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A plan to double the number of Canadians winning international awards

Posted on 14 October 2014 by

The Nobel Prize awards season has just ended and Canada was shut out – although a McGill University graduate, U.S.-born researcher John O’Keefe, was named a co-winner in the physiology and medicine category. There was some speculation that Canadian Stephen Scherer might win in that category, but it was not to be – this time, at least.

Behind the scenes, a small group of university and research leaders is trying to improve Canada’s international awards performance. University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera made a passing reference to the initiative in a Globe and Mail opinion piece in early September, but other than that most Canadians are likely unaware of the effort.

As context, Dr. Samarasekera pointed out that it’s been 20 years since a scientist working in Canada has been awarded a Nobel Prize in science (Bertram Brockhouse received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1994, Michael Smith in chemistry in 1993, and John Polanyi in chemistry in 1986). With this in mind, the heads of Canada’s three main research funding agencies, as well as the Royal Society of Canada, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and other interested groups, have come together to ensure that, in their words, Canada’s “extraordinary research record” receives the international attention it deserves. This concerted effort is being spearheaded by Governor General David Johnston and Howard Alper, chair of the Science, Technology and Innovation Council.

Drs. Johnston and Alper, in an article in the Globe and Mail in February 2013, said the aim is “to nominate more of our leading scholars and scientists for major awards and prizes, while renewing our approach to sharing and celebrating their findings.” Their ambitious goal: to double the number of Canadian winners of international research awards by 2017.

In a recent interview, Dr. Alper explained to me how the initiative came about. The Governor General meets at least on an annual basis with STIC, and on his first meeting with the council a few years ago Dr. Johnston brought up the State of the Nation report published by STIC. The report noted that when it comes to the world’s most distinguished awards – the Nobel Prize, the Wolf Prize and the Fields Medal, for example – Canada is being outperformed not just by the research powerhouses of the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany, but also by our more comparable peer, Australia (in the period from 1941 to 2008, Canadians received 19 of the top international awards in science, compared to 42 for Australia).

This led to “a thorough discussion of the issue” and the suggestion that this was something that the Governor General could take on, said Dr. Alper. “It’s not political and it can add enormous value to pride and morale in the country. That was essentially the message.” The committee was thus formed, with the Governor General as chair, under the name of the Enhancing Global Recognition for Canadian Research Excellence initiative.

The committee has developed an inventory of international research awards and how each prize committee works. For Nobel Prizes, for example, there are no “open” nominations – only those contacted by the Nobel committee can make nominations.* For some prizes, only former winners can nominate candidates. However, most other international awards/prizes are open to nominations from any source.

The committee also offers to support partner organizations in building “compelling dossiers” on candidates by providing external reviews of draft nominations to “position them for maximum success,” said Dr. Alper. The secretariat “will take a look at them, critique them, beef them up and then think about how to network them through the various international forums.”

The group has another component: a separate committee whose basic role is to act as talent scout to identify individuals who should be considered by the different stakeholders to nominate for prizes and awards. This canvassing committee is chaired by Dr. Alper. As part of this, Dr. Alper has been visiting university campuses to meet with executive heads to promote the initiative. “Without the university presidents taking leadership, making it a priority, this won’t happen. They are pivotal in enhancing our success, and the success of their institution and their researchers.”

The initiative started slowly, but is now ramping up. Noting that this will be a multi-year campaign, Dr. Alper said: “You don’t go from being a star postdoc to being a Nobel Prize winner, but there is a path. This is about being really intentional over a long period of time to put Canadian candidates in places where they will be recognized for their phenomenal achievement.” The first noteworthy successes, he said, came earlier this year when Nahum Sonenberg at McGill received the Wolf Prize in medicine, and a month ago with Ian Hacking at the University of Toronto taking the Balzan Prize in philosophy.

There was one other notable Canadian achievement but, alas, the committee couldn’t take credit for it. It is a great story and one that Dr. Alper clearly enjoys telling.

At the committee’s first meeting, the group discussed where to start and “we decided to start at the top with the Nobel Prize, and immediately Alice Munro’s name came up,” said Dr. Alper, who was asked by the committee to contact Ms. Munro to inquire whether anybody had nominated her. “So, I called her. I’d never met her, so I said, ‘I’m sure you want to know why I’m calling. Let me spend five minutes to explain.’ I explained our mission and objective, and she said, ‘Nope, I have not been nominated for the Nobel Prize to my knowledge, and in fact I have never been nominated for any international award except the Man Booker Prize, which I got.’” They talked for 45 minutes, said Dr. Alper. “It was a great conversation.”

Dr. Alper told Ms. Munro he was going to put together a small task force that included the president of Western University, where she had been a writer-in-residence, the dean of arts, and a professor of English literature who is a champion of her writing. “She said, ‘oh, you must add my publisher!’ and I did, and he was excited to take part. So we worked together and we were making great progress.” This was in 2013, with the committee intending to submit the nomination by the January 2014 deadline for this year’s prizes.

But then, in October 2013, lo and behold, the announcement came out that Ms. Munro had won the Nobel Prize for literature. “I wrote the group and said, ‘we’ve been made redundant,’” said Dr. Alper, adding, “I’d love to take the credit, but it wasn’t us.” Dr. Alper has since learned who nominated her, but he was told this in confidence.

His final reflection on the matter: “The unexpected can happen. But you can’t count on the unexpected.”

*This is corrected from an earlier version, which had an error.

Advice to a daughter about staying safe on campus

Posted on 8 October 2014 by

This is a guest post by our regular contributor Rosanna Tamburri, co-author of our feature story, “Ending sexual violence on campus.”

When University Affairs editor Peggy Berkowitz contacted me to co-write a story about campus sexual assault, I was out of town visiting a university my daughter was considering attending this fall. It was late spring, the weekend before convocation and the graduates had returned to pick up their gowns and mortarboards. Streamers were hung and there was an air of festivity.

It brought back happy memories of my own university years and I was excited for her. But, like any parent, I was apprehensive too. It was by chance that I met the head of campus security, who assured me of the school’s good safety record and how few incidents of serious crime he encountered.  And I didn’t really doubt him but I also know that things go on behind closed doors that, for many reasons, aren’t reported.

On the trip I asked my daughter if she or her friends had given any thought to campus safety or sexual assault policies when making their choices. “Not really,” she said, although she told me an older friend who was already in her first year had shown her how the Blue Lamp system at that university worked. That’s good, I said, but then told her most sexual assaults are committed by someone you know, not by someone lurking in the bushes, although that happens too.

I told her she should lock her residence room door at night, never leave her drink unattended and to know her limit when it comes to drinking. Then I was at a loss. I might as well have said “Just be careful” like my own mother did. And why should the onus be all on her, anyway?

Towards the end of the school year, she came home and said her high school biology teacher had spent the class talking about drinking and the meaning of consent and how one can negate the other. I feel as though I owe him a debt of gratitude and I think it’s a shame that not all students could have heard what he had to say.

In researching the story on campus sexual assault, I spoke with people who were extremely committed to bringing this issue into the open and addressing it head on. But there were a few others who preferred not to answer questions or altogether ignored my requests for an interview. Meanwhile, in all the acceptance letters and welcome packages from universities that flooded our mailbox this past spring, there was little mention of what universities are doing to keep their campuses safe.

I know reputations are at risk. I know that each year universities are asked to do more to tackle mental illness, binge drinking, drug use and a host of other things that seem peripheral to their core mission. But surely this is too important to sweep under the rug or leave in the hands of student orientation committees as some institutions still inexplicably choose to do.

The one thing that puzzles me is why sexual assault has, until just recently, garnered so little attention given that women make up the majority of students at most campuses and in most disciplines. Maybe the best advice I can give my daughter is to defend her right to live and learn in a safe and respectful environment.

A new partnership between universities and colleges

Posted on 29 September 2014 by

There has always been a bit of friendly competition between Canada’s universities and colleges. I recently read, for example, this quote from Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (which, despite its name, represents Canada’s universities and university degree-level colleges): “Over the last six years, more than twice as many net new jobs were created for university grads than for college and trades grads combined.”

Not so fast! Linda A. Franklin, president and CEO of Colleges Ontario, wrote recently that many students “get the jobs that lead them to good careers after coming back to college and supplementing their university credential with a college one” (emphasis mine). Growing numbers of students and parents feel it is essential that higher education leads to career success, she said, and “that’s why record numbers of students are choosing college.”

This sort of jockeying for position is understandable and expected. However, the back-and-forth did get a bit heated about a year-and-a-half ago over the supposed “skills shortage” in Canada. But, I have noticed that for a while now the associations representing universities and colleges have been using more inclusive language in their pronouncements, stressing that all parts of Canada’s postsecondary education sector have a role to play.

“Regardless of whether at a university, college, institute, polytechnic or cégep, there are many pathways to a great education and career,” said Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada, or CICan (previously known as the Association of Canadian Community Colleges). AUCC’s Mr. Davidson, in the same speech to the Economic Club of Canada I quoted from above, echoed that sentiment, saying that Canada needs “all kinds of postsecondary graduates to build our economy and society – apprentices, colleges and polytechnics, and university.”

There also is much interplay between the systems, a topic I explored in a blog post a couple of years back, “Where does college end and university begin?

Paul Davidson and Denise Amyot sign the historic agreement, using a whiteboard.

Paul Davidson and Denise Amyot sign the historic agreement, using a whiteboard.

I bring all this up as background to an important agreement by AUCC and CICan “to deepen and enhance” their collaborative efforts in the interest of Canada’s postsecondary students. According to a joint press release, this “framework for collaboration” signed in Calgary today by Ms. Amyot and Mr. Davidson “reflects the commitment of universities and colleges across the country to further enhance innovative programs and partnerships that offer Canadian students an effective continuum of choices leading to rewarding careers.” The agreement  also signals “new avenues for collaboration by AUCC and CICan in communications, member initiatives and policy dialogue.” Together, AUCC and CICan represent 228 postsecondary institutions serving more than 2.5 million students.

The agreement seems, to me, an obvious recognition that Canada’s postsecondary education sector is stronger when everybody works together. It also reflects the fact that postsecondary education doesn’t happen in discrete silos and that there is already much collaboration between the different levels.

Mike Mahon, president of University of Lethbridge, and David Ross, president of SAIT Polytechnic, co-chaired a working group that laid the groundwork for today’s agreement. Among other things, the framework commits the two associations to advance a set of principles among their member institutions. These include the development of more flexible pathways for students, more collaboration and a greater diversity of joint programs, increased recognition of students’ prior learning, and the reduction of barriers to student mobility. The associations also commit to enhance the collection and sharing of institutional data, where appropriate, especially related to student transfers. It is a welcome initiative.

We once got along

Posted on 24 September 2014 by

It is easy to think that relations between the Canadian government and aboriginal peoples have always been bad, that the two sides have never gotten along. But, “the fact of the matter is that’s not true. There was a time in our history when our relations were better,” said Jim Miller, a professor of history and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Native-Newcomer Relations at the University of Saskatchewan. Dr. Miller was speaking at the first Big Thinking lecture of the season on Parliament Hill last week, sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

In a foreshadow of the issues at play, University of Alberta professor Cindy Blackstock introduced Dr. Miller to the assembled guests and welcomed them to Parliament Hill, which she declared “un-ceded Algonquin land.” Professor Blackstock is a board member of the federation and member of the Gitksan Nation.

In his talk, Dr. Miller posited that if we look back at when relations were better between Canada’s First Nations and the early European arrivals, and more importantly when they began to deteriorate, that “can give us some clues to how we might be able to change things for the better in the future.”

Canoes in a Fog, Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869.

Canoes in a Fog, Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869.

Dr. Miller noted that in the earliest period of this relationship, there was a great deal of cooperation between the two sides, particularly in the fur trade. What Europeans found, he said, “was that in order to prosecute the fur trade successfully, they needed the cooperation, support, labour and skills and knowledge of First Nations, who were of course very familiar with the territory.”

The Natives responded to the Europeans by establishing what sociologists called fictive or ascribed kinship through rituals such as welcome ceremonies, gift exchanges, feasting and smoking the pipe. “This was the foundation of their relationship for the first century and a half after contact, not just in commerce but in diplomatic and military relations.”

This relationship continued until the end of the War of 1812, but quickly fell apart after that, particularly after 1820 due to heavy immigration from Great Britain. The settlers wanted land to farm, and this began to interfere with the native way of life. “This is when things begin to go bad. This is when the First Nations are no longer perceived as a partner and an ally by the Europeans so much as an obstacle,” said Dr. Miller. It is also at this time that natives became an object of “concern” by humanitarian Christian groups. This was “the leading edge of what becomes known as the policy of the bible and the plow,” he continued, which goes on for roughly a century, “wreaking destruction everywhere.”

These events “pave the way for the regime of tutelage, coercion and attempted assimilation. This is the beginning of the long period of our troubles.” This was formalized in the Indian Act passed in 1876, in which natives were now seen as wards of the state rather than partners. Then came the final indignity of the residential schools, which led to spiritual destruction and “a great deal of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.” It is a sad legacy, but one which shouldn’t be unfamiliar to most Canadians.

On the positive side, Canada has recently begun “working our way out” of this legacy, said Dr. Miller. The first step came in the 1980s when some churches began to apologize for what their predecessors did in the residential schools. This was followed by a wrenching era of individual litigation by those who suffered, which eventually led to the negotiation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, finalized in 2006 and implemented in 2007. Among other things, this agreement created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is now wrapping up its work.

One other thing that happened was the Prime Minister’s apology to natives in 2008. “It was a very important step symbolically. Unfortunately it has not been followed up by meaningful action on many fields that require attention,” said Dr. Miller.

Summing up, he said “we have to try to get back to an earlier, healthier type of relationship.” It is not only the right thing to do, he said, but it is the practical thing to do because we do need each other again. For example, “if you’re from British Columbia, and you’re thinking of running a pipeline to the coast, you know that you need the cooperation of First Nations in order to carry it out.” Particularly on environmental issues, “this is an area in which non-aboriginal Canadians can learn from first nations and other aboriginal Canadians, who have a relationship with the natural world.”

Pressed by the audience at the Q&A session afterwards about how to proceed, Dr. Miller said one of the biggest obstacles is the distrust and suspicion that the aboriginal leadership has for the federal government. To dissipate that climate, we need to build “a succession of small achievements, small agreements which over time will begin to create confidence rather than suspicion.” This requires the leadership of the federal government, he said. “We can’t underestimate the difficulty of the challenge.”

I must admit that my immediate reaction after the talk was: what, that’s it? You have nothing more concrete to offer? But I think that’s being unfair to Dr. Miller. It has taken us centuries to reach this point and there are surely no quick, easy fixes.

I did notice, however, that also last week former Prime Minister Paul Martin announced that a number of retired politicians and aboriginal leaders have joined together to form a non-profit group called Canadians for a New Partnership, aimed “at sparking a new national conversation among Canadians on aboriginal issues.” Echoing the language of Dr. Miller, the new group declared that they stand united to remind Canadians of the moral and economic imperative to heal our “broken relationship” with Aboriginal peoples. It’s a start.

A glance at Canada’s postsecondary education standings

Posted on 9 September 2014 by
OECD's Education at a Glance report for 2014.

OECD’s Education at a Glance report for 2014.

We’re number one! According to the 2014 Education at a Glance report by the OECD, Canada has the highest percentage, among member countries, of adults aged 25-64 who have obtained a tertiary education – 53%. We’ve occupied that spot for some years now. The OECD average is 32%.

Some may be consoled by that number, claiming of our higher education system that we’re doing darn good, thank you. On the other hand, as I’ve read in some online comments, others may lament: why the heck does everybody seem to have to go to university! The problem with this one statistic is that it obscures as much as it reveals.

As the OECD is quick to point out, Canada’s high ranking is largely due to its high rates of college-based vocational education (what the OECD classifies as “tertiary-type B”). Canada ranks first among 34 OECD countries in the proportion of 25-64 year-olds with a college education (24%), but is tied for seventh place (with Korea and Denmark) in the proportion of adults with a university education (28%). And, looking at younger adults (aged 25 to 34) with a university degree in their pocket, Canada is tied for 17th place. So much for the canard that “everybody” seems to be going to university.

On another front, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2014-2015 ranked Canada 18th in the world in a general category of higher education and training, but 45th in terms of postsecondary enrolment rates specifically! I’d take that last statistic with more than a grain of salt. I’m not sure how they came up with that.

One other area in the OECD report where Canada is a leader is annual spending per student on tertiary education ($23,200 USD, compared to the OECD average of $14,000, placing us second of 37 countries). The report notes, meanwhile, that Canada ranks among the countries with the highest tuition fees.

In addition, the report reinforces that employment income, in all countries, increases with education. In 2011, adults in Canada with a university education earned approximately 60% more on average than adults with upper secondary education, while adults with a college education earned 13% more.

Also of passing interest, 73 percent of students with a higher education degree in Canada have a parent or parents with a higher education degree – indicating again that parental educational status is an important indicator of postsecondary education attendance.

In terms of “foundational skills,” Canadian adults rank near the OECD average, while Canadian youth rank above average. As well:

  • Canadian adults rank at the OECD average in literacy scores and below average in numeracy scores.
  • Canadian 15-year-olds score significantly above the OECD average in mathematics, but between 2003 and 2012 their average mathematics scores deteriorated.
  • The relationship between performance and socio-economic status in Canada is weaker than the average for OECD countries, indicating that the education system “is producing relatively equitable outcomes for students.”

One final note: Canada’s share of international students increased from 4.5% in 2000 to 4.9% in 2012. In real numbers, that works out to an additional 127,000 students for Canada compared to 2000. According to the OECD, Canada had roughly 221,000 international students attending our colleges and universities. (Note that this last number is for 2011, while most other countries are reporting data for 2012. Canada’s numbers will be higher for 2012).

Canada is the sixth most popular destination country for international students, after the U.S., the U.K, Germany, France and Australia, in that order. More than 4.5 million students were enrolled in tertiary education outside their home country in 2012.

Canadian university leaders take the ice bucket challenge for ALS awareness, fundraising

Posted on 21 August 2014 by

This is a guest post, collated by our Digital Journalist Natalie Samson in Storify.

The ALS #IceBucketChallenge campaign has been making the social media rounds this summer. The campaign aims to raise research and treatment funds as well as general awareness around ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a fatal neurodegenerative disease that leads progressive paralysation and has no known cause or cure.

The name pretty much says it all: folks who accept the challenge are expected to make a small donation to an ALS-related organization, pour a bucket of icy water over their heads, post a video of it online with a challenge to two or three other people. Those who opt out are expected to donate $100. It’s caught on with celebrities, politicians, athletes and more recently with senior leaders at Canadian universities.

A few select facts for your back-to-school enjoyment

Posted on 5 August 2014 by

The beginning of August is too early for me to contemplate back-to-school activities – the summer goes by too quickly as it is – but it hasn’t been too early for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada to start its back-to-school messaging.

In anticipation of the return to classes in September, AUCC has put out another list of select facts about postsecondary education in Canada (you can download the full list here in PDF). The association put out a similar list last year with slightly different statistics.

New this year, citing the 2011 National Household Survey, AUCC notes that over their careers university graduates typically earn 50 percent more than other full-time workers without a university degree. As well, according to the Labour Force Survey, between May 2008 and May 2014, more than twice as many net new jobs were created for university graduates than for college and trades graduates combined (878,000 and 437,000 respectively).

In recent months AUCC has increasingly been extolling the merits of experiential learning, and on that front the association notes that more than half of all university undergraduates benefit from a co-op or internship experience before they graduate. The number of university students participating in co-op programs has grown by 25 percent in the past seven years.

On student debt, AUCC notes that reports on debt levels are often misleading. Most reports fail to mention the fact that 40 percent of university students today graduate debt-free. Of those with debt, 30 percent owe less than $12,000.

Now it’s your turn: do you have a fast fact about Canadian postsecondary education you’d like to draw attention to? Use the comments function below, or tweet mentioning @Margin_Notes. Don’t forget to cite your source!

Sessional instructors: what we know so far

Posted on 16 July 2014 by

Although the data on sessional faculty in Canada is frustratingly scant, the authors of a new report have made a valuable if tentative contribution to the debate by scouring what little information is available. Their preliminary analysis suggests that “many of the popular assumptions concerning the increasing use of part-time faculty may be incorrect.” But, as with virtually all studies, they conclude with that near-universal refrain: “additional research is needed.”

The report, The “Other” University Teachers: Non-Full-Time Instructors at Ontario Universities, was commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and released on July 15. It is an Ontario-only report, but will have resonance across Canada.

The use of non-full-time university instructors is on the rise in many countries, raising concerns about their working conditions and the implications for educational quality. Nowhere is this more so than in the United States, where the use of contingent faculty is widespread and groups such as the New Faculty Majority fight to improve the working conditions for these instructors. The name of this latter organization is instructive, as it is widely reported that contingent or sessional instructors now make up considerably more than half of all university faculty in the U.S. and perhaps as much as 75 percent (the recent book, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, for example, claims the higher number).

What is the situation in Canada? No one really knows, because most universities don’t release the data. This often forces the media in Canada to rely on anecdotal reports or, worse, rely on the U.S. data.

Into this breach have stepped the four authors of the new HEQCO report. With a bit of sleuthing of institutional websites and other data – and with some additional information from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations – they were able to make at least a few observations.

The authors found that the ratio of sessional instructors to full-time faculty appears to be increasing at some universities while decreasing or remaining stable at others. They also note that the conditions of employment for non-full-time instructors vary by institution. Fees ranged from $5,584 to $7,665 per half course, which is much higher than the average rates for adjunct faculty in the U.S.

Looking at other data, they note that at 10 universities, sessional instructors are represented by the same association as full-time, tenure-stream faculty, while at another 10 there are separate unions or associations. And while sessional instructors have various benefits guaranteed under collective agreements, often including some form of job security related to seniority or promotion, the authors note that sessional instructors “do not have anything close to the level of security associated with tenure.”

University Affairs, I should note, collected its own sampling of pay, benefits and work-related conditions of sessionals in our award-winning story, “Sessionals, up close,” published in the February 2013 edition. We also have a handy chart of these conditions for sessionals (in PDF) on our website. Some of the data may be out of date, but it is still the best snapshot of the situation I’ve seen for Canada.

As for the balance between full-time, tenure-stream faculty and sessional instructors, the authors of the HEQCO report had even less to work with. At one university, the estimated share of courses taught by sessional instructors during the fall and winter terms was roughly 25 percent. Meanwhile, the collective agreements at four universities limit the ratio of courses taught by sessional instructors to between 15 percent and 35 percent. Thus the situation in Canada doesn’t seem to be quite as dire as in the U.S.

In conclusion, the authors call for:

  • A province-wide survey of sessional instructors to learn more about their background (academic and professional), employment situation and teaching load, as well as their perceptions and experiences.
  • A more detailed study of institutional staffing patterns through the collection and analysis of data on employment trends at all Ontario universities; and
  • A detailed analysis of staffing patterns within selected academic units at different Ontario universities and the implications of these patterns for educational quality and student success.

Let’s hope they get it.

Time away to learn and play

Posted on 9 July 2014 by
sunset

Sunset over the Adriatic.

I’m back in the office after a recent three-month leave of absence. We’re often told that reflection facilitates deep learning, so in that spirit I wanted to use this space to reflect a bit on my experiences of the past three months. I generally feel that this blog is about higher ed and not the appropriate space to talk about personal matters, but I’m making an exception this time around. I was also inspired by fellow University Affairs blogger Melonie Fullick, who recently reflected on priorities and “productivity” in the wake of her father passing away.

The impetus for this post is admittedly more prosaic than Melonie’s. My wife and I felt it was time to uncouple from the daily routine to travel abroad and spend some quality time as a family with our two boys, aged 13 and 11 – as clichéd as that sounds. We’d originally thought we might take a full year off, but practicalities of work and budget soon suggested that a three-month leave would be more reasonable. I am acutely aware of how privileged I am to be in a position to even consider such things. However, if there is a workplace that offers the flexibility to travel and where it’s viewed positively, I submit it is academia. This should not be a particularly alien topic to many of our readers. As well, we preach to students to seek out international experiences in their learning process and a similar impulse motivated us to do the same with our kids.

The trip was not in any way work- or career-related for my wife and me – purely time off. The children, alas, were not quite so lucky. They were missing a full three months of school and we did feel the responsibility to school them a bit while we were away. They did homework for about an hour a day, which included math exercises, reading and writing a blog about their experience.

We travelled the Mediterranean (Greece, Italy, Corsica and Croatia), coinciding nicely with our children’s school lessons, which over the past few years have included Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Nicolas and Alec were able to experience that history to a certain extent during our travels.

So how did it work out? The trip was everything we could have hoped for. We explored, we played, we laughed, we discovered, we learned. We created a whole set of lifelong family memories. Particularly fulfilling was seeing how our children responded with curiosity and openness to new experiences and how they made connections when confronted with new places, ideas and information. It’s almost as though you could see their brains expanding like sponges as they took it all in.

Whose education is it?

There’s a final reflection I want to share, related to the education system. Many people in Europe we spoke to during our travels were curious about how we could take our children out of school for three months. They were emphatic, every one of them, that this would not be possible in their country – it would simply not be allowed. That flabbergasted me. I must admit I don’t actually know what our legal obligations are in Ontario, but it never occurred to us that we might not be allowed to do this with our children. While we believe strongly in the value of public education, surely we must have the right to take them out for a period of time to offer them a different educational experience?

For the record, we did attempt to meet with the principal of our children’s school at the beginning of the school year to discuss the trip, but she never officially responded, leaving it to each of our children’s teachers to work it out. One teacher was very responsive, meeting with us beforehand and preparing a workbook and other assignments for our younger son that would be used in class. Our son even had a sealed set of final exams to do while we were away, which we scanned and sent back to the teacher. For our older son, we simply put together a teaching plan based on a math text we purchased plus several other exercises we devised on the fly. We don’t actually know if our son was given a final grade for the year or an incomplete. But we are pretty confident he did learn a thing or two.

University PR: it was a simpler time

Posted on 24 March 2014 by
Track and field athletes, Simon Fraser University, 1998.

Track and field athletes, Simon Fraser University, 1998.

 

We’re changing offices here at University Affairs – nothing major, just moving up a few floors in our current building in downtown Ottawa. But, as part of that, we were all asked to go through our filing cabinets and dispose of everything that wasn’t essential. That’s how I got to browsing through hundreds of old black-and-white photos from Canadian universities, mostly from the 1970s to 1990s.

The photos got me thinking about how things have changed – or haven’t – at universities in general. But, in particular, it made me think about how the role of university public relations has changed. It was in many ways a simpler time back then. Think about it: in the ’70s through to at least the early ’90s there was no social media, no websites and no email. Heck, there was no Internet.

As for the photos, many of these would have been sent to us by mail to accompany a press release. For editors, it wasn’t easy finding decent photos back then, so having a good black and white photo to go with a story certainly increased the odds the story might get published. University public relations offices might have had dozens of these 8 x 10 photos printed and mailed out in envelopes, with the requisite piece of cardboard inserted to prevent them getting damaged. The fancier places might have also sent a colour slide, budget permitting. And, if it was something really important, sometimes you’d get the package within 24 hours by courier!

With that in mind, let’s take a little walk down memory lane. Photo 1, at the top, and Photos 2 and 3, immediately below, are good examples of the type of PR photo I’m talking about. The ones after that all have their own particular charm. I have very few details about the photos: if you happen to recognize them or the people in them, let me know!

One final note: I am taking a three-month travel sabbatical starting next week and so won’t be writing any new blog posts until my return at the beginning of July. See you then.

BC Open University, 1995. Say "ahhh."

BC Open University, 1995. Say “ahhh.”

Graduation ceremony, again at SFU. This photo appeared on the cover of University Affairs, May 1995

Graduation ceremony, again at SFU. This photo appeared on the cover of University Affairs, May 1995

UPEI

All in the family, University of Prince Edward Island, date unknown.

An electronics lab, University of Toronto Scarborough, 1966(?).

An electronics lab, University of Toronto Scarborough, 1966(?).

A research lab, Université Laval, 1989.

A research lab, Université Laval, 1989. A dot matrix printer!

A library card catalogue, Trent University, date unknown. If you're under 25, this may need some explaining.

A library card catalogue, Trent University, date unknown. If you’re under 25, this may need some explaining.

Residence room, University of Alberta, 1974. The rooms haven't changed, but the hairstyles have!

Residence room, University of Alberta, 1974. The rooms haven’t changed, but the hairstyles have!