I must admit I’m surprised that the “big five” controversy continues to generate headlines a full month after it first began. For the few of you who are coming to this cold, the controversy erupted with an article in Maclean’s magazine at the end of July in which Paul Wells interviewed the presidents of Canada’s top five universities (as measured by their share of research dollars): University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, Université de Montréal, McGill University and University of Alberta.
(This was actually the second part of the series; an introductory article promoting the upcoming interview appeared the week before.)
Mr. Wells says the five presidents approached Maclean’s with the idea for the article. The discussion appears to have been fairly wide-ranging and it’s not clear to me exactly what their agenda was or what precisely they were proposing. Here is how Mr. Wells summed it up:
Over the course of a 90-minute video conference, the big five presidents said their institutions must be given the means and mandates to set themselves still further apart from the rest of Canada’s universities-to pursue world-class scientific research and train the most capable graduate students, while other schools concentrate on undergraduate education. The vision they described would be a challenge to the one-size-fits-all mentality that has governed Canada’s higher education system.
In a follow-up piece, the presidents of seven smaller universities were interviewed; several dutifully pointed out that the big five already get a disproportionate share of research funding (roughly 40 percent of the total, according to Maclean’s).
Things were starting to die down until The Globe and Mail decided to stoke the flames with its own take on the story published on Aug. 24 (provocatively title: “Five universities team up to push for the lion’s share of research dollars”).
Roseanne Runte, President of Carleton University, responded two days later in an opinion piece saying no to a “second-tier” university model. Other university presidents had their say, including Daniel Woolf at Queen’s University, Alan Wildman at University of Windsor and Ghislain Bourque at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. Various newspaper editorials and additional media interviews followed.
The latest to wade into the debate, this past Saturday, was Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, who called the big-five proposal “a bad idea, poorly expressed.”
He also used the occasion to lament the “unsustainable” increase in faculty salaries, which have risen by a third since 2000. That should keep the controversy going for a bit longer.
What’s your say? Do the big five universities have a point, or are they being elitist and arrogant? And those supposedly fat-cat faculty, what about them? We’d love to hear from you.