Leading Research Universities in a Competitive World

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Robert Lacroix and Louis Maheu, Université de Montréal

The Awards to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP) has funded the recent publication of Les grandes universités de recherche : Institutions autonomes dans un environnement concurrentiel, a book by Robert Lacroix and Louis Maheu (published by Presses de l'Université de Montréal). The book is also available in English, under the title Leading Research Universities in a Competitive World (published by McGill-Queen's University Press). The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences invited professors Lacroix and Maheu to share the importance of this study with our community.

Our book concerns a specific type of academic institution: the research university. The first chapter suggests a definition of the research university and recounts some milestones in its relatively recent history.

We are not unreserved advocates of international university rankings; we also take note of their greatest weaknesses. The rankings, however, are useful in providing national samples of research universities, which reveal an unequal distribution of universities from one country to the next. We have set out to explain this fact with a macro-economic model of the characteristics of the seven OECD countries (the U.S., Germany, France, Japan, Australia, the U.K. and Canada) where the majority of these institutions are located.

Informative to a certain point, this model does not fully explain why some countries have more or fewer research universities than expected. To pursue our line of inquiry, we use samples of universities in four countries (the U.S., Great Britain, Canada and France) with varying international ranking results.

How do we account for these differences? Using a range of institutional and quantitative data, we have noted, among other things, that the quantity of available resources plays an important role. Of equal importance is the institutional flexibility that results from a wide range of funding sources, and the way universities acquire their human, material and financial resources. More incentivizing, performance-sensitive and market-oriented access to resources will enhance a university's performance. While state funding for education and research is vital, government regulation is also a key factor in the degree of autonomy that a university will achieve.

The way these factors are combined in a given country affects the performance of its universities. An adequate and structuring balance between them allows research universities to act as well-integrated organizational actors that can gain greater access to select groups of world-class universities.

Our comparative analysis concludes that the situation of Canada's institutions, especially research universities, is generally good. However, the last chapter documents some of the problems they face, while highlighting the significant challenges facing American research universities (both public and private).

Robert Lacroix is an economist, Professor and President emeritus at Université de Montréal, and a Fellow at the Center for Interuniversity Research and Analysis of Organizations (CIRANO).

Louis Maheu is a sociologist and Professor emeritus at Université de Montréal, and a Fellow at CIRANO.

Image: McGill-Queen's University Press


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