The Big Five Proposal: Why We Shouldn’t Pick Winners

Illustration of runners, with a yellow runner out in front of 4 blue runners

Just over a year ago, a debate emerged in Canada over the so-called “Big Five” proposal for Canadian universities. While it succeeded in grabbing headlines, I wouldn’t put my money on  it ever seeing the light of day. At best, the proposal represents ill-advised and overly-simplistic thinking.  At worst, it’s a shameless attempt by five university presidents to bring more prestige to their respective schools, irrespective of the impact on the broader post-secondary education system.

Last year, the presidents of the universities of Toronto, McGill, UBC, Alberta and Montréal requested an interview with MacLean’s. Paul Wells summed up the interview as follows: “An hour into our conversation, the five presidents had called for more research money, the ability to concentrate more on graduate education, fewer undergrads, more international students, and the right to charge higher tuition in return for increased financial assistance to the least affluent students.”

During the 90-minute video conference, Alberta’s president, Indira Samarasekera, had argued that the notion that all Canadian universities deserve equal resources?while politically correct— “doesn’t produce winners.” Indeed, she argued that the U of A’s five-to-one ratio of undergraduate students to graduate students was too large, and that the University of California at Los Angeles’ three-to-one ratio was much more desirable.

UBC’s president, Stephen Toope, proposed that UBC admit fewer undergrads, that the provincial government provide UBC with more funding for its graduate students, and that other, newer universities in the province take in those undergraduate students who would have otherwise attended UBC. 

(One can be forgiven for inferring from the above that this proposal would mean the Big Five would increasingly become places where only “top-performing” undergraduate students could be admitted. One can also be forgiven for finding this all a bit elitist. To be sure, Carleton’s president, Roseann O’Reilly Runte, calls it a “proposal to import an intellectual caste system.”)

But the U of A’s Samarasekera refers to it as a plan for an “ecosystem” of institutions, each with a different specialization. She has even argued that Canada’s per-capita income would increase under the Big Five scheme!

And speaking on a panel discussion last fall, the University of California’s Robert J. Birgeneau (a former U of T president himself) argued that the Big Five scheme would allow large Canadian universities to compete on a “level playing field” with Harvard, Stanford and Oxford.  He noted that a similar “tiered system” in California has led that state’s university system to be considered “the best in the world.” Finally—and this is the clincher—he boasted that U C Berkeley has produced over 50 Nobel prizes by its faculty. 

In April of this year, almost a full year after this debate had begun, one of Canada’s leading experts on post-secondary education policy weighed in on the debate. George Fallis, author of Multiversities, Ideas, and Democracy, was invited to speak at the Senior Scholars’ Symposium at the University of Toronto. In his address, he agreed that “Canada is an anomaly among all nations in the large size and undergraduate-focus of our top research universities.” That said, he also pointed out that “most of the leading research universities of the world have more undergraduate students than graduate students.”

But Fallis also made an important distinction?between “aggregative university rankings,” on the one hand, and “discipline by discipline” rankings, on the other.   To be sure, if governments privilege a small number of “flagship” universities that are deemed most likely to excel in aggregate rankings, they are likely to overlook “world-leading research clusters in other universities” (read: agricultural science at the University of Guelph and Saskatchewan respectively, engineering at the University of Waterloo, and clinical medicine at McMaster). Furthermore, he added that the rankings in question do not adequately capture a university’s performance in the social sciences, meaning that they are only reliable in science (including medicine, mathematics and engineering).  Finally, Fallis pointed out that the rankings ignore all together a rather fundamental point: how well universities teach their undergraduate students.

The “Big Five proposal” has gone over like a lead balloon with both provincial education ministers and—big surprise?the presidents of Canada’s other universities, who point out that the Big Five already receive a disproportionate share of research funding. Indeed, MacLean’s Paul Wells sums this point up as follows:

“There are nearly 100 universities in Canada, depending how you count it, but these five alone receive 46 per cent of all the money Canada’s main granting councils disburse for research every year. They receive an even larger share—47 per cent—of the money the Canada Foundation for Innovation pays to build new labs and research infrastructure.”

This proposal, if acted on by government, would not improve Canada’s post-secondary system. But it might result in more Nobel prizes and increased fame for the Big Five.  And, for the Big Five university presidents, that appears to be worth fighting for.

It’s too bad that universities rarely become world-famous for teaching undergraduate students.  It’s regrettable that world-famous researchers don’t win Nobel prizes for being good teachers. And it’s a shame that one apparently doesn’t become president of a Big Five university for being humble.

Nick Falvo is a doctoral candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. He is also vice-president finance of Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association (Local 78 of the Canadian Federation of Students).