This op-ed was posted online by The Hill Times on November 9, 2015.
By Robert Proulx, rector of UQAM
Issues around higher education are largely absent from election contests, and the recent federal election is no exception.
Yet the economy, employment, climate change, sustainable development, health and quality of life are all issues for which advances in research and training of highly qualified personnel are essential.
Universities are incubators of scientific and social innovation, and important agents of progress for Canadian society. In 2014, according to Universities Canada, the country’s 97 universities invested more than $12-billion in research and development, accounting for 40 percent of all R&D in Canada. However, barely $2.3-billion came from the major federal agencies that fund research (SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR), whose budgets in constant dollars have shrunk by six percent since 2007.
This backslide in public funding of research is incomprehensible. As is the fact that we find ourselves, once again, arguing the critical contribution universities make to the development of Canadian society. Clearly—and unfortunately—it appears that the vital role of Canada’s universities continues to be underestimated, if not entirely ignored.
Let’s review universities’ importance.
Engines of scientific and social progress
Universities foster the development of a prosperous economy and help revitalize cities and regions. This is hardly surprising, given that Canadian universities generate over $30-billion in economic activity every year.
Universities are rooted in the cities and towns where they operate and have a direct impact on these communities. They renew social practices, foster citizenship and provide concrete answers to social and economic problems in partnership with social, economic and cultural organizations. As producers of independent research, universities generate breakthroughs across multiple fields that can directly impact the way we live.
Through the research networks they weave throughout the world, universities develop Canadian researchers’ expertise while nurturing access to global knowledge. Universities reinforce cooperation between countries, participate in the generation of new knowledge and contribute to the search for solutions to the world’s great challenges.
Lastly, research is also what enables universities to offer their students the highest level of education. As a result, society as a whole benefits, since it can count on qualified graduates who are capable of innovation, committed to civic life and ready to participate in economic development and social progress.
Advancing our place in the world
Universities rank among our most precious assets in the knowledge-driven society. Quebec is a case in point: in barely 50 years, the number of degrees granted annually has grown twelve-fold, and the student population has leapt from 30,000 to more than 300,000. Today, Quebec universities welcome students from all strata of society, from across the province and around the world. Our universities are key players in the social, environmental, cultural and economic development of Quebec, and their influence in the international arena is extraordinary.
Unfortunately, since 2012 funding for Quebec universities has tumbled by roughly $375-million. At the same time, grants from the major provincial and federal funding agencies have stagnated or dropped. This loss of funding represents an unprecedented threat to the ability of universities to fully accomplish their mission.
Federal and provincial governments have a responsibility to better support institutions of higher learning. Universities must have the means to be world leaders in education, research and innovation. Canada’s and Quebec’s prosperity in the decades to come depends on it.
More than ever, it is time to abandon visions of education and university that are focused solely on the bottom line. To train a new generation that can think globally and have an impact on the larger world, universities must be well equipped. To remain at the leading edge of scientific, technological and social innovation, they need more resources. To continue to spearhead ground-breaking and productive solutions, universities must be more actively supported. And, most importantly, they must be better funded.
We’ve said it time and time again: Universities are not an expense. They are an investment. An investment in the future of an entire society.
It’s time we all get the message.
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