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Compare and Contrast

July/August 2016

By Karla Hignite

Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice chancellor of McGill University, Montréal, explains the ways Canadian and U.S. universities compare in issues of government, funding, performance, and more.


Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice chancellor, McGill University, Montréal

Founded in Montréal in 1821, McGill University has placed in the Top 25 of the QS World University Rankings for 12 years running. Suzanne Fortier has been McGill’s principal and vice chancellor since 2013. The Quebec native is the fourth McGill graduate to hold the position and the first francophone. In anticipation of the NACUBO 2016 Annual Meeting, to be held in Montréal July 16–19, Business Officer talked to Fortier about how higher education works north of the 49th parallel.

What do you see as the primary differences between the U.S. and Canadian higher education systems? 

McGill is one of two Canadian member universities in the Association of American Universities—the other is the University of Toronto. In terms of funding models, we most often compare ourselves to the public universities in the AAU. McGill is partially publically funded, and autonomous in terms of our academic and research missions, and governance.

The federal government is an important partner. However, in Canada, the responsibility for education falls to the provinces and territories, rather than the federal level. Around 42 percent of McGill’s operating budget comes from the Quebec government. The Canadian government, as well as the Quebec provincial government, is an important funding body for research and infrastructure.

In terms of research, the major federal funding agencies are what we call the Tri-Councils, which include the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Provincially, there are the three “Fonds de recherche du Québec” that support those same disciplines.

Your professional profile is rather unusual in the sense that you have a lot of experience on both sides of the funding equation.

That is true. Before I came to McGill, from 2006 to 2013, I served as president of NSERC. Before that, I was at Queen’s University in Ontario for more than 30 years—first as a professor in the Department of Chemistry and in the School of Computing; and then as vice principal of research and, later still, vice principal of academics.

You moved from university to government and now back to university. How do you think your government experience informs you as principal of McGill?

My time at NSERC deepened my belief in the importance of partnerships, nationally and internationally, and the power of networks and collaboration. I like to say that “innovation is a team sport.” It thrives on interaction and partnerships.

Look at the incredible advancements that have been made in health care over the past 10 to 20 years. Because of the collaboration that often involves researchers working outside of what is traditionally thought of as “health,” such as engineering, there are better therapies and better diagnostic tools. Canadians are good at collaborating, whether in small groups or in large research networks that connect us with colleagues around the world.

And health care is just one example. Tomorrow’s miracles, in whatever field, will certainly begin with today’s teamwork, so it is important to support and help create those productive connections.

How would you characterize the relationship between the higher education sector and government in Canada? What expectations are there from the Canadian government regarding the performance and outcomes of higher education institutions? 

As I mentioned, universities like McGill are largely autonomous. We set our own admissions standards and degree requirements. Having said this, universities work closely with both the federal and provincial governments to develop mutually beneficial relationships. Both levels of government are an important source of operational and research funding that supports the mission and vision of universities.

Government is also an important source of student financial aid and sets fee structures for most students. Universities in turn provide the talent, skills, and basic research necessary for Canada’s economy to prosper.

In some provinces, such as Ontario, universities have signed formal agreements with the provincial government that outline how the university’s priorities align with the province’s vision, and tie funding to specific outcomes.

You mentioned that at Queen’s you were cross-appointed in chemistry and computer science. What kind of research straddles both of those worlds?

When I tell people that I am a crystallographer, they often ask me if I predict the future with a crystal ball. But crystallography is the study of the architecture of matter, such as looking at the way atoms are arranged in a molecule to understand its function.

I grew up in a small village in Quebec. In high school, I participated in the provincial science fair. A professor from McGill came to see my little exhibit about the diffraction of sound waves and said, “Well, if you’re interested in this, then you would really be interested in crystallography.” He invited me to visit his lab. It took one visit and I became totally enchanted by this science that had the precision of mathematics and the beauty of crystals. So I enrolled in this unusual program at McGill. [Fortier graduated in 1972 from McGill with a Bachelor of Science and in 1976, she earned her Ph.D.]. Years later, I realized why it is that I never had a class reunion: I was the only student.

You are clearly comfortable with research culture, as McGill and Queen’s are both research-intensive universities; you led a federal research funding agency; and you are an accomplished researcher yourself. How do research universities in Canada relate to other higher education institutions, including Canadian community colleges and technical institutes? What kinds of partnerships exist between these different entities?

In 2014, the two national associations representing universities and colleges—Universities Canada and Colleges and Institutes Canada—signed a formal framework for collaboration, which includes initiatives such as collaborative academic programs, joint research activities, credit transfer, articulation agreements, and foreign credential recognition.

It is more important than ever that universities work closely with other institutions in our higher education system. Yes, we are all in competition for scarce postsecondary dollars, but the fact is that the global knowledge economy is demanding that the workforce have a varied skill set. Those skills may be learned at a variety of postsecondary institutions. If university/college was ever an either/or proposition, that is not the case any longer.

In Canada, 15 percent of current college students already hold a university degree, and 13 percent of undergraduates have completed a college or trade program before starting their university degree. It can be a cliché to say that we never stop learning, but to be competitive in the global workforce of the 21st century, education really is a lifelong endeavor where you may need different kinds of institutions at different stages.

The world is more open than ever before; the talent pool is global and very competitive. That is why we need strong universities just as much as we need strong colleges.

A big challenge faced by U.S. research institutions today is the ongoing growth in compliance requirements and associated costs of that compliance. Is this a challenge for Canadian institutions?

Yes, compliance is a challenge that we are working through in Canada as well. There is no question that our universities understand the importance of transparency and accountability. There are, however, times when compliance and reporting requirements can be excessive, and that can represent a cost in terms of salary dollars.

Excessive requirements can also limit an institution’s ability to be quick and responsive. Accountability is important, but so is being nimble. Generally speaking, I think that streamlining reporting requirements, and eliminating unnecessary requirements, would result in a more efficient use of government and university resources.

How do students in Canada typically finance their education? What level of government support do Canadian students receive?

In the 2015–16 academic year, the average tuition for a Canadian undergraduate student was $6,191. That is significantly less than tuition at U.S. private universities, and even many in-state college fees, but there are still all the other costs associated with attending university, such as lodging and food. It adds up. Ensuring accessibility to education is nevertheless a priority in Canada, particularly for students who come from less-advantaged backgrounds.

Students with insufficient resources to finance their education are eligible for assistance. This is mainly offered by the federal and provincial governments, generally in a combination of loans and grants. The assistance is intended to supplement student and family resources. It varies from province to province, but usually the first “X” dollars are issued as a loan—that ceiling varies according to financial need—and the balance is awarded as a grant, which does not need to be repaid. Governments and the universities themselves also offer scholarships and bursaries based on academic merit.

Student aid is a big focus for McGill. Since 2006, we have increased our student aid budget by more than $22 million. Among all Canadian universities, we dedicate the highest percentage of our total operating budget to scholarships and bursaries. We are a very international university—more than 24 percent of our student body comes from outside of Canada—so it is important that all of our merit- and need-based entrance funding is open to all first-year students.

What role does philanthropy play in supporting students?

It is very important. McGill’s alumni are incredible. There are around 250,000, and even though they are spread out across some 180 countries, and their own student days may have been many years ago, they are really engaged in the lives of today’s McGill students. Last year, almost half of our total philanthropic donations went to student support. That is the donors themselves choosing to make gifts that fund bursaries and scholarships, or support travel awards, undergraduate research opportunities, or internships.

Does that engagement spill over into sports? In the U.S., sports creates a strong connection for both current students and alumni. Is this the same in Canada? 

Well, our wonderful alumni’s support of our outstanding student athletes is certainly another of the many ways that they show their dedication. Did you know that the first formal game of North American–style football was played in 1874, and it was between teams from McGill and Harvard University? Since 1974, we commemorate that historical game with an annual rugby match.

When I say that McGill has won in the last four years straight, it is not meant as a brag but to prove a point: Everyone says that Canadians are nice—and we are—but we are competitive too.

KARLA HIGNITE, New York City, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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It is more important than ever that universities work closely with other institutions in our higher education system.