The Back Page

ROWING WITH ONE OAR

The U.S. is falling behind in higher education—but we’re not cashing in

PAUL WELLS March 7 2005
The Back Page

ROWING WITH ONE OAR

The U.S. is falling behind in higher education—but we’re not cashing in

PAUL WELLS March 7 2005

ROWING WITH ONE OAR

The Back Page

The U.S. is falling behind in higher education—but we’re not cashing in

PAUL WELLS

AT LEAST THE WAY AESOP WROTE IT, when the hare takes a nap the tortoise is supposed to pass his nimble foe. It’s no time for the tortoise to nap too.

Frequent readers may notice my obsession with research and higher education. On this file the Americans have been spectacularly dropping the ball. So why has Canada’s government decided it’s nap time for us too?

In a lot of ways Ralph Goodale gave us a good budget last week. It keeps Canada out of the red, trims taxes, hoses money all over, starts rebuilding our military. It probably

saved the Liberals from defeat in Parliament.

But it’s a busy world. You can’t just survive a crisis, you have to spot opportunity and avoid decline. The Americans’ neglect of their knowledge economy is a huge opportunity. Other countries are scrambling to take advantage. If we snooze, we will lose. Here’s the state of play.

The Americans risk blowing their lead. It’s taking a while.

It’s a huge lead: half the world’s doctoral students study in the United States. “Federal support of science and engineering research in universities and national laboratories has been key to America’s prosperity for more than half a century,” a coalition of leading U.S. tech-industry firms and associations wrote in a new study. And now? “Our advantage is eroding rapidly,” say the study’s authors, the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation.

Individual states’ support for American universities has crumbled. Tuitions have risen so high to compensate that the great gift of widespread access to higher education is endangered. Security concerns after 9/11 are making it harder for international students to get into U.S. schools. Many, feeling unwelcome, simply don’t bother. Foreign graduate-student enrolment fell in the U.S. by six per cent from 2002-03 to 2003-04. Applications fell by 28 per cent. There may be less research anyway: George W. Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2006 increases funding for basic research by less than inflation.

The rest of the world is scrambling to take up the slack. From 1990 to 2002, the number of Chinese enrolled in higher education in China rocketed from two million to 16 million. Asia is gaining on the United States in the number of science and engineering papers published, and Western Europe passed the U.S. a decade ago. U.S. patent applications from China, India, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan grew by 759 per cent from 1989 to 2001—6V2 times as fast as patent applications from the U.S.

Even with all those Asians staying at home, the number of students crossing national borders to pursue diploma-level educations will quadruple to 7.2 million in 2025. The dollar value of that global brain market will grow tenfold in the same period. Smart countries want that market. Singapore plans to triple its foreign-student population, from 50,000 to 150,000, by 2012. Singapore has persuaded some of the world’s best schools

to open campuses on its territory: Johns Hopkins, MIT, France’s INSEAD, Germany’s Technical University of Munich.

“The leaders and followers are emerging now,” says Mitch Leventhal, an American consultant in international education. “In just 10 years, the landscape will be unrecognizable. Failure will condemn you to the educational backwater no matter where you are physically located.”

Which brings us to Canada. Our federal government began pushing hard to develop Canada’s knowledge economy almost a decade ago. Funding increases for universitybased research will total $11 billion from 1998-99 to 2006-07. That’s why so many universities have been such construction zones. It was a heroic effort. Paul Martin played a big part in it.

And the air has gone right out of it. Goodale’s budget increases federal research funding by far less than the last several budgets did. This year the knowledge economy will get less than a quarter of the $488 million the feds put into the sector in 2001-02.

It’s true that Alberta and Ontario have belatedly turned serious attention to revitalizing higher education. British Columbia is creating 25,000 new university spaces. But you can’t row with one oar. Canada has fallen from fifth to ninth as a global destination for international students. The January 2001 Throne Speech committed Canada to becoming one of the top five countries in the world for research and development by 2010. Two years later, in 2003, we remained stuck at 15th.

We need research budgets to keep growing. We need way more private-sector R & D. We need better high schools to feed our universities. We need strong colleges that complement fancier schools. I’m told Ralph Goodale hopes to deal with it all in his next budget. But we don’t have a year. The world will not even pause to wave as it passes us by. [ffl

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