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Margin Notes

Five challenges facing Canada’s universities

When good isn’t good enough: executive head of the U15 group of research universities has her say.


Suzanne Corbeil, executive director of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities, participated in a panel discussion earlier this month sponsored by Fulbright Canada on the “future challenges facing Canadian universities in the 21st century.” Since she is the senior executive of a group that represents Canada’s big research universities and many of the largest by enrolment, it’s not a bad idea to hear what’s on her mind.

Ms. Corbeil came up with a list of five broad challenges. Others in the higher education sector might have a somewhat different list if forced to choose; nevertheless, the challenges she outlines would be familiar to most.

Challenge 1: funding

During the first part of 2013, said Ms. Corbeil, few days would pass “without a news story crossing my desk with headlines announcing faculty layoffs, program or budget cuts … and the lack of support for science.”  Most of these announcements came on the heels of provincial governments reducing operating funds to institutions or program cuts by the federal government.

She sees here a contradiction: “In an era often described as ‘the knowledge era or knowledge economy,’ governments are tightening budgets on education – on the production of knowledge.” Governments have stated that “research and knowledge drive our economy,” yet in a time where the economy needs to be fueled they announce cuts. The challenge, therefore, is how institutions can adapt “when basic funding is at issue.”

Challenge 2: the graduate

The story of university graduates not finding a job is not really new, she says. “The reality is that students have rarely graduated and immediately found a job let alone the job of their dreams.”

Today, this story line comes with a call for universities to produce graduates that are “job ready” and to change curriculum and enrolment numbers to address this issue head on. However, she says universities are not that nimble: “to make significant changes like altering curriculum or changing program structures take time, and by the time the university makes the change, the pendulum may have swung the other way.” Universities are challenged to adjust their programs for the market demand in a very uncertain and unpredictable environment.

Challenge 3: the skills gap

The federal government has identified a labour shortage and skills gap as priorities, while others such as economist Don Drummond question their existence. The data show lower unemployment rates for highly educated workers, Ms. Corbeil points out, with the lowest rate belonging to those that have above a bachelor’s degree.

And while some call on universities to graduate students who are more “career ready,” others would argue that is not the university’s role. She cites Max Blouw, chair of the Council of Ontario Universities and president of Wilfrid Laurier University, who wrote in the Globe and Mail: “Universities are not and should not be in the business of producing ‘plug and play’ graduates – workers who can fit immediately into a specific job.” Rather, universities must provide the broad intellectual and personal development that enables graduates to thrive in a world that is constantly changing and demands innovation and adaptability.

If the current rhetoric shapes the policies of the future, she says, “the university as we know it today will change – but not necessarily for the better.”

Challenge 4: economics of education

Another current narrative questions the value of a university degree and the return on investment of a degree. The recent CIBC World Markets report suggests students are picking the “wrong” fields, yet is quick to highlight that “completing a postsecondary education is still the best route to a well-paying job.”

Her response: “I am all for keeping our education system accountable and responsive to changing times, but I am also very concerned with a society that begins to equate education simply to a rate of monetary return. Is the value of an education not far beyond the dollars one can earn?”

Challenge 5: expectations and the role of the university

There is much discussion of the need for differentiation among higher education institutions, both in Canada and abroad, she says. In Canada, we have a strong reputation for being egalitarian, yet many “would argue that we need to embrace differentiation to ensure that the entire education eco-system is funded for the specific role they play.”

Universities, she continues, will be challenged to define the value proposition that their particular institution offers. Added to this are expectations from government on the role universities play in commercialization. “We all know and understand that universities are a key player in the innovation chain, but there seems to be some confusion as to what that role is. Recent funding programs are often designed to have universities trying to meet the expectations in an area they are ill equipped to handle.”

Governments have begun to recognize the economic impact of attracting students from abroad. “Canadian universities can position themselves to be an attractive destination for international students … but this requires a combination of funding and well-run institutions who can maintain the reputation required to attract these students.”

Bonus challenge: global competition

While all of these issue are playing out domestically, they are compounded by a “globally competitive environment,” says Ms. Corbeil, and that may be the greatest challenge.

For Canadian universities to meet the challenge, “we need to understand the changing global landscape,” she says, citing the rapid rise of institutions in places such as Brazil and China, and the “reawakening” of German universities. “In Canada we have made real progress over the past 15 years. Most of Canada’s research-intensive universities are reasonably strong and there is quite a concentration of firepower in a host of fields. And, funding programs have been added to reinforce the research enterprise. It’s all good, it’s just that good isn’t good enough at this point in global history and global competition.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. JC / September 21, 2013 at 07:17

    Canadian universities need to stop hiring on isms (friendism, spouseism etc). They need to be objective in hiring practices and make sure the staff the system with Ph.Ds that are equipped with both the technical and theoretical skills. The end product will be well-rounded graduates.

    • RB / December 1, 2013 at 14:24

      Canadian universities are hiring?

  2. Onuwa Victoria Ogbolu / October 11, 2016 at 21:32

    Thanks Leo,

    I enjoyed this article, it is highly informative in the work that I am doing as a Phd student.

    I have also cited you and Ms. Corbeil in my paper on Higher education institution in the 21st century.

    I appreciate it.


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