Urgent action for our publicly-funded universities critical to Canada’s economic stability and growth

March 20, 2024
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Student biking through campus / Des étudiants à vélo sur le campus

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada recently noted that “Canada’s world-class researchers and universities play a critical role in finding solutions to major challenges and …helping create a better future for all Canadians and people around the world.”

But Canada’s universities are confronting a series of serious and cascading issues ranging from inadequate research funding to housing shortfalls and a new cap on international students.

Any of these issues on their own would be serious, but the way in which they have converged has thrust our public higher education institutions into a critical moment. Universities are essential to our future and Ottawa and the provinces need to act swiftly or risk imperiling our future as a knowledge-based economy. Canada is continuously losing research talent, with one study showing as many as 25 per cent of STEM graduates opting to work outside Canada. If Canada actually wants to drive innovation, public universities need to be at the forefront of providing solutions for Canadian firms to adopt cutting-edge technology.

For example, an NSERC-funded joint research project with Université du Québec à Montréal, McGill University and European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France are studying what happens during a charge or discharge cycle in lithium-ion batteries. The ultimate goal of this project is to design a battery with minimal recharge time — transforming renewable energy transportation.

This is just one important example of how Canada’s university research ecosystems are the incubators fueling innovation and the jobs that will keep us competitive. But we cannot ensure competitiveness — or our sovereignty in these spaces — without renewed and predictable funding.

None of this is possible without the ability to attract top researchers. And as any researcher, academic or scientist knows, research is a long game — any disruption in funding sets us back, and the repercussions will be felt for decades. Our top talent is already being poached by other international institutions — a worrying trend — and if this continues, Canada’s workforce will fall further behind peer countries competing for global investment.

Numbers from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) show that up to 75% of grant funding awarded to universities are used to pay students and trainees. Funding from the granting councils produces direct jobs — and what’s more, they pave the way for the jobs of tomorrow.

Last March, a federal advisory panel called for a minimum 10 percent annual increase to the base budgets of the granting councils (SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR) and CFI for the next five years. In response to the report, Minister François-Phillippe Champagne said: “Because we know that today’s science is tomorrow’s economy, our government is committed to ensuring that our talented, world-class researchers have the right support for the crucial work they are doing.” The federal government now has an opportunity to make good on that commitment in the upcoming budget, and there is no time to lose.

Earlier this year, in response to the escalating crisis in the supply of affordable housing, Ottawa proposed a two-year cap on international students to try to alleviate demand. This blunt decision comes at a significant cost — and not only related to tuition revenue. Outside of the classroom, international students contribute to Canada’s overall productivity by often pursuing disciplines like engineering, math and computer sciences, all areas of study where Canada needs a boost in graduates who can be recruited for domestically-based jobs. This cap will create a gap in these areas, and it’s a gap that other countries will be quick to fill. We urge the federal government to review this policy in the coming months.

The headwinds in higher education are real. Allowing Canada’s publicly-funded universities to wither will not only further diminish our talent pool, innovation and workforce, but also puts the 400,000 university employees in every region of this country under strain ultimately impacting the 1.4 million university students and the quality of education Canadians are so proud of.

But even the most pressing challenges facing universities have solutions — and Canada’s economic stability and growth rely on governments to get it right. Canada’s public universities stand ready to partner to do so.

About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.

Media contact:

Lisa Wallace
Assistant Director, Communications
Universities Canada
[email protected]

Tagged:  Research and innovation

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