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Grad studies, an investment in the lives of Canadians

Advocates need to show how research helps solve problems, says AUCC’s Herb O’Heron

by Tara Fraser

Canada is falling behind other countries in its level of university participation and postsecondary investment, and university administrators need to show politicians how research investment improves Canadians’ daily lives.

That was the message from Herb O’Heron, director of the research and policy analysis division at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, at the annual Canadian Association of Graduate Studies conference in Halifax in November.

“We need to capitalize on what the challenges for Canada are,” he said. “We need to illustrate how research and graduate studies are going to help solve our current [economic] problems.”

Mr. O’Heron’s presentation opened the conference and generated discussion afterwards among the audience of about 200 people, mainly graduate studies deans and associate deans and also grad students from Canadian universities.

Mr. O’Heron said that while graduate enrolment remained flat in the mid-1990s, it grew strongly in last decade, to more than 40,000 doctoral students and nearly 80,000 master’s students in 2009. (Text continues below)

cags 2009
After remaining flat in the mid 1990s graduate enrolment has grown strongly over the last decade.

But, he added, many nations have surpassed Canada’s level of university participation. Canada ranks 24th of 25 countries – ahead only of Japan – in PhD graduates per million population, according to OECD data.

The common misconception in this country that Canada is at the forefront of postsecondary education is not helping, he went on. Relative to the size of its population, Canada produces half as many master’s degrees and one-third fewer PhDs annually than the U.S. in the relevant age range.

Meanwhile, the U.S. federal government just invested more than $18 billion dollars in research and development, to ensure the U.S. economy has the necessary tools for successful innovation.

Nor are other countries standing still. Germany renewed its Higher Education Pact, pledging 18 billion Euros (C$28 billion), with almost 10 percent of that going to sponsored research in universities. India, in its 2009 budget, boosted spending on higher education by 40 percent. Mr. O’Heron said that India is poised to surpass the G7 – the group of most industrialized nations – in research citations within five years.

Still, Canadian government investments in operating revenues of universities have more doubled from 1996 to 2007. “We’re conducting more and more research, whether it is for governments or other sectors. It’s these kinds of investments that others are making in [universities] that have really helped meet the rising demand” for research, he told the audience.

Mr. O’Heron cited a University of British Columbia study that showed 73 percent of new knowledge generated by university research is transmitted into the economy through its graduates. But it is hard for the postsecondary community to demonstrate to governments how the sector impacts the economy, he said. “We have to show that we are part of the solution. We are not just another expenditure.”

One way, he went on, is to show politicians, who are not always knowledgeable about science, how research has an impact on daily lives in Canada. He gave the example of a graduate student at Acadia University who is using support from a research network that supports mathematical sciences (MITACS), the Nova Scotia government and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to study how common materials like vinegar can be used to produce more and better apples . He also cited a postgraduate fellow at the University of Ottawa whose 30-minute test to diagnose life-threatening viral infections is being marketed across North America by Spartan Bioscience. Examples like these need to be relayed repeatedly to politicians, who often wonder at the benefit of investing in graduate research, he advised.

Some of the other conference sessions examined support for research in the social sciences and training for postdoctoral fellows. One session dealt with the growing number of legal issues cropping up in graduate schools, often stemming from poor communication on the part of the graduate supervisor that leads to serious problems in their relationship with the student. Another session gave graduate students a forum to talk about the challenges they face when they complete their studies. Many students said they feel unprepared for the job market, both academic and non-academic, and want schools to be more proactive in helping students improve “soft skills” such as how to present their research or prepare for interviews.

CAGS plans to eventually post all the conference presentations on its website.

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