The not-so-secret war between the universities and community colleges

The folks of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) may have entered the budget lockup in a sunny mood, but they can’t be now, in spite of their rosy post-budget announcements. The colleges on the other hand are laughing all the way to the federal bank. As I had written sometime ago, the growing influence of Canada’s Colleges, especially PolytechnicsCanada, in Ottawa should not be underestimated. The colleges seem to have scored with government again and for the third year in a row. Canada’s universities on the other hand keep loosing ground and are –more than ever before– on the defensive. The AUCC, which is supposed to represent their interests in the capital, may need to start re-assessing its strategy, its ways, and its means.

The biggest (new) item in the budget is $300 million in funding for a new Canada Jobs Grant program to help train or retrain Canadians for “labour market demands.” The grant will be for short-duration training at “eligible institutions”, that is –you guessed it– community colleges, career colleges and trade union training centres.

To add insult to injury, the colleges also get $12-million out of the $15-million re-assigned to NSERC, which contributes further to the bleeding of the Discovery program, the prime source of funding for university researchers. This seems to be in response to the following assertion of highly questionable facts by PolytechnicsCanada in its pre-budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance:

“Facts worth noting about the current R&D funding for academic-industry partnerships: Annual federal support for higher education R&D (basic and applied research) is $3+ billion, mostly directed to basic research and supporting graduate students. Applied research funding for academic-industry partnerships stands at $400 million of this total. Worse, annual funding for college applied research, despite recent gains, now stands at only $35 million.”

To add another injury to insult, Budget 2013 also calls for the expansion of the eligibility of NSERC’s Industrial Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA) program to include college undergraduate students. This seems to be a reaction to the following “chutzpaesque” statement in the Polytechnic-Canada submission.

“The bias that Bachelors’ degrees are the purview of the university sector alone needs to be broken. Federal action can focus on the equitable inclusion of college undergraduates for industrial scholarships and internships, either through the research granting councils or any new funding for attracting international undergraduates.”

It also looks like the community colleges are very good at smelling where government’s new priorities are heading. Budget 2013 also provided $23 million over two years ($10 million for for “marketing initiatives” and $13 million for the Mitacs Globalink program) to promote Canada as an international study destination. This is a far cry from what the Chakma report has been calling for on behalf of the universities, and may again have more to do with the following submission:

“Polytechnics Canada recommends that the government launch a more equitable and updated marketing effort for higher education that captures the diversity and quality of all Canadian post-secondary institutions. We strongly urge that the government create new scholarships for international undergraduate students (as opposed to those focusing on graduate students alone), making any new awards open to all colleges and polytechnics that are eligible to offer Bachelor’s degree programs.”

The colleges made their entrance to the world of federal research funding back in 2009 after a well-heeled campaign –through the Conference Board of Canada and the Globe and Mail –among others. Commissioned reports and articles in the press started positioning colleges as the avant-garde of Canada’s efforts in innovation and technology transfer. Soon after, came the announcement from CFI calling for $32.5 million for a College Fund. “Although research isn’t a core mandate for community colleges, the College Fund will be supporting programs that involve working with industry to bring products and ideas to market.” NSERC (not CIHR and not SSHRC) also established a $15-million College and Community Innovation (CCI) Program.

The colleges scored again in the 2011 budget, which brought them the chairs! The colleges then received –again through NSERC– ongoing funding for 30 new Chairs with a mandate to conduct applied research in fields where  “there is an important industrial need.” A further $12 million over 5 years is allocated to NSERC’s Idea to Innovation program that supports joint college-university research in areas of commercialization potential. Moreover, the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) then received $80 million in new funding over three years to help small and medium-sized businesses accelerate their adoption of key information and communications technologies through collaborative projects with colleges. I wondered then whether College CERCs would be next.

The latest skirmishes started before the budget announcement and as soon as the CBC headlined“Peeved Harper aims at ‘remaking Canadian labour force,” with the provocative subtitle, ‘Too many kids getting BAs and not enough welders,’ one Conservative insider says.” This was followed by Chris Sorensen’s essay on “skills mismatch” and “all those bartenders and baristas with expensive university degrees.” 

This, combined with the continuous and agressive calls of PolytechnicsCanada to the federal government to “update the logic behind programs that support innovation or skills, and require better outcomes for the existing funding levels,” their pleas for “equity” and for “less bias” were taking a toll. Luckily for the AUCC, Alex Usher intervened and stopped the bleeding by pointing out how “the talk about skills shortages in Canada is data-free and factually-challenged.”

The AUCC then woke up and countered on Twitter: “700,000 new jobs created for university grads between 2008-2012 compared to 320,000 for college & trades grads.” AndMost jobs in high demand in Canada require a university degree: recent CIBC report.” Here is another tweet, “Between 2011 and 2020, AUCC estimates there will be 2.1 million jobs created for university grads.” And another,Uni grads not getting McJobs. Stats Can shows they earned 50% more than high school students in 2005.”

But the damage was done and the budget was already on its way to the printer.

Well, Leo Charbonneau now wants all of us to get along, but it surely is easier said than done as illustrated by his own blog post in which he royally disses “the data” of James Knight, exiting president of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC). OK, the latter did not help himself with statements such as: “Where in a university calendar would you find anything about GPS?” Can someone please give him a tour of a geomatics program at any university nearby?

Fortunately for the universities, exiting U of T’s President, David Naylor seems to have broken free from the shackles of being … a president of a Canadian university. He is speaking up and forcefully about these important issues.

In any case, it is a fact that Canada’s colleges are fast becoming the lobby to reckon with in Ottawa. “Les mauvaises langues” say that there are many more MPs representing ridings with small colleges than in those with major universities. Whether this is a factor or not in the shrinking position of Canada’s universities in Ottawa’s corridors of power remains to be seen. The performance of the AUCC needs to be assessed and “Piece of Mind” shall try –hopefully in the near future– to do its bit in this direction.


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