Constellations not Stars

Interesting times in global higher education. After the bold challenge from NYC to create a leading edge tech university on Roosevelt Island, it now appears that the UK wants to do the same somewhere in Britain. Good news and not so good news here.

Good news: universities are viewed by governments as important economic and innovation engines. They are worth investing in. Big time.

Not to good news: both the NYC and the UK initiatives are about creating “world class, leading edge” type institutions: i.e. superstar universities. Sigh.

We need fabulous constellations not individual stars. While I applaud these initiatives I can help but think that in Ontario the solution is not to create a “superU” but to nurture a superU *system*. Why not leverage the capacity and resources of all the universities in Ontario? Yes, I know they are all autonomous institutions who want to direct their own futures, but the government can create incentives (carrots and sticks) that would move the system collectively in this direction. Make the university system in Ontario (all 20 institutions) an integrated network of research and innovation that would attract the same kind of excitement (and economic development) that NYC and the UK are looking for.

This isn’t just about dumping new money into the system; we (the universities, government, and industry) need to re-imagine what universities can do and how they would collaborate. Challenging? Yes. Important? More so.

It is interesting that the UK and NYC initiatives are really all about research and discovery. All the talk in Ontario recently has been about undergraduate education (see Ian Clark et al. in Academic Transformation and Academic Reform) . Forgotten is the research power and potential in Ontario universities.

The Cornell / Technion partnership may well create “Silicon Valley East” in NYC and the UK initiative may do something similar. However, both are all about stars, not constellations.


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