Sunday, October 07, 2012

What Happened to the University of Alberta?

In 2008 President Samarasekera of the University of Alberta set the goal of the University becoming a top 20 university in the world by 2020. At the time the University was ranked 74th in the world. This bold declaration of strategy named Dare to Discover reflected two things – the growing confidence of the University of Alberta and the culture of performance it was then pursuing and the rhetoric of the Government of Alberta, which wanted its lead research institution to be “world class”.

The 2012-13 rankings appeared this last week from the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), created in partnership with Thomson-Reuters. Rather than moving up the table, as the Dare to Discover strategy hoped, the University has fallen in the rankings – it is now 121st in the world.

There are three reasons for this. First, and most important, is the growing investment in education in China, Asia and other jurisdictions in the world. It is not that the University of Alberta is in decline, but that other universities have become significantly better than they have been before. In particular, the US has made major investments in education – there are fifteen US universities in the top 20 – and Universities in Australia and Japan have risen up the table quickly. Even Canada’s highest ranked university, the University of Toronto, has fallen out of the top twenty this year (its ranked 21st).

Second, Governments appear to have lost interest in the idea of “world class” as they themselves struggle with economic issues and deficits. At one time, the University of Alberta received 65% of its operating budget from government sources. In 2010-11 the Government of Alberta funded just 33%. The leadership team at the University, excellent though it is, struggles with operational survival issues at a time when other jurisdictions see Universities as a critical key to their future. Alberta clearly sees a much more functional role for universities and they are impacted by this decision. One impact is that they seek to attract more international students who pay higher fees and another is that students generally pay more of the costs of operations, creating high student loans and debt at a time when the global economy is fragile.

The third reason the University of Alberta finds itself falling is that it is seeking to please too many stakeholders. Some want it to be excellent in teaching and research – its primary mission. Others want it to be a centre for practical problem solving and innovation – not at all its primary mission, though it does sometime solve problems which are tangible now and relevant now. Universities are not “hot beds of innovation”, they are centres of excellence in invention – some of which go on to become innovations. Yet others want all Albertan’s aged 18 and 19 to go to university and the University of Alberta is tasked with providing a solution to Alberta’s growing challenge of social equity. Mission drift based on contradictory messages is a common problem for organizations.

Now that we have six universities – Athabasca, Alberta, Calgary, Mount Royal and McEwan – we should start to recognize that we have just one in the top 200 universities in the world and that one is struggling with issues of identity, focus and resources. It needs serious investment to raise it back up the rankings and a strong focus on research and teaching. If the Province wants some of its smartest people to solve industrial problems and help build jurisdictional advantage it should follow the advice of the Premiers Council on Economic Strategy and create a virtual Institute for Advanced Technology (see pages 54 and 55 of Shaping Alberta’s Future) and second smart people from our institutions and industry to solve problems that matter. Lets get back to funding not based on enrolment but on the basis of strategy and intention. Lets make the University of Alberta a focus for excellence in the world – a flagship for Alberta’s exceptional talent.

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