Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Equal vs. Fair and Quantity vs. Quality

MacLean recently had a three-part article about higher-education in Canada. Apparently, the presidents of five "big" universities in Canada started a discussion about what can be done to improve higher education in Canada. 

It seems that this big five group (let's call it G5) proposes a differentiation among Canadian universities: some (namely G5) should focus on research and grad studies, and the rest should dedicate their existence to producing the best undergrads possible. Obviously, the smaller universities showed their disapproval. 

Well, the initiative to discuss the future of Canadian education is more than welcome, but I have to admit that some surprising points were (not) raised. I will try to refer to few of them.


Equal vs. Fair  - I'm not sure an imposed differentiation is a viable solution. The fact that it works for others (see US) does not imply by any means that it would work for Canada. I've seen "imported" ideas fail in my native country. Usually, if you want a borrowed idea to work, the backgrounds have to be similar, which is rarely the case. It's better if you address the real problem and propose solutions targeted at the existing situation, not to someone else's situation. 

This "differentiation" suggestion may come as a result of the "equal" way in which some funding is distributed across Canadian universities. I'm not 100% sure, but I think there are some "quotas", such that everyone gets a chance. This can result in a mediocre idea from university X getting funding instead of a good idea from university Y, just because university Y has too many great ideas, while there is less competition at university X. What about "fair" spread of resources as opposed to "equal". Ideas should be rewarded based on their merit, not based on where they originate. If an idea from not-so-big university X is great, then fund it. If it is not, then don't fund it. While "quotas" is much easier to deal with than "merit", I think it's well worth the effort.

Quantity vs. Quality - Here it is an excerpt from one of the articles
"[...] UBC’s Toope said, universities need to graduate more students with higher degrees. “Both at the level of a master’s but even more importantly at the level of Ph.D.s, we are not producing at the level of our American colleagues, and actually many others in the OECD,” he said. “I suspect that’s an indicator of a relative lack of overall performance at the highest levels.” [...]" 
Since when quantity = quality?! I would have liked a discussion about how competitive these PhD students are, and what Canada does to create jobs for the many PhDs it produces. What about the "retention" of PhDs in Canada? I have a hunch that quite a percentage migrates to US looking for jobs after obtaining their PhDs. Let's talk about my domain: I'm not aware of any research lab in Canada where my specialization in computer architecture would be sought after. I wonder if there is any research lab that can attract computer science/computer engineering PhDs. I'm not aware of any. Not to add that, for example, the Computer Science department at UBC hasn't hired in the last... hmmm...  is it 3 or  5 years? (I don't have actual stats, I tried to guess-timate this by looking at the UBC CS professors webpages - page by page).

Research, Research, Research - The G5 did raise the problem of transferring the research from academia to the marketplace.  That's good! But, is there anything that Canada can do to create/improve/encourage research in industry, not only in academia? Instead of using PhD grads for jobs for which - let's be honest - a Master is enough, can we do anything to create environments that challenge the PhD grads and maximize their potential? Otherwise, no offense, but we're wasting money keeping them in school if we don't end up using their skills... or, even worse, export them to US.

Canada - Second Tier? - Last, but not least:
"[...] The penalty for drift, Naylor said, is that Canada could be perceived as a second-tier destination for foreign academics and international students. [...]"
Spot on! My opinion is that Canada is perceived as a second tier already... So what can be done to change this?

To end in an optimistic tone, it is good this discussion started. The first step toward a solution is to be aware of the problem. I hope this initiative will lead to some interesting debate and some appropriate solutions will emerge.
PS: Thanks to Gail that blogged about this. That's how I first heard about the G5 proposal.

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