Federal-university relations in ‘strategic drift’: Carleton Prof

New book from G. Bruce Doern and Christopher Stoney.

Canada needs to step up to the plate and develop strong guidelines and priorities for its involvement in universities, says a School of Public Policy and Administration professor.

It’s a fine balancing act between outside funding and academic freedom, says Associate Prof. Christopher Stoney, who co-edited Research and Innovation Policy: Changing Federal Government-University Relations, published by University of Toronto Press last year. A dozen scholars, including Stoney and co-editor G. Bruce Doern, who retired from Carleton two years ago after a career as one of Canada’s leading public policy scholars, contributed to the book.

The publication is “extremely timely,” says Stoney.

“We wanted to focus on what the federal government is responsible for and how it is trying to influence university research.”

In the last chapter of the book, Doern and Stoney review federal science and technology and innovation policy changes over the past decade or so. A review of the book by University of Toronto political science lecturer James A. McAllister notes the two editors point to the importance of research efforts in the developing symbiotic relationship between universities, the federal government and private firms, and tackle the controversial issue of whether government funding and research should be concentrated in a few research-intensive universities.

“It’s not in the interest of mid-ranking comprehensive universities like Carleton for Canada’s top universities to break away and become more research focused. Now, the system is based on post-secondary education being used to spread talent, money and opportunity across the country.”

Stoney says the federal government, in fact, must be careful not to overstep its jurisdiction or to dictate to universities what they should research. “The federal government is only one of many players. The provinces, the universities themselves, businesses and the student lobby are very strong players and don’t always lend themselves towards adopting government-favoured research, which often tends to be applied rather than social science.

“One lesson we’ve learned is that the federal government has difficulty influencing these other powerful groups.”

Funding is the Government of Canada’s key lever, Stoney points out.

“It tries to steer universities in the direction it wants through Canada Research Chairs, for example. But it’s not really effective in coming up with a national strategy. Other countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, have clearer strategies.”

What could be at stake is academic freedom, argues Stoney, whose findings point to an undermining of independent research through an influx of research and innovation funding. “Universities are not just there to produce ideas to go to market. They are also about critical thinking. Becoming tied to federal or private funding can impede what we treasure about universities.”

Stoney calls the current lack of clarity “strategic drift” and declares, “If I were a gambling man, I would say we will move towards the concentration of higher and lower-tier universities. Financially, this would result in losers. Almost inevitably, that is the way it will go.”

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Susan Hickman

By Susan Hickman

For nearly four decades, journalist Susan Hickman has written about every imaginable subject for sundry newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad, as well as for CBC TV and CBC Radio. She has also managed various publications, including academic newspapers and technology magazines, and was recently commissioned to write a guide for foreign missions serving in Canada. Currently, she is working on a couple of personal memoirs.

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