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Universities must innovate with a commitment to access, forum hears

Leaders from multiple sectors discussed universities of the future at Univation event in Ottawa.

By ANQI SHEN | FEB 12 2018

How can Canada’s universities prepare students for the future of work in an equitable way? That was one of the key questions addressed at Univation, a national forum where more than 100 academic, business, civil society and student leaders convened in early February. Hosted by Universities Canada and the Rideau Hall Foundation in Ottawa, the event explored inclusive approaches to teaching and learning, student access and success, experiential learning and entrepreneurship.

“Existing jobs are changing and entirely new occupations are emerging,” said University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon. She added that the Business/Higher Education Roundtable set a goal, in 2016, of making available at least one work-integrated learning experience to all postsecondary students in Canada. As universities look to scale up such initiatives, they must equally address “systemic barriers” to university education faced by “students from low-income families, Indigenous students, differently abled students and students from minority groups,” said Wilfrid Laurier University president Deborah MacLatchy.

Keynote speaker Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president of knowledge enterprise development at Arizona State University, discussed ASU’s strengths in welcoming students from diverse backgrounds, and fostering a culture of entrepreneurialism on campus. He said he hoped universities would “go off-road and try things that are very different,” concerned that many struggling public universities in the U.S. are choosing to fall back on a private university model with narrower rates of admission. “Yes, there is a role for such universities, but how can we let go of our public mission of advancing everyone?” he said.

Sethuraman Panchanathan, from Arizona State University, was the keynote speaker at Univation. Photo by Mike Pinder/Universities Canada.

In recent years, Dr. Panchanathan noted, while ASU increased online enrolment and admissions of students from underrepresented groups, it has also ranked among the most innovative and fastest-growing research universities in the U.S. “The common mantra would be, if you accept all these students, you must be no good. In other words, if you have access as a mission you cannot be excellent,” he said. “We have defied that assumption.”

He also stoked the importance of large scale rather than “incremental” innovation at public universities, engaging students in problem-solving across multiple disciplines and faculties. “If we want our students of the university to be innovative, entrepreneurial, globally minded, creative and to have a sense of social responsibility – how can you inculcate those values without the university itself exemplifying those qualities?”

Interdisciplinary collaboration came up often in discussions of how arts, science and social science students –in both undergraduate and graduate programs – can be engaged in business education and entrepreneurship. Several Canadian universities have academic programs or accelerators with a focus on social innovation, and some offer entrepreneurship certificates open to students of all disciplines.

Students and recent graduates invited to the forum had much to say about how universities can innovate and improve access. “It’s not just about accommodation,” said Maayan Ziv, accessibility advocate, founder and CEO of AccessNow, a mobile app that aims to map the accessibility status of locations around the world. “The goal is not ‘let’s isolate the one person who needs help and give them an external thing that makes them like everyone else.’” Some of the “invisible” barriers Ms. Ziv has faced in her university studies have included closed doors, inaccessible classrooms, poorly designed learning technology and rigid student assessments. “Trust people with lived experiences to be experts in how to come up with the solution,” she said.

Live-streamed sessions of Univation can be viewed here.

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