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Commentary - September 15, 2015

This op-ed appeared in the Times Colonist, September 11, 2015

By Allan Cahoon, president and vice-chancellor of Royal Roads University

The postsecondary system is challenged. Challenged, as are other sectors, on many fronts: having to do more with less, challenged with the quest for efficiencies and with the complex issues facing society.

Another challenge we face is changing a longstanding perception — that a university education is elitist, that it’s a finishing school full of secret handshakes and robes that operate under the traditions of the past. That it has lost touch with the reality of today.

That old story is simply not true.

After eight years as president of Royal Roads, I find myself the longest-serving president among B.C.’s six research universities, and while it’s not perfect, I have personally witnessed the system change and adapt for our times.

Education is the great social equalizer and an investment not only in the individual, but in society as well. Studies show education provides greater mobility, increases pay over a lifetime, improves health and promotes greater social engagement and a positive impact on self-worth.

Students, especially those who might be the first in their family to attend post-secondary institutions, know this. We see this understanding increasingly reflected in the makeup of today’s student body.

Wander any campus this fall and you will find a large and emerging non-traditional cohort of students that includes adult “lifelong” learners, mid-career professionals, international students, indigenous students and, increasingly, online (blended learning) students.

These learners are far more informed and savvy. They come with their own agendas and expectations, different from traditional university learners. They are looking for relevant, focused learning opportunities, reflecting their own personal and professional expectations. They aren’t simply empty vessels that need filling up, as the traditional student stereotype dictates.

Today’s students are active partners in their education. Rather than a “sage on the stage,” they are looking for and receiving educational guides, content curators, coaches and practitioners they can work with and co-learn from.

Increasingly, students view a postsecondary education less as a rite of passage and more as a way to help them become more effective, personally and professionally, in their career choices.

Post-secondary institutions are responding by creating programs and content that align the skills students need for jobs that are in demand now and forecasted to be in the coming years, as outlined in the province’s B.C. Skills for Jobs Blueprint.

Universities are also incorporating service learning and work-integrated learning with live clients to bring real-life application of a student’s education to the workplace.

And there are other adaptations on the horizon: more professional certifications, licensing programs, degree specializations and customized, shorter and focused offerings, such as micro-credentialed programs that are responsive to sector and student demand. When put together with others, they build to a non-traditional credential recognized by the university and valued by industry.

Students, especially mid-career professionals, also have busy lives and want an education that more easily fits within their schedules. Blended programs — education that combines intensive face-to-face class experience with online classes, the kind Royal Roads pioneered in Canada and continues to evolve — are one way students can continue working while receiving an education.

“Flipped” classrooms, where lectures are recorded and viewed online in advance of going to class, where extensive discussions and activities take place, are another adaptation.

But critics will say the system is not changing fast enough. I would agree — that is an ongoing challenge. Some are even reluctant to change. But we only need to look back at how far we’ve come to know we are responding well to the challenges, with an eye on long-term and positive gains for students.

Gone are the hallowed halls and ivy — they are an ancient fable. The reality is that most universities, even those with actual castles, are adapting to the demands of today’s postsecondary student and societal needs. We just need to do a better job of telling that story.


Commentary - September 7, 2015

This op-ed was published in The Globe and Mail September 7, 2015

By Alan Wildeman, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Windsor

Who would have thought it would come to this.  Academics around the world are having to explain why there is value in studying history, English, philosophy, psychology, creative arts and the other subjects that collectively make up what we loosely refer to as the liberal arts, or the humanities and social sciences.  It is the equivalent of masons having to justify mortar and plumbers having to justify pipes.

Yes, we all agree that the liberal arts are in the proverbial crosshairs.  The exhilaration of the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries has been replaced by the nervousness of what appears to be an Age of Justification in the 21st century.

Modern society’s love of innovative gadgets and apps, pronouncements that youth can now be rigorously self-taught on the internet and possibly become high-profile entrepreneurs to boot, and social media outpourings that give falsehoods as much airplay as truths, have created a modern cocktail of rhetoric for critics who are convinced that a liberal arts degree is a worthless investment.

The Age of Enlightenment, sometimes referred to as the Age of Reason, was about the growth of literacy, and the expanding awareness of diversity and knowledge in cultural, literary and scientific thought.  The Age of Justification, on the other hand, appears to have as its worrisome centrepiece the belief that the value of something exists only when viewed through a prescribed lens at the current moment.  We all agree that there should be good rationales for public expenditures.  But there are problems if, in trying to justify something, we fail to take into account all of the relevant information.

First, while it is disappointing for the sceptics to hear, a liberal arts degree is a great economic investment.  This year the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa published an analysis of the annual earnings over 13 years of students who graduated in 1998.  The data showed that earnings of social sciences graduates doubled over 13 years to $80,000, which was the same average earning of math and science grads.

The data showed that a far more worrisome difference was based on gender, with men out-earning women by 15-20% across all disciplines.  In fact, over the 13 year period the average annual earnings of a man with a humanities degree reached just over $80K/yr, compared to only $75K/yr on average for a woman with an engineering or computer science degree.  Such striking gender-based differences deserve much more research, the kind of important research that our country’s social scientists and humanists are increasingly engaged in.

Provincial university systems also track graduate performance.  Within Ontario today, two years after graduation employment rates for all university graduates average 94%, and average 92% for those specifically in the humanities.  These employment numbers do not include the many graduates who choose to pursue further education.  Ontario university graduates earn on average $1.1M more over their lifetimes than other postsecondary graduates, and $1.5M more than high school graduates.  University does make financial sense.

Second, as a multicultural country of indigenous peoples and immigrants, playing in the global arena, Canada needs a citizenry that learns and studies human differences, social behaviours, and cultural traditions.  It needs a citizenry that encourages respect for human rights.  It needs a citizenry that encourages artistic creation and appreciation of the arts.  The humanities and social sciences engage in these intersections, and contribute to what makes us human.

At my own institution, the University of Windsor, our Cross-Border Institute is looking at the technological, legal, and public policy issues involved in moving people and goods from one country to another.  Our research and education programs to prevent sexual violence against women are getting at one of the biggest realities any society must confront.  Both of these undertakings address matters critical to the future of our country, and rely heavily upon insights from the social sciences and humanities.

Third, the perceived crisis in the value of liberal arts must be viewed through the lens of globalization.  It is a fact that enterprises ranging from manufacturing to service sector jobs continually migrate to lower cost countries.  This reduces the prices of goods and services, and expands markets, but it also puts people out of work.

The suggestion that the best anodyne for this reality is STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, math) and more graduates in the skilled trades misses the reality that liberal arts have as their foundation the encouragement of communication, writing, and out-of-the-box thinking.  When you now travel to universities across Asia what you find is that liberal arts programs are taking off.

For example, the National University of Singapore and Yale University have partnered to open a liberal arts campus in Singapore.  Across China, Japan, South Korea and other countries, new partnerships that focus on liberal arts are emerging.  Increasingly around the world, the liberal arts are not being looked to as passé, but rather as essential.  There is no question that our world depends upon and needs STEM expertise, but what it really needs is STEAM, with the arts included.  It is similar to our bodies needing not only arteries and veins, but in addition the capillary beds that nourish each and every cell.

We undervalue the liberal arts at our peril. In his 1902 book Human Nature and the Social Order, the sociologist Charles Cooley proposed the concept of the looking glass self.  This concept states that humans acquire their own sense of self through their social interactions and by what others think of them.  Cooley would likely be intrigued, and feel that his concept has been resoundingly verified, by the addiction of peering into cell phone screens.  Humans are indeed social creatures.

A degree in the liberal arts, with its focus on the broad spectrum of human endeavour, has never been needed more.  It is justified based upon data and fact.  It is one of society’s best investments in helping to ensure that our self-reflections are broad, and that in this Age of Justification, we do not forget the importance of enlightenment and reason.


Commentary - August 26, 2015

The following op-ed was published in today’s Montreal Gazette and posted online by the Vancouver Sun, The Province, The Leader Post, Edmonton Journal, Star Phoenix, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star and on

By Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada


Paul Davidson

Young people across Canada will soon be packing up and heading off to university for the fall semester. Those of us a little older may feel a twinge of envy, as we remember our own time on leafy campuses in September. But in fact their experience will be quite unlike ours. More than ever before, these students will be learning by doing.

Today more than 50 percent of undergraduate university students across all fields of study will have a co-op, internship or service learning experience over the course of their studies. And that number is growing.

It’s pretty clear how this benefits students. They’re gaining workplace experience and building a network to help them land that crucial first job. They’re learning to transfer new knowledge and skills to the workplace and preparing to hit the ground running after graduation. But what’s in it for the employer?

Simply put, students are good for the bottom line. And Canada can ill afford to forego what’s good for the bottom line.

Smart employers are drawing on the energy, knowledge and skills of university students to bring fresh thinking to business challenges.  Talented students help open up new markets, find efficiencies on the production line and bring innovative thinking to business operations.

Employers get access to a wealth of new knowledge and skills, while both students and employers get to ‘test drive’ the match. But not nearly enough small- and medium-size businesses take on co-op and internship students. That’s the big disconnect in Canada’s economy. Too often, critics wring their hands at the challenges of an increasingly competitive and complex marketplace, while not building bridges to the ready talent in our universities and colleges.

Students see the value. They’re savvy and want an edge in the job market. The number of university students participating in co-op programs has grown by 25 percent in recent years – there were approximately 53,000 students in university co-op programs in 2007 compared to more than 65,000 in 2013. Fifty-nine universities now offer students more than 1,000 co-op programs. But even at that level, it doesn’t satisfy student demand, because not enough employers participate in co-op programs.

Canada needs the private sector to step up and do more to take advantage of the largely untapped potential of university students – from undergraduates to PhDs – to make businesses stronger and advance our competitive advantage.

Enterprises already seizing the opportunity are reaping the benefits. Four out of five employers who take on co-op and internship students say these hires add value to their company as a source of new talent and as future employees with workplace skills. Two-thirds say these students contribute new ideas to the company and are effective in their work.

The value of co-ops and internships for employers is evident in the hiring process. Research shows that graduates coming out of university co-op programs are hired faster and enjoy a 30-40 percent income premium over graduates with no co-op experience.

The stats are just part of the story. Universities Canada recognizes the power of students sharing their stories in their own words. That’s why we recently launched a new online resource at It’s where a public relations student tells us about brainstorming with senior staff at a marketing firm, and a computer science student says his placement as a software designer will put him ahead of the curve when it comes time to finding a job.  We’re also sharing the perspective of employers. They tell us students bring fresh energy to their teams and the latest knowledge and technical skills to their operations.

These student placements also provide our universities with valuable employer feedback on the performance of their students.

The university community welcomes new initiatives designed to strengthen collaboration with the private sector to ensure Canada’s workforce is ready for the future. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has made enhanced opportunities for co-ops and internships a pre-election priority in its electoral platform, A Canada That Wins. Canada’s Manufacturers’ and Exporters have recently launched a new initiative to support work integrated learning amongst their member firms. And it is encouraging to see that the Canadian Council of Chief Executives has launched a new Business-Higher Education Roundtable as a strategic opportunity to bring together the private sector, university, college and polytechnic leaders to share information and objectives for driving Canada’s future prosperity. This kind of collaboration holds promise.

There is a role for the federal government to play. A recent Universities Canada survey of employers shows that new financial incentives for private sector partners, especially small- and medium-size enterprises would enable them to take on more student co-op and quality internship placements.

There is no reason Canada cannot be a global leader in experiential learning. More business leaders have to see themselves in the equation, connecting the dots to improved productivity and expanded markets. Higher education, the private sector and government must commit to a more meaningful, long-term dialogue and action plan to better connect our changing economy and workplaces with students.

Getting it right will bring both short- and long-term benefits to business, and build the highly productive and innovative future workforce Canada needs to be globally competitive. Those students preparing to get back to class are ready to do their part, in bringing new knowledge, energy and skills to the workplace. The private sector, universities and government need to work together to ensure that those workplace doors are open.

Commentary - August 10, 2015

This op-ed was published in the Moncton Times and Transcript and the Telegraph Journal on August 8, 2015

MountAllison_President_cropBy Robert Campbell, president and vice chancellor of Mount Allison University

Almost 10 million adult Canadians read newspaper content, and many of us head directly to the editorial and opinion pages. Why? It is in our nature to discuss, examine and share information and points of view. It is an essential part of what makes us human.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari maintains that it is not our ability to speak or communicate that differentiates us from other creatures. It is our ability to discuss. We are social animals. And discussing to problem-solve and cooperate is key to our survival.

And yet, we hear increasing skepticism about the value of studies in the humanities and social sciences, the precise fields of study that make us competent and effective when discussing and cooperating and being human. We ignore those studies at our peril.

I recently revisited the revamped Pier 21 in Halifax, which celebrates our character as a country of immigrants.  Multiculturalism has played a consequential role in Canada’s evolution. When Canadians live and discuss and cooperate together, we engage with a range and complexity of distinctive cultures, languages and sensibilities. The humanities and social sciences help us to understand and navigate these intersections. The study of history and literature, or sociology and anthropology, or philosophy and religion – they each add to our collective interpretation and understanding of who we are, the complexities that we confront and the possibilities of what we can achieve together.

These insights and perspectives give us a world view as well. Can we fully understand what is happening in Greece, Syria, China, or in the U.S. today without having a grounding in and understanding of the history, cultures and emotions that comprise these societies?

I am president of a university in Canada’s only officially bilingual province, one that is increasingly embracing our aboriginal heritage and receiving a substantial influx of new Canadians from across the globe. Ours is an increasingly diverse and textured community, and our students need a range of understanding and tools to be successful and useful participants in this complex world. We have produced 10 Rhodes scholars in the last dozen years and they have one thing in common: they all have a strong interdisciplinary background with grounding in social sciences and humanities.

Like many educators and leaders, I fundamentally believe that students in all disciplines need exposure to the insights of the social sciences and humanities. Whether an engineer designing new highways, an urban planner building new communities, or a designer creating social media tools – our graduates need to understand people, what motivates them, how cultures work and how a society and economy can cooperate and prosper.

Employers report time and again that the top skills that they look for in new hires are teamwork, problem-solving, planning, and communications. Employers want our graduates to be prepared and able to work with others, to define and figure out how to approach complex problems, to discuss and debate competing perspectives and ideas, and to collaborate effectively on plans and solutions. These are the precise tools and skills that are developed through programs in humanities and social sciences.

Employment data confirms this reality, as there is a healthy demand for liberal arts graduates. For example, there are almost 40,000 Canadians with a bachelor’s degree in history – 18 percent of whom work in management occupations and another 23 percent who work in business, finance, and administrative positions. And these grads are doing well. Full-time employees with degrees in history earn on average the same as grads with degrees in biological and biomedical sciences – above $65,000 a year.

Canada’s universities are encouraging more exposure to the humanities and social sciences through innovative interdisciplinary programs to equip students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields with the skills that will help them succeed in applying their technical knowledge to complex social problems.

I am a president of a complex organization as well as a professional researcher in postal and communication systems around the world. Whatever success and accomplishment that I might enjoy in these occupations is substantially related to the excellent liberal arts education that I received at Trent University, where I really learned how to think, research and communicate, and to understand social and economic systems, culture and the world.

Where do we find liberal arts grads in today’s labour market? Everywhere. And they can be found especially as leaders across all political, economic and social sectors. A recent U.K. study found showed that the majority of the world’s leaders with higher education have degrees in the social sciences and humanities. Their skills in negotiation, problem-solving and collaboration helped them to be successful.

Humanities and social sciences programs produce graduates who are ready to adapt to, engage in, and help manage our changing world. The challenges that we face as a global community – social, economic, environmental and ethical – are rooted in complex intersections of identity and culture, business and politics. We need leaders in our corporate, technological, political and community realms with the necessary interdisciplinary and humanitarian perspectives and understandings, if Canada is to develop, succeed and prosper in a stable and just way.

A Council of Canadian Academies’ report earlier this year concluded that in order to ensure future innovation and productivity growth, Canada needs a workforce with a balance of both STEM and non-STEM skills, such as those acquired and used in the liberal arts.

It is not a question of developing one group or the other. It is necessary to generate more high quality graduates in both areas.

We must encourage today’s students to learn from and be exposed to the liberal arts in ever greater numbers, if Canada is to develop the array of effective leaders and informed citizens that will make it a successful society in the future.

Media release - June 12, 2015

Brazilian rectors touring Canadian universities over 13-day period

OTTAWA – Universities Canada is pleased to welcome 19 rectors and senior university administrators from Brazil for a 13-day tour of Canadian universities. From June 14-26, participants will meet with Canadian counterparts across the country, with the goal of forging new institutional partnerships for academic exchange and collaborative research.

Led by the Association of Brazilian Rectors of State and Municipal Universities, delegates will visit Montreal, Ottawa, the greater Toronto area, Vancouver and Calgary, and participate in sessions designed to showcase the excellence of Canadian higher education. Highlights will include roundtable discussions on international experiential learning and mobility, and university-industry partnerships.

This mission is the first official return visit to Canada following the Canadian university presidents’ mission to Brazil in April 2012, coordinated by Universities Canada and led by His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada. Canada’s universities look forward to sharing best practices in research, innovation, and experiential learning, and to strengthening Canada’s position as a preferred partner for Brazil in higher education.

To arrange an interview or for more information, please contact:

Helen Murphy
Assistant director, communications
Universities Canada/ Universités Canada
613 563-3961 ext. 238 or cell: 613 608-8749

Nadine Robitaille
Communications officer
Universities Canada/ Universités Canada
phone: 613-563-3961 ext. 306

( Total - 33 )