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Canadians and their governments increasingly and legitimately expect their universities to play a leading role in the economic growth of the nation. Earlier this year, Alberta Premier Alison Redford suggested the province's universities should spend "taxpayer dollars on the research that matters to economic diversification." In my own province of New Brunswick, Premier David Alward recently praised the collaborative role universities have played in developing the province's "capacity for research, development [and] commercialization."

As Chair of the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU), I can declare that Canada's East Coast universities welcome this mandate to play a vital role in the economic and social progress of the region. Extensive research demonstrates that our postsecondary institutions do stimulate growth, incubate new businesses, help attract and retain talented immigrants, and promote good citizenship. As governments and businesses look to universities to foster social and economic growth, it must also be understood that our universities can best accomplish these goals by achieving excellence in our primary mission – the education of our students as Canada's future leaders.

That is not to suggest that universities are shying away from their obligation to partner with governments and the corporate sector in moving the Canadian economy forward. Quite the contrary: A 2010 report conducted by the AAU shows that member institutions support more than 38,000 jobs and contribute $2.6-billion annually to the regional economy. A second AAU report underlines the positive and far-reaching impact that universities have on the social and cultural life of Atlantic Canada. Additional reports and studies show that Atlantic universities, acting in partnerships with the corporate sector, are leaders in Research and Development, Commercialization of R&D, and new business start-ups. For example, Springboard Atlantic has a mandate to move university research out of laboratories and into the marketplace, and it can tell any number of success stories.

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In this context, it is crucial that the public understands that our universities are being asked to do more with less support from governments. In the past decade, our institutions have played an ever-expanding role in a myriad of areas, from the recruitment of international students, to the provision of counselling services to students, from partnering with industry to developing better community relations and commercializing research. At the AAU, we are proud that Canada's East Coast universities have accomplished this while reducing administrative costs as a percentage of their total operating costs. Public data belies the myth that Canada's universities are administratively bloated; we are very lean but highly effective and deeply caring for our students and our communities.

As leaders in education, we accept our widening mandate, while recognizing that the primary role of the universities is the education of our students. It is only by first fulfilling this primary role that the universities and their graduates are able to play a role as drivers of economic and social growth in the region. This may seem obvious. But is a crucial point that is often lost in the suggestion that universities should somehow by themselves lead economic growth; or develop public policy; or be the champions of the commercialization of research. The proper role of universities in these spheres is to partner with governments and/or the private sector.

Universities are leaders in the education of life-long learners. Our talented graduates will adapt to the nation's needs as it meets major environmental and economic challenges. Equipped with the right talents and tools to find new solutions to important problems, and to develop new products and processes and market them worldwide, they will lead Canada in the growth of its "smart" or "knowledge-based" economy. In short, university graduates are the foundation upon which Canada's future success and prosperity must be built. The universities themselves will continue to strive to make that foundation a firm one, by meeting global standards of excellence in both teaching and research.

Robert Campbell, President of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. currently serves as the Chair of the Association of Atlantic Universities.

Education Evolution 2.0 is a series examining the transformation of Canada's postsecondary system. Participate in the discussion: Send us your thoughts at education@globeandmail.com

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