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7 university leaders contemplate the future of higher education in Canada

They affirm that universities have a vital role to play in helping society navigate through the deepest challenges of our time, from climate change to the dangers of misinformation and rising intolerance.

By MOIRA MACDONALD | SEP 25 2019

How will Canadian universities change over the next 20 years? What challenges will they face and what opportunities lie ahead? In honour of University Affairs’ 60th anniversary, we put questions like these to seven people representing different regions and facets of the university enterprise from coast to coast. They spoke about their dreams for universities that better represent the world scholars strive to understand, about their concerns around finances, how the students they serve inspire and teach them, and about the opportunities – and risks – posed by the onslaught of rapid technological change. Most of all, they affirmed that universities have a vital role to play in helping society navigate through the deepest challenges of our time, from climate change to the dangers of misinformation and rising intolerance.

Glen Jones, dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and professor of higher education, University of Toronto

There has always been a tension between the legitimacy of government steering higher education and the autonomy of the university, but I see the balance shifting in the direction of the former, through such things as the politicization of government appointments to university boards, government-mandated free speech policies and threats of interference in collective bargaining. I worry that this is becoming more partisan and ideological, with huge implications for universities deciding where they will go and how they will get there.

I’m also concerned that academic work is becoming more bifurcated between independent, well-paid tenure-stream positions and contract, sessional faculty with precarious appointments. This raises questions for academic governance, student experience and our notion of academic community when a growing number of those in key undergraduate teaching roles don’t feel a part of the institution where they are employed.

There is tremendous opportunity for Canadian universities to play a significant role in our country’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This multi-generational project will require new partnerships between universities and self-governing Indigenous institutions of higher education – how can we help each other? – new governance arrangements, and new mechanisms for Indigenous voices and leadership within our universities. How might we create a Canadian university that is in the spirit of reconciliation? Yukon College has already been engaged with this as it works through its transition from college to university.

I’m inspired by the increasing global dimension of education, with possibilities for new international relationships and partnerships, new forms of student and faculty mobility, and new opportunities to work in collaboration with scholars from around the world. Ideally, this will lead to much greater relationships with the global south. Universities will do a better job of holding up a mirror to society because that mirror will be more broadly informed. We are always trying to fulfil the huge, wonderful potential of the university and I think this growing global dimension of education will bring us closer to that.

Ken Steele, higher education strategist and president, Eduvation Inc.

I see the development of increasingly personalized and customized programs, modes of delivery and student services as universities continue to diversify the students they serve. More and more, curricula will become modularized and interdisciplinary, and learning will be credentialled through competency-based models rather than models based on credit hours. Experiential learning will be fundamentally integrated, allowing students to weave together classroom study, community-based research, volunteerism and workplace experiences.

Faced with public funding constraints, many universities will create alternative revenue streams through programs to meet the workforce training needs of employers and working professionals. New technologies offer the potential for institutions to share their resources, faculty, programs and credentials, regardless of geography, but this is not yet encouraged by our current funding and budget models, which promote competition over collaboration.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence will increasingly outperform humans at narrow technical and specialized tasks over the next few decades. The human advantage will lie in interpersonal and social skills, creative and strategic thinking, the ability to apply a broad interdisciplinary context, ethical and cross-cultural competencies and an entrepreneurial mindset – the very skills instilled by humanities and interdisciplinary programs. The challenge is to preserve our capacity to deliver those subjects, despite the current obsession with professional and career-oriented programs.

That raises the need to consider how to repackage traditional disciplines in ways that will attract careerist students and others. The tech giants are already developing interactive and responsive “intelligent” textbooks, AI tutors and online delivery platforms with associated micro-credentials that appeal to non-traditional students. The risk is that public education institutions could find themselves sidelined by these alternatives.

There are some exciting developments ahead, if we’re willing to adapt. I’m intrigued by the potential for self-paced, gamified and competency-based educational approaches to shift student motivations from grades and credits to actual learning again. Cultivating lifelong learning might lead universities to offer their alumni Netflix-style subscriptions that would provide unlimited access to classes, labs and libraries. But if we are too wedded to the traditions of our disciplines, there are disruptive pressures everywhere we look that could cause them to fade away.

Lyne Sauvageau, former vice-president, academic and research, at the Université du Québec network and current president of Acfas

I believe that universities are more relevant than ever. There is an extremely high need for new knowledge in today’s world, as well as for a better understanding of phenomena such as climate change, adaptation to new technologies, democracy and the analysis of large databases. We are facing various issues to which the solutions are not apparent at the moment and on which our current knowledge is not sufficient.

Universities face a major challenge in their capacity to train people who will have the flexibility to adapt and renew their own thinking and knowledge on their own. We need to reflect on how we train students. Research training starting at the undergraduate level seems like an avenue worth exploring. It should be much more thoroughly integrated into the curriculum at all universities.

Another of my concerns is about competition. In Canada, we compete within the country, which is a poor strategy. There are not enough of us, our need for knowledge is too vast and we need to leverage everyone who has the ability to do research. We need to boost our capacity to mobilize researchers around projects and ideas that are widely shared across all fields. We need to encourage more collaboration between the universities. I see the value of a university system in its capacity to pursue a large number of different ideas concurrently.

We can’t forget that in Canada we have a particular responsibility towards Indigenous peoples, that is to say towards bringing forth Indigenous knowledge and giving this knowledge a place in how we design and develop the world. We also have a particular responsibility towards science in the French-speaking world. I think that Canada needs to invest in these two responsibilities.

Graham Gagnon, associate vice-president, research, Dalhousie University

Artificial intelligence and augmented reality are going to connect us with our students, our research partners and our data in ways that we may find difficult to imagine. These new tools, if used properly, can aid in the pursuit of ideas that can address some of the world’s most complex problems.

The potential is vast, but developing clear policies and procedures to address these changes will be fundamental for universities to ensure that their operations are robust and safe for the communities which they serve. Canadian university research is held in high regard because we conduct it with openness, honesty and transparency. The university of the future will need to develop a new understanding of what transparency and openness is in relation to data curation and management, especially in an era of predatory research journals, sham conferences and other questionable practices.

I’m excited to see labs that are embracing the fact that we need to have an inclusive workplace. It seems obvious, but inclusive workplaces won’t happen unless we are intentional about it. When we have a more inclusive group, we end up with more comprehensive questions and experimental designs. It leads to better ways of tackling problems, and conversations are more respectful from inception.

International collaboration represents the greatest opportunity for the future, working on grand challenges such as meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Arctic research and space exploration. The tradition of collaboration that distinguishes Canadian universities means we’re well-positioned to participate in and lead complex international partnerships.

My biggest concern for the future is that universities become complacent in the face of the risks around us. Developing a risk-averse approach in times of uncertainty may seem reasonable in the short term, but it impedes our ultimate mission: to foster respectful environments where inspired students are encouraged to have bold ideas, where researchers tackle problems no one else can, and where difficult conversations are respectfully examined through many different lenses. Complacency should not be an option.

Malinda Smith, professor of political science, University of Alberta

Canadian universities, like broader Canadian society, are undergoing a great social transformation that is fueling some of the anxiety seen more widely around immigration and diversity. This transformation highlights complexities and challenges which are only going to intensify. It also presents opportunities that reach beyond the slogan, “diversity is our strength.” Rather than treating Canada’s burgeoning super-diversity as a problem to be managed, universities should enthusiastically seize the opportunities diversity offers through its potential to generate novel perspectives, enhance critical thinking, and fuel creativity and innovation.

We’re not there yet. The challenges highlighted by diverse perspectives are often framed in a simplified and polarizing debate which juxtaposes principles of free speech and academic freedom against the goals of equity, inclusion and social justice. The debate’s tenor demonstrates that we haven’t thought enough about what diversity and complexity require. Meanwhile, we see an extraordinary disconnect between the diversity of students, the relative homogeneity of their professors and of the administrators making strategic decisions about higher education’s direction and priorities.

There are impacts and opportunities for pedagogy and class design, too, which are not new, but super-diversity and demands for decolonized classrooms add more layers of complexity. Students need more opportunities to exchange ideas from their unique perspectives and experiences. Faculty and teaching assistants will need to develop new skills and orientations to facilitate and manage decolonial approaches to learning. This requires sufficient financial support to be visionary and creative.

I’m excited to watch new generations of students unsettle and transform my own thinking. They’re thinking differently about community, about our ecological futures, about the implications of artificial intelligence for social life. They are multilingual, culturally fluid and they are anxious to find solutions to the 21st century’s unique challenges. This will help them be even more innovative than previous generations. They can speak back to the world because they are part of the world. They are the transformation that we need to see everywhere.

Rummana Khan Hemani, vice-provost and associate vice-president, students and international pro tem, and registrar, Simon Fraser University

I am excited that we are increasingly seeing universities not just as places that prepare students for the “real world” but as places that are part of the real world. At the same time, I worry about complacency. Universities don’t want to be seen as businesses, but we need many of the same tools and infrastructure to succeed. Our students are increasingly diverse, as are our staff and faculty, and the environments in which we operate are continuously evolving. This means pushing ourselves to be more agile, which is normal in the private sector, but not necessarily in higher education.

I believe students will be drawn to universities that are adaptive and they will seek out flexible delivery of courses, micro-credentials, lifelong learning and experiential education. They will expect greater access to student services to support their learning and in ways that are personalized, given the diversifying nature of our students. This will require student services to adapt their capacities. For example, I imagine artificial intelligence will become a standard tool in student advising.

Universities will need to stay relevant and make their value proposition clear. This does not mean delivering only what people want but identifying and providing what students need. This is not without challenges. Many universities are grappling with the challenge of providing the appropriate level of student support services, particularly for mental health. To ensure we do not become overwhelmed by this one aspect, we need to address questions about what our role can and should be. We must continue to address the needs of under-represented populations, too, by strengthening pathways to higher education and ensuring our programs and campus meet their needs.

The reliability and quality of the Canadian university experience means we have an opportunity for an even bigger position in international education by devoting more work towards establishing the Canadian higher education brand. But we also need to ensure the integrity of the process towards greater internationalization so that international students receive a high-quality learning experience, and that there is reciprocal learning between domestic and international students, staff and faculty.

Vianne Timmons, president and vice-chancellor, University of Regina

Even with the inevitable development of new technologies and changing societal demands over the next 20 years, Canadian universities will continue to graduate students who are innovative, resourceful and valued. Our role as bastions of free thought and scientific inquiry will be just as important to advancing society, but we will need to be accessible, inclusive and representative, rather than “elite” institutions. We will need to demonstrate our value by preparing the next generation of leaders for the challenges to come and by addressing pressing societal issues through relevant research.

Universities should not reflect the world we live in but reflect the world we want to live in. We can do that by taking a leadership role in addressing challenges such as climate change, clean and accessible water, misinformation and racism. We also have an opportunity and a demand to do more to develop meaningful equity, diversity and inclusion strategies and to meet the calls to action identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We must ensure graduates are career-ready and we can do it if we are willing to innovate and respond to changing needs. Private-sector companies, international partners and funders are increasingly interested in enhancing experiential learning opportunities. It’s our job to capitalize on this.

I worry about economic sustainability. My institution, like many others, is facing increasing demands on resources to address growing enrolment, changing student demographics, and calls for new or expanded services to address issues such as mental health. How do we address this situation while ensuring postsecondary education remains accessible?

Liberal arts universities produce well-rounded, deep thinkers who are well-suited to identifying and solving problems, communicating solutions and developing policies. I see so much potential in our students and in their future, which is our collective future.

With a file from Pascale Castonguay.

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  1. Nicole / October 3, 2019 at 11:55

    I would also say that more faculty members who identify as a minority or people of colour in order to really diversify the faculty as well as the student body. There are often diversity and inclusion initiatives but the research clearly shows that people are more likely to want to pursue higher ed if they can relate and identify with those they look like, can resonate with etc.

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