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Editorial

by Archives March 10, 2009

In the most recent federal-provincial ideological clash over higher education, Ottawa and university leaders and provinces are sparing over how the government’s $2 billion stimulus fund should be spent. The Conservatives insist the money be spent on science and technology-related projects, and not surprisingly universities and provincial politicians say the money should be spent according to their whims for other wider, overwhelming needs.
While at first it seems a tad controlling of the federal government to want to control how their donation is spent, they’re absolutely right in wanting to promote scientific and technological research at a time when the country’s economy could use a boost with long-term economic benefits.
According to Ottawa, projects qualifying for the stimulus spending must “directly support federal [science and technology] strategy” and contribute to the development of research and development facilities.
Now it can, and has, been argued that if a university’s humanities building needs a new roof, they should be able to spend the money on that. The problem is that there are probably a million small reparations and fixes to be done across the country, and if we spend the fund on that, then we’ll never see it resurface in our economy after. The money has to be spent on promoting jobs that will boost our industry, and universities simply be trusted with such a task, because they are businesses.
A university is a place of higher learning, but it is also run as a business. In our system education is a commodity, and universities will always try to sell their product to us, students, in the manner which will make them turn the most profit.
If you give a university money and tell them they can spend it whichever way they like, and they have even an iota of business-sense, they’ll spend it on arts and humanities. It just costs less to teach history students, for example, as they require little equipment (except overpriced textbooks) and can be packed into large classrooms. The same can’t be said for engineers or medical students, for example.
University leaders across the country say they know what’s best for the money, and that it should be spent on training more undergraduates. They even go as far as to say they want to use the funds in a utilitarian kind of way. We can all just keep saying that, because it sends good and noble, but somewhere down the line, the Canadian economy will crash and burn if we can’t train enough specialized workers for our country’s growing research and development needs. Another key requirement is creating a strong partnership between government, industry and education. Canada should model itself on the Finnish city of Tampere, where the government invested in the creation of science parks and development companies. They then hired an industry ombudsman to bridge policy with the local businesses, while the local university concentrated on forming engineers specialized to work in the city. It only makes sense.
Canada, on the other hand, has been doing the exact opposite. Although we’ve been logging for centuries, our first bachelor’s program for wood and furniture manufacturing opened in 1996 at the University of British Columbia. And while some of Canada’s biggest companies are car manufacturers, not one Canadian university offers a degree in automotive design and engineering. There is clearly a disconnect between our schools and our businesses.

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