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Suzuki honorary degree controversy highlights Canadian universities’ fight for autonomy amid funding pressures

When David Suzuki accepted an honorary degree from the University of Alberta today, it marked the end of two months of controversy for the university. As a vocal opponent of the oil sands – one of the province’s main economic drivers – Dr. Suzuki’s presence has been hotly contested by Albertans. “Single stupidest move in the world of #academia,” wrote Brett Wilson, the Dragon’s Den personality and independent investor, to his 177,000 Twitter followers.

Yet the university stood firm, even as one of its donors withdrew part of a $100,000 gift to the law school, and as tens of thousands petitioned the school online to withdraw the degree.

David Suzuki is pictured in a Toronto hotel room on Nov. 11, 2016.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

To reverse its decision would be to give up on the most important values of a university – independence and autonomy – David Turpin, the university’s president, has maintained.

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“We will stand by our decision because our reputation as a university – an institution founded on the principles of freedom of inquiry, academic integrity, and independence – depends on it,” Dr. Turpin wrote in an open letter this spring.

In the past decade, Canadian universities have increasingly come under pressure from outside of academia. Relative to other countries worldwide, Canada’s institutions of higher education have less oversight. But now, new government demands, donor expectations and global trends suggest their ability to chart an independent course is narrowing.

Governments believe that higher education should be more closely tied to the economy. Glen Jones, the dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has been leading a national research study into Canadian university autonomy. It has found that universities in several provinces are experiencing more government oversight. Rather than funding “bums in seats” and hoping that a university classroom or lab will work its magic, provinces expect universities to submit metrics showing that those students are getting jobs in their field.

Ontario, home to half of the country’s postsecondary students, gives approximately $5-billion in grants to universities and colleges. For the first time, the province will be awarding 15 per cent of this money to institutions according to their ability to meet certain outcomes – within a couple of years, they will have to hit targets on research funding, student satisfaction and community impact. Meanwhile, B.C. and Alberta are directing millions in new grants to directly fund the production of more STEM grads in the hope that students will be ready for a tech-driven economy. And Alberta and Ontario have set caps on salaries that universities and colleges can pay their top executives, leaving governance boards to negotiate within preset limits.

In fact, one of the reasons that the University of Alberta has so resolutely defended its autonomy is because it felt it was attacked from all sides. The Suzuki episode followed a public fight with the province over fee hikes for students, and a comment by Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt that the university president should take a salary cut. (The government has since capped all the salaries of university presidents in the province.)

What is missing from these conflicts is a “clear understanding that the university’s role may not always agree with every other group, whether it’s government, or individuals, or the private sector,” said Michael Phair, the chair of the university’s board of governors.

To some, disagreements between governments and universities are inevitable as demands on institutions to prepare students for an uncertain economy increase.

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“We are trying to attract the Amazon headquarters, we want our students to go work in any country in the world. We need a system that fires on all cylinders,” said Harvey Weingarten, the president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), an education think tank funded by the Ontario government.

The best way to achieve those outcomes is to measure the quality of teaching and skills the students learn, Dr. Weingarten said.

“We want to see adequate skills for their professional lives,” Dr. Weingarten said.

Others caution that asking universities to produce exactly what society needs at any one time is an inexact science.

“When the relationship between universities, colleges and the labour market is really solid, the view of [higher ed] goes up,” Dr. Jones said. “That relationship is not linear: when there are not so many jobs around, it has more to do with the local economy than universities.”

The federal government, too, is prodding schools to do more to help graduates land good work without lengthy forays into the gig economy. It has invested approximately $73-million into experiential learning projects that ask universities, colleges and polytechnics to increase the number of work placements their students receive as part of their degree.

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“There is a recognition from universities that students want cutting-edge [labour] skills in addition to the foundational knowledge,” said Val Walker, who leads the Business/Higher Education Roundtable, a group of business and higher-education leaders who discuss how to work better together.

Yet trying to steer university programs to produce just-in-time graduates for the economy of today or tomorrow is not without risks. Whatever the future looks like, society will need universities to continue asking fundamental questions rather than simply demonstrating their impact through annual performance metrics, higher education observers say.

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While Canada’s provincial governments are beginning to determine more of their universities’ priorities, the U.S. and U.K. models offer a stark choice to schools: perform or face funding cuts. Britain has developed demanding national frameworks to assess research, teaching and most recently, knowledge production. Known as REF, TEF and KEF, the guidelines have led to rankings tables that have embarrassed top universities such as the London School of Economics and Goldsmiths, both of which only managed to achieve a bronze in teaching.

More consequential than the public humiliation are the funding penalties that accompany a poor showing: some U.K. institutions have seen drops of almost 20 per cent in research grants from the government as a result of the assessment exercise. Similarly, in the United States, universities in dozens of states must help steer students to graduation or risk losing public funds. Ohio and Nevada base almost their entire grants on colleges measuring up.

“In many U.S states, public universities are subject to a lot of control, much more than our universities are,” Dr. Jones said. “All the purchasing is done through the state apparatus; you can’t buy a computer without going through the state. Sometimes the employees are state civil servants, sometimes board members are elected by voters.” said.

In one area, however, Canada has tighter control over its universities than its Anglo peers: executive pay. While university leaders in the U.K. argue with the government over whether their almost $1,000,000 annual salaries are “immoral,” as ministers have alleged, provincial governments here control them with little discussion.

After governing boards at Ontario colleges attempted to approve pay raises of as much as 50 per cent for their presidents in 2017, the Higher Education Minister, Deb Matthews, said the hikes were “unacceptable.” The government has since passed legislation that effectively holds increases to 5 per cent a year at colleges and universities.

In Alberta, the pay of future university presidents – including those at the Universities of Alberta and Calgary – will be substantially lower than those of the incumbents. This spring, the government capped salaries at about $536,000 including benefits, compared with salaries in the $800,000 to $900,000 range currently. Mr. Schmidt, the Advanced Education Minister, personally attacked Dr. Turpin’s salary by saying the president should reach into his own pocket before raising student fees. That was a bit personal, Mr. Schmidt allows, but the point remains.

“I could have phrased it better,” Mr. Schmidt said in an interview. “But I think it was important to highlight that executive compensation had ballooned out of control and that was in some small way harming the ability of universities and colleges to put teachers in classrooms,” said.

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While governments still provide the single-largest source of grants for universities – and with that money, the power to steer schools’ direction – provincial funding accounts for a smaller share of total revenues. Domestic and international student fees now make up a third of universities’ budgets, more in some provinces. But private donations are also increasing: according to Statistics Canada, private gifts are up about 15 per cent since 2012. Keeping everyone happy is difficult.

Exactly how much donors have pulled as a result of the Suzuki controversy will not be public until the university releases its annual revenue for 2018.

“We will have work to do in rebuilding relationships with certain members of the community, and we will endeavour to do that,” Dr. Turpin said.

Some supporters understand that money buys them a voice, but not control over the university’s decisions.

“To say members of my group are livid would be an understatement,” said Kevin Bender, the chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission.

Mr. Bender is one of four agriculture leaders who signed a letter from the industry criticizing the degree. Dr. Suzuki, Mr. Bender said, has ignored the benefits of modern farming technology for improving crop yield and health and simply condemned the industry.

Agriculture, however, is reliant on research done at the University of Alberta on exactly those topics, he said. So his group has funded research and endowed scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students in soil science, as well as at other higher-education schools in the province.

The letter of protest was aimed at making the “university consider who they give honorary degrees to and what that represents to people,” Mr. Bender said. But there is no question his group will continue its financial support, he said.

The university’s president agrees. He has invited the groups to discuss their “shared future.”

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