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Prospects for McGill’s Griffintown campus

“Quartier de l’innovation” raises questions over private and public partnerships

A proposal by McGill to build a new campus near the Bonaventure Highway in Griffintown has raised questions over the efficacy of private and public partnerships.

The plan, which was submitted to Senate last month, calls for the construction of a “Quartier de l’innovation” (QI) to enhance the visibility of the University and foster innovation in “all realms of creative endeavors.” According to the McGill VP Research and International Relations Rose Goldstein’s report to Senate last month, the success of the project will depend on the strength of its relationships with private and public entities.

The report states that “corporate partners are anxious to have access to [McGill’s] pool of highly trained individuals. We recommend that QI-based businesses be given unique access to this pool.”

QI reflects a larger trend, in which universities increasingly rely on private and public partnerships to build new facilities, expand into new neighbourhoods, and increase their international visibility. In California, cash-strapped public universities have used Private and Public Partnerships (PPP) in around sixty different projects since the University of California system began in the mid-20th century, with projects ranging from the construction of medical office buildings and research facilities, to new housing for students.

In Canada, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the Emily Carr institute of Art and Design, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology have all been involved in the Great Northern Way Trust private limited company, with business partners since 2001.

While a full business proposal for QI is not due until March, the Senate report already stresses the need to attract private partners. However, a look at the history of PPPs in the education sector reveals a mixed track record. Despite a tuition fee of $10,000 per semester, the campus of Great Northern Way incurred “significant annual operating losses” over the last five years. A global study in 2007 on the effectiveness of PPPs revealed that, while they have been successful in the transportation sector, the effectiveness of such projects in education are less clear.

With a focus on fostering innovation in information and science technology, the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto is similar to the QI. While it is not affiliated with any university, the project was also based on a PPP model. But the Discovery District has had issues with financial accountability. The senior executives at MaRS are some of the highest paid in the Ontario public sector, and the contribution of the private sector has been negligible.

In Montreal, plans for an expansion by l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) ended in failure. Two of its construction projects, the Pierre Dansereau Building and the Ilot Project, brought the university close to bankruptcy. The Ilot was built through a PPP with Busac Real Estate, a subsidiary of a U.S company. It went $106 million over budget.

While it is still unclear what role the city of Montreal will play in the project, similar bids in the United States were usually funded by significant contributions from the city. In New York City, for example, a proposal by Cornell University to build a new campus on Roosevelt Island is being partly financed by more than $100 million from the City.