Universities have changed drastically since the beginning of the 20th century. And more change is needed.
Universities had already evolved from their role as places where sons (not daughters) of the wealthy and noble could acquire some of the traditional culture needed to retain their status in the leadership positions they were destined for. Practical knowledge and skills were for the lower classes.
After the Second World War, attending a university was still quite rare. Less than one per cent of the Canadian population had a university degree. But applied faculties like engineering and medicine were operating. Co-eds, as female students were quaintly called, were now visible on campuses.
Arts was still the largest faculty. It didn’t provide any practical training, nor was it supposed to. Instead, it offered an opportunity for young people to learn and express culture and creativity while enjoying the free and open exchange of ideas. Small numbers made graduates special. Even without further professional training, they could usually find good work.
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Now over 30 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 24 and 65 have a degree, and that number is rising. More than half have at least some education or training beyond high school. A general arts degree no longer makes one special in the job market.
Nor does getting an arts degree offer four years of on-campus freedom, friendship and fun before hitting the world of work. Campuses, especially in arts faculties, are now dominated by a noisy minority who are the antithesis of free speech and the open exchange of differing ideas.
Their loud, dogmatic, extreme views on the environment, gender, race and the Middle East are turning universities into scary places for any student who doesn’t share their views and for faculty and visitors. Calling a woman a girl is seen by some as sufficiently hateful to justify being fired.
The pandemic has demonstrated that education can be provided without campuses. The changing mood on campuses threatens the ongoing existence of universities when they’re needed more than ever.
As the technological revolution sweeps all sectors, we desperately need skills, learnings and competencies at the university level.
Growth is in areas like machine learning and artificial intelligence, not as separate sectors but as basic tools that will be used in all industries and areas as we now use the telephone. Agriculture, cleaner energy, biomedicine and all other fields will need qualified people who can function in computer science, information technology, engineering and related areas.
British Columbia is looking at agri-tech, hydrogen, mass timber products and artificial intelligence as sectors on which to base ongoing employment growth and prosperity. All of these require university education. We don’t have enough suitable people to fill the openings that already exist.
There are three things universities can do to ensure they play their essential role in the advancement of our society:
Make our campuses safe and open spaces
A bright young friend studying biomedicine is afraid to socialize on campus for fear that he will end up being ‘cancelled’ by the noisy but apparently dominant vocal minority if he says a wrong word.
He and others would feel safer if education went completely virtual.
Administrations must use legal and other means to restore comfort and open expression on their campuses.
Provide enough of the learning our society needs and will provide good careers
The three Rs (reading, writing and ’rithmatic) of the industrial revolution have become the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) of today. Universities offer the basic training in these areas. To ensure their students move smoothly into careers, tools like work terms, co-op programs, problem-based learning and work-integrated learning will produce job-ready graduates.
These tools will only work if universities can close the gap between academia and industry. Universities must work with potential employers not only to sell their students but also to help design programs and courses that provide the abilities that potential employers need.
Adapt and use new technologies before they are used against them
When COVID-19 demanded it, universities have demonstrated they can move to and apply cutting-edge technology in delivering services. They must not fall into the trap of thinking the end of the pandemic means all learning will move back to in-class lecturing – what has been called full-frontal instruction.
The digital natives who are today’s students want more options in how, where and when they learn. If universities don’t offer it, they will go elsewhere.
Our universities have been changing and not always for the better. May they continue to change to ensure they remain vital components of our society.
Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. For interview requests, click here.
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