College town big time

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McGill Reporter
January 13, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 08
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College town big time

| Montreal university presidents often muse about the similarities between our city and Boston, the grande dame of university towns on this continent. It's usually done with a hint of envy — if only we had the resources of the Harvards, MITs and their brethren.

Well, it turns out we actually have it over Boston in one crucial regard: according to a recent McGill study, Montreal edges Boston as the North American city with the highest number of university students per capita.

The finding has piqued the interest of decision-makers in Quebec City just at a time when the financing of the province's universities is being re-examined.

When Vice-Principal (Academic) Luc Vinet wrote his contribution to McGill's Tradition and Innovation document, a position paper about McGill's academic aspirations and financial requirements targetted at the Quebec government, he indicated that Montreal's four universities made the city second only to Boston in terms of the importance of universities to the day-to-day functioning of a city.

Ministry officials phoned the vice-principal to find out just how he knew this. Vinet had to admit he didn't have enough hard facts to back up his claim.

So he turned to the University Planning Office.

As it turns out, this is the first time anyone has looked at the statistics to see just what are the most important university cities in North America.

Planning analyst Denis Marchand gathered statistics on population, location of universities and number of students in the top 30 metropolises of North America.

After crunching the numbers issued by Statistics Canada, the United States Census Bureau and the National Council on Education, Marchand found that Montreal has 4.38 students per 100 inhabitants as compared to Boston with 4.37, followed by Denver with 4.1.

Vancouver tied Washington in eighth place with 2.78, while Toronto followed with 2.61. New York placed 14th with 2.01, while Kansas City brought up the rear with 0.2.

Marchand explains that he only looked at the 30 largest metropolitan areas so that the phenomenon of the university town — Would anybody know about South Bend if not for the University of Notre Dame? — wouldn't skew the results. "These are cities that have an economic life other than their universities," he notes.

That said, one of the purposes of this study will be to give the senior administrators of Montreal's institutes of higher education some ammunition in their dealings with the government when they argue that Montreal ought to be flaunted as an important hub of North American intellectual activity.

"When you go to the web site of the city of Boston," says Réal Del Degan, director of the UPO, "one of the first things you read is about the importance of education."

"Everyone in Boston is proud of Harvard and MIT. We need to have that kind of pride here," says Vinet, adding that such pride would make it more politically favourable to re-invest in education. At the moment, he notes, "education rarely comes up as a priority in the polls."

Montreal mayor Pierre Bourque certainly wouldn't disagree with Vinet. He lauds the study for confirming what he has often maintained: "This is an exciting and vibrant city, full of promising young people with aspirations for a better future," he says.

The results of this study paint Montreal as the intellectual capital of Canada as compared to Toronto, the centre of that other sort of capital.

"Toronto may be the economic capital of the country but Montreal has the human capital and we could use this to attract companies here. Even in absolute numbers, we have more students than Toronto," notes Del Degan.

Beyond the numbers is the fact that Montreal's four principal universities are concentrated in the city centre and linked by the metro, facilitating the development of joint programs, the formation of research institutes and the shared use of libraries.

Vinet, for instance, cites the fact that in his field, mathematics, there are four strong programs in the city, "which is different from having one big one."

At the same time, collaboration takes place at the Institut des sciences mathématiques. "We have the advantages of diversity and collaboration — a truly unique university environment."

Vinet's former colleague when he was at the Université de Montréal, Rector Robert Lacroix, is slightly less rosy about the study results.

He notes that "the French-English history of Montreal has favoured us with these institutions. Now, we are reaping the benefits. History has given us a distinct advantage, especially at this time of the knowledge economy."

Lacroix warns, however, that the numbers will be "meaningless unless we have the necessary quality of students, which is not necessarily the case given the budget restrictions of the past seven years."

Like Vinet, he calls on Montrealers to defend their educational institutions and be aware that with the concentration of educational institutions in the area, "every time our government make cuts in education, it does great harm to Montreal.

"It's far more dramatic for Montreal than for Toronto because of that city's lower density [of educational institutions], and the presence of the government bureaucracy there stabilizes the city."

Still, points out Principal Bernard Shapiro, "More university research is conducted [in Montreal] than in any other Canadian city, highlighting the importance of public and private sector collaboration as a stimulus for improving the quality of life here."

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