July 13, 2017

Are Canadian Universities Balancing and Excelling at Teaching and Research?

Are Canadian Universities Balancing and Excelling at Teaching and Research?

By Wayne Schnarr

In this article, Wayne looks at how universities have changed through the years, from when he first graduated in 1967, to today. He ponders over the always relevant but sometimes controversial question of whether universities are doing enough to balance their dual priorities: producing world-leading research and maintaining excellence in teaching.

I spent the equivalent of 10 full years at university – 4 years for my B.Sc., 4 years for my Ph.D. and 2 years for my M.B.A. (6 years part-time). I have spent many years looking at research from Canadian universities from a capital markets perspective, and several years on an advisory council to the Queen’s chemistry department. This background gives me enough experience and information to ask and provide some preliminary comments on the question: Are Canadian universities balancing and excelling at teaching and research? Unfortunately, a complete analysis of this question is too complex for a one-person blog series, and the answer is not a simple yes or no.

Perhaps a helpful way to frame this question of universities balancing teaching and research would be to determine how universities have changed. In doing so, we will be able to figure out if their priorities have changed and what tradeoffs have been made in the process.

How have universities changed in the last 50 years?  The factors I use, listed below, to answer this question would probably fill a small book but let’s focus on only a few of them which might help answer my big question. These factors could be framed as questions and applied to Ontario universities. The same questions could be expanded to look at all Canadian universities or focused to specific departments and faculties.

Creating a simple table of 3 columns, one for the questions and the other two for 1967 data and 2017 data would be interesting. This would give us some kind of chart showing the changes that have taken place over the 50 years and would prove to be very useful.

Here is a list of factors to consider when trying to figure out if universities are successfully balancing research and teaching.

These are just a sampling of the basic business questions that need to be asked. There is a substantial amount of recent data available on Ontario government and university websites. I am sure that similar data is available for the larger provinces and on most university websites. Have a look at the information available for your alma mater(s).

  • Common University Data Ontario (CUDO)


  • Financial Report of Ontario Universities – 2015-16 Highlights (Council of Ontario Finance Officers)


  • 2015 – 2016 Ontario University Graduate Survey



I did not find this data until after I had written the title and first part of this blog. Since my closest university link is Queen’s, I took a closer look at the last reference cited above. I was pleasantly surprised to find the following two statements:

‘Queen’s is uniquely positioned among Canadian universities. No other institution combines our quality and intensity of research with our excellence in undergraduate and graduate education. It is this “balanced academy” that has built or reputation as one of Canada’s leading universities.’

‘… to help the university achieve its vision. It does this by identifying four strategic drivers as the priorities that will guide or decision making over the next five years, to 2019. Each of these drivers – the student learning experience, research prominence, financial sustainability and internationalization – directly supports the success of our balanced academy.’

The term balance is critical to me. I do not know if there is balance, whether there was balance and it has changed over the last 50 years but this is an acknowledgement that balance is critical and a focus.

Assessing balance is difficult – measuring excellence is probably even harder.

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