While Canada's undergraduate system mirrors that of the US, its funding is closer to the UK's - and, says Alex Usher, research institutions are reaping the benefits
It may be a cliche, but the old saying about Canada being a halfway house between Britain and the US rings true when it comes to the country's universities.
Canada's university system looks a great deal like that of its southern neighbour. At the undergraduate level, courses and degrees are organised in a similar fashion to those in America: the only real difference is that Canada lacks the high degree of articulation between the two and four-year sectors that characterises the US system. Differences in graduate programmes are similarly subtle. For instance, the masters degree in Canada is an intermediate step to a doctorate and a respected terminal degree in its own right, and not a booby prize for failed PhD aspirants as it frequently is in the US. Canada resembles the UK in that there is no set of wealthy private universities - no equivalent of the Ivy League. All institutions are in effect working from the same pool of operating grants (although the amounts differ by province), moderate tuition fees - C$4,200 (£2,000) rising to C$10,500 or more for legal and medical programmes - and some mix of public and private research funding.
Canada has no Carnegie system for classifying its institutions, but people are aware of a division between large research institutions and small undergraduate institutions, with a grey zone in the middle of medium-to-large institutions that are not especially research-intensive.
One peculiarly Canadian quirk is that its most prestigious institutes also tend to be among its largest in terms of enrolments. The University of Toronto, arguably the country's only world-class institution, has the largest enrolment of any Canadian university, with 50,000 students (Harvard University has a mere 10,000). Collectively, the country's ten major research institutions teach roughly a third of the country's undergraduate students.
Funding for Canadian universities is high by British standards. Canada devotes roughly 1.85 per cent of its gross domestic product to higher education, compared with the UK's 1.1 per cent. Given that student participation rates are roughly equal, it means that spending per student is about two thirds higher in Canada. Among the winners are lecturers and their pay packets. Assistant professors can expect nearly C$70,000, associates about C$85,000 and full professors about C$110,000. But these are only guides - with no national pay agreement there is considerable variation between institutions and, with a major scramble for new talent under way, institutions can and will pay a premium to attract top faculty.
Canada has no national dialogue on higher education. It is not that Canadians are uninterested - the subject has been moving up the political agenda for nearly a decade. Its absence is a relic of the country's founding constitutional bargain, in which all educational issues were left in the hands of provincial governments. Instead of one national dialogue, the country has ten smaller dialogues, and the quality of the debate has suffered for it.
While Canada's cash-flushed national Government has not been allowed to invest directly in institutions, it has carved out a niche for itself in terms of funding research. Recently, it has done this with a vengeance, citing the need to increase research and development funding as part of the country's overall competitiveness agenda. Since 1997, the year the federal Government designated university research a policy issue, billions of dollars have gone into the sector.
Broadly speaking, public research funds come in two flavours - individual awards given to researchers on a competitive peer-review basis that, for the most part, come through one of three national granting councils; and awards to institutions, which are primarily for research infrastructure.
These are also given out on a competitive peer-review basis, and, in theory, require "matching" funds from other sources.
Disappointingly, Canada's private sector is not as keen on research as its public sector. Anyone coming to Canada looking for big US-style private research dollars will be sorely disappointed: what little money Canadian business invests in research and development is usually spent outside the university sector. While research funding has been receiving large cash infusions, there has been something of a squeeze on core operating budgets.
Until about five years ago, the pressure could be kept off by increasing tuition fees. But rising fees are the bete noire of the middle class; middle-class children's participation rates in post-secondary education are approaching 80 per cent and their parents view tuition fees as a kind of inescapable government tax. Provincial governments are therefore increasingly reluctant to increase tuition fees in the face of broad middle-class opposition. But without increased tuition fee revenue, institutions have to rely on provincial funding to keep the lights on.
Unlike the federal Government, however, most provincial governments are struggling financially and cannot be counted on to increase institutional budgets. Despite joy over new research funding, trouble is still brewing in Canadian higher education.
Alex Usher is vice-president of the Educational Policy Institute and director of EPI Canada