Canada’s universities pushed to maintain popularity

New chair of main higher education grouping promises to resist complacency

November 17, 2019
Sunset in Canada

Canada’s universities enjoy broad popular and political support but need to work harder in local communities to prevent backsliding, the incoming board chair of Universities Canada has warned.

Beginning her two-year term at the nation’s main higher education leadership organisation, Sophie D’Amours, the rector of Laval University, said that she would use her term to maintain and build a “trust link” with the public.

“This cannot be taken for granted” even though key indicators suggest strong levels of popular support for universities nationwide, Professor D’Amours said.

Examples of local initiatives needing wider replication, according to Universities Canada, include university-led reinvestments in Windsor, Ontario, and McMaster University’s creation of a community medical programme in an underserved neighbourhood of Hamilton.

The objectives go well beyond winning budgetary debates in the provincial and federal legislatures, Professor D’Amours said, and involve countering the troubling global rise in the distrust of elites.

Too many Canadians, she said, saw themselves as having no possible ties to universities. “Not because they can’t do it,” she said. “It’s a question of they find it too far from where they are standing as a person.”

Along with offering community services, universities need to do more outreach – such as programmes in schools, and events for the general public – to help people recognise that institutions’ local value goes beyond just enrolling students, Professor D’Amours said. “When we don’t do that, that part of the population moves farther and farther away,” she said.

Professor D’Amours is taking the top academic post at Canada’s chief higher education lobby group just as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seeks to form a government with a minority share of Parliament, and as two of the country’s biggest provinces – Ontario and Alberta – have been moving to cut funding for higher education.

Professor D’Amours said that she was not especially concerned with the ultimate shape of the federal government because higher education investment largely consists of research funding that enjoys broad support across political parties.

Universities Canada is, however, hoping that federal lawmakers will realise the importance of committing to its research investments over longer time periods, in line with the growing appreciation of multi-year pledges in Europe. “We want Canada to play in those leagues,” said Paul Davidson, its chief executive.

As for the provinces, Professor D’Amours said that she was not especially worried about the rest of Canada following Ontario and Alberta in reducing their commitments to their public institutions.

“I am concerned for Ontario and I’m concerned for Alberta,” she said. “I am not overly concerned for the rest of Canada.” Provincial budgets do rise and fall, she explained, but the primary cause of discontent with universities usually involved public demands for lower tuition fees.

“I truly hope and I believe that this will not go around and propagate,” she said of the budgetary retreats in Ontario and Alberta. “But I could be wrong.”

Professor D’Amours gave a similarly qualified vote of confidence in the nation’s continued support of large-scale immigration. It’s clear that Canada needs immigrants to offset its falling birth rate, and college enrolment is proving the best way of assimilating newcomers, she said.

It’s a complex question with variations in attitudes around the country, Professor D’Amours continued. But she added: “I doubt there will be some retreat.”

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