Universities: Chicken or Egg?

The impact of universities has been in the news lately. A new ACOA-funded report, Smarter Together: The Economic Impact of Universities in the Atlantic Provinces highlighted the economic benefits that universities bring to the community. In the New Brunswick media, there have been calls to overhaul the post secondary system including collapsing the number of universities in the province

I have always been a big supporter of universities as catalysts of economic growth but my support has been waning in recent years. If we are exporting a significant percentage of graduates, are we not funding Ontario and Alberta’s labour market development? The NB government subsidizes post secondary education in the province. How much of that spending leaks out of the province each year?

In addition, if the universities are such catalysts, why is New Brunswick losing ground in terms of the percentage of university graduates in the workforce (when compared to most other provinces)? When the Census comes out next year, I am sure that we will have slipped again.

If Universities are catalysts of research and innovation, where are the tangible results? I’m not saying they are not there but please point them out. Thomson does a survey of academic research publications each year to determine how many references were made to research in Canadian universities. New Brunswick’s universities didn’t even make the list – at all – there were so few references, we didn’t even warrent a mention.

And when people cite examples of University based research that has spun out into jobs and economic growth for the province, they roll out the usual suspects – CARIS in Fredericton, Nanoptix in Monton, etc. But these companies have been around for years. Shouldn’t the universities be spinning out successful research with more frequency than that?

I talked with a university professor last week who said it’s not his job to develop ‘commercializable’ research. He was offended that people even ask the question. Now, in a way I agree with him. University professors conduct research into topics of interest that may or may not have some commercial potential somewhere down the road. If we restrict research funding to only projects that have a clear, commercializable product at the end, we would suffocate some very valuable research. However, if your goal is to use the university system as a catalyst for economic development, you have to keep this in mind.

Bottom line for me is this. I have eight years of post secondary education including an MBA, master’s level courses in economics and a diploma in economic development. In Virginia, UNB, and the University of Waterloo. I have completed research projects for five different universities. I know my way around a campus, let’s say.

And New Brunswick’s universities need to come to grips with the fact that the province is slipping and slipping badly – depopulation, new new industry growth, low levels of university grads in the workforce, limited commercialization of research, etc. They need to come to the table with tangible ways as to how they will play a part in New Brunswick’s economic revitalization. Publishing public relations-spawned reports on how valuable they are to the economy won’t cut the mustard. Sponsoring simplistic forums like NextNB do very little other than to reinforce their own views on the world.

We need our universities to be true catalysts of growth. To attract and retain top talent to the province. To spin off commercializable research. To foster economic development (think Waterloo). As I have said, some professors don’t think this is or should be part of the role of a university. At least they are being intellectually honest.

As I have said on these pages before, British Columbia (at least until recently) had the least number of unversity students per capita in Canada (translate – the lowest subsidization) and the highest level of university graduates in its workforce. Why? It imported top talent in to a strong economy.

Chicken and egg, my friends. Chicken and egg.

Bottom line? Universities can be positive, catalysts of growth and can be a key part in New Brunswick’s revitalization but they need to better understand their role.