Can Canada Attract Top Talent in a Public University System?

07/16/2012 05:03 EDT | Updated 08/06/2014 10:59 EDT

Even with a summer election looming in Quebec, all anyone can talk about is university financing.

The United States, contrary to Canada, chose to split its superior education system, namely the universities, into a private and a publicly-funded one, the first supposedly competing with the other. This divide quite clearly favours private universities by providing the elite of the American society with a better education and the opportunities of wealthy alumnus.

Also, private universities attract Nobel Prize winners, top researchers in most fields of knowledge and the embodiment of the wealthiest, whether we like it or not. Why such a success? If most employees of the many private American universities are unionized, as strikes at Harvard and Yale revealed over the last few years, it's a quite different story when it comes to professors.

Individual contracts and performance commitments guarantee the university that no deadwood will embarrass the public display of the institution or slacken its way to the top, keeping in mind that each private university competes with one another.

The Canadian landscape differs greatly with our unique public system. As of today, we don't have private universities and no provincial laws that could entitle such institutions. Therefore, what discrepancies undermine our universities? Many suggest professor's unions or managerial lack of accountability resulting in a class warfare mentality, or both? Probably both, I assume.

We cannot be totally wrong by tackling these major concerns on both side of the "fence," if fences exist, of course.

Some would say that unionized professors create a climate of class warfare where it's not necessary. Therefore, real issues concerning research and applications, for instance, could be easily overlooked. Is it a reality or just a mere possibility? The simple fact that no Nobel Prizes in whatever field has some tenure in a Canadian university seems very problematic, taking into account the vast network of our public system, each province considered separately.

Others, on the other side of the fence, would blame discrete links or secret connections between the political elites and the academics. Despite such a tricky comment that seems to contradict the class warfare approach, it reveals some of the true complexity of human relationships in the footprint of the academia and some class tensions.

To conclude, I would suggest that public universities are not a natural environment for unions, especially when it comes to professors. Also, a perceived lack of managerial accountability betrays and questions the true nature of universities role: education for all or support of the elite?

The American divide in private and public universities could answer many Canadian discrepancies.