had expected.

"It's hard work," he says. "My life has got a bit more intense. But I'm doing something I like. It doesn't feel so much like a job when you're in that situation."

He is part of Dalhousie's interdisciplinary Institute for Research in Materials, which has won millions of dollars for equipment, including a scanning thermal microscope unique in Canada.

Plucknett's salary is roughly the same as in the UK, but with backing from the Canadian Fund for Infrastructure he has about C$540,000 (£240,000) for equipment. Academics have to find resources to add to a CFI award, but achieving CRC status offers the benefit of a reduced teaching load.

"I've never seen anything like this Canadian programme. And I certainly couldn't ever imagine this type of situation in the UK," he says.

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