Montreal - Canada's University City

Canadian Universities Forum (discussion group)

Subject: Montreal - Canada's University City
University city: The riches of education
Spinoff City: Montreal boasts four top universities that - for better or worse - make the city what it is. jobs. coffee houses. funky boutiques....


Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006

Ah, who can measure the value of a university diploma, of precious, golden days of youth whiled away in airless classrooms, of tipsy evenings in dingy apartments probing the mysteries of the universe?

Economists, that´s who.

In fact, Montreal International has boiled the benefits of higher learning down to the last Duo-Tang, Bunsen burner and iced cappuccino. The lobby group dedicated to raising the city´s profile and recruiting investors says Montreal´s four universities and four institutes pump $3.83 billion into the economy every year. That calculation, based on research by Universite de Montreal economist Fernand Martin, measures wages and operating costs, student living expenses and cash spent by visiting lecturers on expense accounts as well as by anxious parents who come bearing frozen pizzas and clean underwear. By Martin´s reckoning, universities account for a whopping 65,200 jobs - 22,800 directly and 42,400 indirectly.

Yet the study, compiled in 2003 and updated last spring, says that´s only half the story. Throw in Montreal´s 197 research and development centres, the higher productivity and enhanced competitiveness that comes with a well-educated workforce, and increased appeal to foreign investors - and the "dynamic impact" of Montreal´s universities on the Canadian economy climbs to $5.98 billion.

Fifteen years ago, with the manufacturing sector slumping and unemployment numbers catastrophic, Montreal set out to reinvent itself as a knowledge-based economy.

It began by concentrating on three burgeoning fields - information and communications technology, aerospace and life sciences - and cranking out graduates to fill those jobs.

Montreal isn´t quite there yet.

There are still a few serious cracks in the foundation, like the difficulty in recruiting enough highly skilled immigrants to offset Quebec´s sinking birthrate and troubling dropout rate.

And rectors fret that a tuition freeze and continuing underfunding of the province´s universities make it increasingly difficult to compete for cutting-edge faculty and brilliant scholars.

Nevertheless, we´ve come a long way since 1990, says David Cohen, planning and research director for Montreal International.

Montreal now leads the country in R&D. The city is No. 1 in the country in university research grants, attracting $1.1 billion in 2004, just short of one-quarter of the Canadian total, and picking up steam every year. Second-place Toronto has 14 per cent.

Though Montreal ranks 15th in size among large cities in North America, we trail only Boston when it comes to the number of students per capita. That´s 160,000 if you count heads, 108,000 if you go by the bureaucratic formula known as "full-time equivalents."

We´re third when it comes to intensity of high-tech jobs and eighth in the actual number of high-tech jobs.

What fuelled the turnaround?

Federal and provincial governments pumped big money into programs like the Canada Research Chairs, which aims to stem the brain drain by luring experts to our campuses, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which covers start-up costs for promising projects. In a mutual-admiration society born of necessity, cash-starved universities turned to wealthy benefactors who´d like to see their names carved in stone while they´re still alive. Meanwhile, there´s been a seismic shift in the relationship between professors and corporations on the lookout for fresh ideas.

"Universities and businesses are working together to find new ways of doing things," Cohen said. "Companies are realizing that innovative sources come from their partners and less and less from within their own walls." He can´t help think there´s another intriguing element at play here that you won´t find elsewhere. "Is it because we have two systems which function independently but complement each other? Two faculties of medicine which double without necessarily duplicating?"

On the street level, the repercussions of this student boom are as close - and possibly as loud - as the people next door.

"The immediate impact of students is felt through housing numbers," said Alain-Michel Barcelo, an urban studies professor at U de M. "Of the more than 100,000 students in Montreal, perhaps 40,000 live in their own apartments. So that adds to the life and vibrancy of the neighbourhoods and shops where they live."

For instance, districts such as Rosemont, Petit Patrie and Villeray have reaped the benefits of being a few convenient metro stops along the blue line from U de M.

The presence of so many students can be seen, Barcelo said, in the city´s exploding music scene and in the kinds of businesses that flourish.

"Wherever you find students, you can expect there will be lots of bookstores, art supply and photocopy shops," he said.

Now consider the fact that Montreal has not one but four universities, and that all are concentrated in or near the downtown core, and you´re looking at a lot of coffee houses, noodle shops and funky clothing boutiques.

"Studies have shown the very strong impact of students on the businesses along Ste. Catherine St."

In his new book, The Flight of the Creative Class (Harper Business), Richard Florida looks at the downside of getting a rep as a cool city. When the people he calls the bobos - short for bourgeois bohemians - move in, real-estate prices soar. That´s why, Florida says, creative cities - say New York or San Francisco - have the biggest chasms between the haves and the have-nots.

"It´s a conundrum, and universities have to think about the risk of a housing crisis," said McGill architecture professor Derek Drummond. For now, though, he´s not going to lose any sleep over the impending gentrification of the McGill ghetto.

"Student behaviour keeps that in check," he said. "Professionals who might be tempted to convert buildings into condos may resist the impulse because of the unsettling effects of living with students. The upside of that is that it allows for affordable student housing."

Back in the 1980s when McGill College Ave. was being reconfigured, Drummond said, developers and merchants initially lobbied for designs that would discourage students from hanging out. In recent years, however, restaurants, bistros and bookstores have adjusted to embrace an obvious market.

"Students can be irritating, especially if you aren´t affiliated with a university," Drummond said. "But they are a vibrant group of people. In any city, go to the area where the university is, and even the dullest blocks will have pedestrian traffic.

"Most major cities have a university of some form. The question is, can you say where it is, and what role does it play in the urban landscape?" he said.

"Our campus plays a most major role in the life of the city. We are blessed with our location."

Tomorrow: Brain-drain city. Students from the world over come to Montreal to study at our top-flight universities. Why don´t they stay?

(in reply to: Montreal - Canada's University City)
Why don´t students stay? Maybe they want jobs.
(in reply to: Montreal - Canada's University City)
Blame the Quebec separatists for forcing the English-speaking Quebeckers out of Montreal. Montreal´s loss is Toronto´s gain.

(in reply to: Montreal - Canada's University City)
They all go because of the high taxes and you need to speak french to get a job in Montreal.


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