College Quarterly
Fall 2003 - Volume 6 Number 1
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Building North American Higher Education Linkages: Canadian Universities And Community Coleges Compared

by Edward B. Harvey, Ph.D., and Richard Liu

The Canadian economy now operates in a globalized environment characterised by trade liberalization and the rapid growth of a knowledge based economy. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the process of North Americanization has continued to accelerate. The realities of business competition around the world have generated pressures in North America – and elsewhere – for an increasingly skilled and geographically mobile labour force. In this new operating environment, workers must be equipped with a global outlook and global capacities.

Institutions of higher education can play a central role in meeting the needs of the labour force by providing the workers of today and tomorrow with a global outlook and global capacities. In the case of North American higher education integration, a series of major conferences (Wingspread, 1992; Vancouver, 1993; Guadalajara, 1996), have made large contributions to defining the issues facing North American higher education and developing an agenda for action. A vital part of this agenda is the fostering of linkages among North American institutions of higher education.

As this paper shows, linkages include many different types of activity including increased faculty and student exchange, increased foreign student enrolment, the development of joint research programs and co-sponsored conferences, and the vitally important activity – given the new funding realities higher education institutions face – of increasing corporate involvement in and engagement with the higher education mission. In short, linkages are all about developing global partnerships and capabilities in an increasingly global world.

This paper is based on a recent survey, conducted by the Alliance for Higher Education and Enterprise in North America, of a cross-section of Canadian institutions of higher education.

In late 1999, using information from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, we sent a survey to all Canadian universities (N=89) and all Canadian community colleges (N=142). The response rate for universities was 33.7% (N=30) and 32.7% (N=46) for community colleges.

The central purpose of the survey was to elicit information on the extent to which Canadian institutions of higher education were involved in linkages with other institutions in the United States and Mexico (either bilateral or trilateral), how beneficial the linkages were considered to be, the fields of study involved in linkage activities, direct outcomes or consequences of linkage activities and sources of funding for linkage development. We now present the results in each of these key areas.

Involvement in North American Linkage Activities

Figure 1 presents data on the magnitude of current North American linkage activity by Canadian institutions of higher education.

Over half of Canadian universities (66.7%) have trilateral linkage relationships (that is, with the U.S. and Mexico). However, only 32.6% of Canadian community colleges currently have trilateral linkage relationships. In the case of bilateral linkages, these account for 20.0% of the linkage activity of Canadian universities and are slightly higher for Canadian community colleges at 26.1%. 13.3% of Canadian universities have no linkages. The corresponding number for Canadian community colleges is much higher at 41.3%.

It is evident that the college sector lags behind universities in establishing North American Linkage activities. Given the importance of international linkages/activities to our economic development and competitiveness, this is a matter of some concern.

Plans to Establish North American Linkages

Figure 2 presents data for Canadian institutions without North American linkages. As the figure shows, a majority of Canadian community colleges have no plans to establish such linkages in a year’s time (73.7%). As for Canadian universities, 50.0% have no plans to establish linkage relationships.

From our discussions with higher education leaders in Canada, we have ascertained that it is typically the smaller, less research-intensive institutions that experience the greatest difficulty in the development of North American linkages. Since community colleges are more teaching-intensive than research-intensive, the college sector is less likely to have the research programs and networks that can provide the foundation for the development of linkage activity. Alliance research indicates that existing policy and program instruments designed to encourage North American higher education collaboration tend to be shaped in terms of university-related models. There is a particular need for best practice models and demonstration projects targeted on the college sector with, in particular, a focus on strategies designed to assist colleges in making the connection between many of their existing co-op partnership initiatives and the possibility of broadening these initiatives to a North American scale.

The Institutional Benefits of North American Linkages

As Figure 3 shows, both Canadian universities and community colleges are overwhelmingly likely to report that their existing North American linkage activities have been beneficial for their institutions (100.0% for universities and 82.8% for community colleges).

Field of Study in which North American Linkages have been Established

Figure 4 presents data for eleven fields of study, comparing for each field the extent of linkage involvement by Canadian universities and community colleges.

As indicated by the figure, universities are ahead of community colleges in establishing North American linkages in all but one field of study – applied technician training. Furthermore, in some fields of study, universities are on average 3 and sometimes 4 times more likely than the college sector to have North American linkages/activities.

The smallest differences between the two higher education sectors are in the fields of production management and applied technician training. However, neither of these fields are particularly active venues for the establishment of North American linkages.

Of far greater significance is the university sector lead in the fields of financial services (+6.8%), software development/internet applications (+10.3%), engineering (+23.7%), business administration (+25.0%), and applied sciences (+25.9%). In short, there is considerable scope for expanded college involvement in North American linkages, particularly given the significance of many of these fields of study to Canada’s future economic growth and competitiveness. By way of contrast, the university sector shows a stronger performance which, however, can be strengthened even further.

Direct Outcomes of North American Linkage Activities

Figure 5 presents data for Canadian universities and community colleges in eight direct outcomes areas associated with North American linkage activities. The outcome areas have been ordered, on the basis of results for Canadian universities, from greatest to least significance.

Canadian universities are more likely than Canadian community colleges to report direct outcomes from North American linkages/activities, a reflection of the higher level of involvement by the university sector in North American linkages/activities.

Of particular significance is the university sector lead in the outcome areas of increased foreign student enrolment (+21.3%), faculty exchange (+28.8%), student exchange (+29.2%), and joint research programs (+66.0%). These are strategically important areas for institutions of higher education and, more generally, the sort of contributions such institutions can make to economic development and competitiveness. Being able to expand programs with an international focus increases the effectiveness and relevancy of higher education institutions in today’s world. Both faculty exchanges and joint research programs are central to developing the pool of internationally capable intellectual capital crucial to the knowledge economy. Bringing in foreign students with new and different perspectives accelerates the development of international awareness and capabilities in the institutions.

Although the university sector reports a greater corporate involvement than colleges (+15.8%) as a result of North American linkages/activities, both Canadian universities and community colleges should be more aggressive in pursuing North American linkage/activity partnerships with the corporate sector. We have already noted how vital corporate involvement is for higher education institutions in the current funding context (which is associated with much greater expectations of practical relevancy in both teaching and research).

Sources of Funding for North American Linkage Building

Figure 6 presents data for a number of different funding sources and compares – for Canadian universities and community colleges – the relative importance of these funding source for North American linkage development.

As reported by Canadian universities and community colleges, the most significant funding sources for North American linkage development are the Canadian federal government (50.0% for universities; 39.1% for community colleges) and home institution (40.0% for universities; 39.1% for community colleges).

Other funding sources, with some modest significance, include reciprocal tuition swap agreements (26.7% for universities; 10.9% for community colleges), costs self-paid by participants (20.0% for universities; 13.1% for community colleges), provincial government (13.3% for universities; 13.1% for community colleges) and linkage partners (10.0% for universities; 19.5% for community colleges).

The data underline the minimal significance of the Canadian, Mexican, and U.S. corporate sectors as sources of funding for North American linkage activities by Canadian higher education institutions.

In our earlier discussion of direct outcomes of North American linkage activities, we noted that Canadian universities – compared to community colleges – have registered what we would characterise as strong performance in the areas of student exchanges, increased foreign student enrolment and faculty exchanges. These outcomes area are linked to such funding sources as reciprocal tuition swap agreements, costs self-paid by participants and costs paid by linkage partners institutions. Not surprisingly, the greatest disparity in funding between the university sector and college sector also occurs in these areas.

Given the heavy demands already being placed on federal government funding and home institution funding, creative program/policy initiatives are needed to stimulate greater foundation and private sector funding support for the North American linkage building activities of Canadian higher education institutions.

Conclusions and Policy Implications

Many Canadian institutions of higher education are already realizing important accomplishments in North American linkage development. However, the college sector lags behind universities in such activities. Unfortunately, the lag is greatest in those fields of study and outcome areas that have the greatest strategic significance for economic growth and future competitiveness in an increasingly globally oriented and knowledge based world economy. More needs to be done but it will be difficult, especially in the college sector, to achieve as much as is needed in the absence of a more supportive policy and funding framework.

The data show that 41.3% of community colleges not only do not have any North American linkage development, but three-quarter of those same institutions do not intend to pursue such activities. This is a significant waste of potential. By the very nature of their mission and expertise, the community colleges have much to offer countries like Mexico in such areas as middle level labour force upgrading. The colleges could serve as an important entry point for Canada to this rapidly expanding market for educational services and technical training. In addition, the strong tradition of co-op programs in the college sector provides a foundation to build upon. Put simply, co-op programs need to be more extensively internationalized. The potential for added value from the college sector is large. The same is also true for many smaller, less involved universities. Moreover, in today’s globalized world, with increasing economic activity across national borders, the demand for highly skilled workers locally and abroad is great. Canadian higher education institutions can develop stronger partnerships and ties with the private sector in creating a competitive and increasingly skilled and geographically mobile labour force. Such partnerships can only benefit North American linkage development activities in our higher education institutions.

Both universities and community colleges have important contributions to make to the development of the international linkages and capabilities that are increasingly important to the success and competitiveness of the Canadian economy. The data presented in this study show that there is more to be done in both the university and college sectors but that this is particularly true and particularly urgent in the college sector.

The following are some of the specific actions we believe would be in the Canadian national interest:

  • As our data show, the Canadian federal government is a major source of funding for the North American linkage development activities of Canadian higher education institutions. Funding increases are never easy to obtain but given the pace of North Americanization and the question of how much significance Canada will have in the process, this is a policy/program field of rapidly rising importance.

  • But the federal government cannot do it alone. Better partnerships need to be built with provincial governments, the private sector and the foundations. What is needed are cost-shared initiatives (which would of course also involve the higher education institutions) targeted on high priority projects and issues in the North American agenda and where practically useful and measurable results can be achieved.

  • Some higher education institutions in Canada, particularly in the college sector, simply find funding programs inaccessible. They lack the staff and resources to develop the required and detailed proposals. Funding program procedures need to accommodate these realities with seed grants and entry level initiatives "to get institutions started".

  • Work is needed to better understand why some institutions are successful in North American linkage development. The "best practices models" and "winning strategies" need to be identified and disseminated – in operationally useful ways – on a system-wide basis. There is a particular need in the college sector to develop demonstration projects and best practice models that will further elevate college awareness of the opportunities represented by such linkages and activities and provide practical tools for engaging such opportunities.

  • We cannot say if the North American linkage development situation in Canadian higher education is getting better, getting worse, or remaining largely unchanged. Our studies have revealed a paucity of systematically gathered, time series data that would allow this question to be explored. That is why surveys of the type on which this paper is based should be repeated on a periodic basis.

North Americanization is proceeding at a rapid pace. In today’s knowledge economy, institutions of higher education play a strategic role and, as the data in this paper show, Canadian institutions could be doing more in certain areas. The issues on the table go well beyond North American higher education collaboration as such. They involve the role Canada will play in the evolving North American agenda and will influence the strength and effectiveness of our national voice in the policy debates and developments to follow.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (Canada), Human Resources Development Canada, and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

Edward B. Harvey, Ph.D. is Professor of Applied Social Research and Policy Studies University of Toronto and President Alliance for Higher Education & Enterprise in North America. He may be contact at edward.harvey@utoronto.ca

Richard Liu is pursuing graduate studies in sociology at the University of Toronto and is a Research Associate of the Alliance for Higher Education & Enterprise in North America.

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2003 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology