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Quebec needs new Quiet Revolution

Published: 22 Nov 2006

Quebec needs a new strategy for research and development that will advance economic productivity through innovation as well as education. We must develop an industry strategy for the Montreal region in which universities, governments and industry harmonize efforts to attract talent and investment, increase economic growth and build our profile in sectors where we have distinctive advantages. Principal Heather Munroe-Blum's speech to the Montreal Board of Trade is reprinted in the Gazette.

We need to start the third phase of Quiet Revolution: Quebec must develop a new educational strategy to assure continued progress

(The following is an edited version of an address to the Montreal Board of Trade yesterday.)

The results of Quebec's Quiet Revolution in the 1960s and its research investments and programs established in the 1980s are all around.

Quebec has emerged as a player in at least four of North America's Top 7 industrial sectors: pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, aerospace, telecommunications, and information technology and software. Our leadership in the cultural and creative industries is also well established. The strengths and reputations of all of Quebec's universities, research institutes and knowledge-based industries are the fruits from the first two periods of Quiet Revolution.

But make no mistake — the first two eras of Quiet Revolution are over. As was so eloquently pointed out in the Pour un Québec lucide manifesto, Quebec has come to an economic and demographic moment of decision. For all the progress we have made, we are now stalled as we enter the third period. If we are to stay in the game, we need a new prescription for change and we need it immediately. It is essential that we launch a new period of Quiet Revolution.

We are in the most intense competition ever known around the world — competition for talent, for investment, for knowledge and for jobs. And there are signs that Quebec is beginning to slide backward. In recent years, Quebec investment in university research has been declining across every disciplinary field.

Quebec is also economically much more fragile than the rest of Canada and the United States. This is happening at the very time cities have launched regional strategies to win in this worldwide competition. Toronto, Singapore, Edmonton, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Shanghai, Mumbai, Stockholm, Boston and San Diego all have disciplined and effective city-region strategies to build their capacity for graduate education and advanced research.

Quebec's failure to invest in research is showing. Montreal fell victim to Toronto's aggressive strategy with the loss of Tom Hudson, former director of the McGill University and Génome Québec Innovation Centre. For the first time in recent history, 13 Quebec universities fell back last year in their research achievements — the worst showing in Canada. Notwithstanding significant Quebec government support for our universities, the proportion of GDP that Quebec invests in education is falling steadily, while health care spending increases.

The current funding model is not succeeding. Quebec's university participation and its graduation rates are declining. For example, post-secondary graduation rates rose to 32 per cent in Quebec in the mid-1990s, and then declined to 27 per cent by 2001 and continue to stagnate. In comparison, Ontario's graduation rate is 36 per cent and Canada is at 31 per cent. And both are rising.

As if this were not bad enough, Quebec sometimes displays an almost suicidal capacity to undermine its competitive assets. Take, for example, the biomedical and life sciences sector. While Montreal boasts about competing with Boston, we treat as a disadvantage what Boston and other great world cities celebrate — that is, the fact we have two great faculties of medicine. Indeed, Montreal is the only city in Canada to have two faculties of medicine.

And our two medical faculties boost our ability to compete on talent, education, service and innovation, not only with Boston, but also with New York, Los Angeles and many other great cities that also have multiple medical faculties. Many among us have become so addicted to petty politics and hurtful positioning that Montreal has for over a decade deprived its citizens of the cutting-edge academic hospitals that it requires to serve our health needs.

Education and the development of knowledge have been, are and always will be the path to prosperity and social progress. Quebec must develop an educational strategy for the 21st century, a strategy as revolutionary for this period as the Parent Commission proposals were in the 1960s, with clear targets for increased university participation and degree completion at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Quebec needs a new strategy for research and development that will advance economic productivity through innovation as well as education. We must develop an industry strategy for the Montreal region in which universities, governments and industry harmonize efforts to attract talent and investment, increase economic growth, and build our profile in sectors where we have distinctive advantages.

The world is not slowing down. It's speeding up. We cannot afford to let it pass us by.

Heather Munroe-Blum is principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University.

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