Universities change with the times

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Fri Oct 29 2010.   Mamdouh Shoukri, President and Vice-Chancellor of York University

We live in a time of unprecedented change characterized by ever-increasing challenges facing higher education.

Evolving cultural and social environments, heightened demands for a post-secondary education, rising costs and expectations surrounding the role of universities, funding uncertainties and reluctance to accept change are some of the many obstacles facing post-secondary institutions. If Canadian universities are going to compete successfully in today’s global knowledge-based society, it is crucial they address these challenges.

At a recent conference in New York, I presented my views on the leading drivers affecting this change to the presidents of some of world’s foremost universities. In my opinion, these drivers are: internationalization, online learning, demographics, challenges to university autonomy and society engagement.

We live in a world where internationalization is not just a concept, but a reality. Societies have become increasingly interdependent; global economies and cultural interactions are the norm. For Canada’s future leaders to contribute effectively to this society, international experience is essential. As such, it is important that universities adopt internationalization as part of their mandate. This can only be achieved with both strong leadership from the top and grassroots involvement from all members of the university community.

Equally important is a broad, international curriculum that brings world perspectives into the classroom, which would offer international content combined with language study, and encourage student mobility with study and/or work terms abroad. Partnerships with foreign institutions so students can earn joint and/or dual degrees should also be explored and developed.

The information technology revolution saw the emergence of the so-called millennial generation. This new generation has access to vast amounts of information, demands more services via the web and expects everything to materialize instantaneously. The traditional model of teaching and the role of the instructor are being transformed, so models of course delivery will have to transform with it.

With the evolution of e-learning comes the need to expand access and share curricula with other institutions nationally and across the globe.

This will present a major learning opportunity, and a more efficient deployment of resources. In order to maximize this potential, a new credit transfer regime will need to be developed.

The growing recognition that a future career requires a post-secondary degree represents another challenge.

The Ontario government has implemented a goal of 70 per cent post-secondary attainment. During a time of budgetary constraint, small classes being taught by faculty who spend 40 per cent of their time teaching and the rest dedicated to research is no longer feasible.

Already, universities throughout North America are resorting to part-time teachers. A team of respected academic experts has offered several alternatives, including creating a new stream of faculty focused on teaching with limited research functions, and undergraduate-only universities. Ultimately, the current system will be difficult to sustain.

Now, more than ever, universities have a moral and social obligation to be directly engaged in social and economic development. This obligation extends beyond the core responsibility of simply educating citizens, and includes facilitating the transfer of knowledge from faculty and students to society.

But there are numerous issues to note. While universities must develop structures and policies that facilitate effective knowledge transfer, the impetus to create new products and services is the responsibility of the private and public sectors.

Additionally, the focus of the commercialization of the results of university research has been in the science, technology and medical fields, while it should also include deployment of new knowledge in the humanities, social sciences and arts.

Recognizing the last point, a number of universities have been developing “knowledge mobilization” units to facilitate the use of new knowledge by social agencies, government departments, industry and local communities.

Universities have stood the test of time because of their ability to adapt to the needs of society.

If Canada’s students are to become the leading thinkers in our global society, then universities will have to address the challenges, as they have done throughout the centuries.

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