This oped was published in The Hill Times on May 1, 2017
By Alan Shepard, member, Universities Canada’s research committee and president, Concordia University
Our globalized, information-driven knowledge society is in many ways disrupting the traditional model of the four-year bachelor’s degree. The rapid evolution of knowledge and skills demands lifelong learning.
As a result, we’re entering a Golden Age of continuing education, one that presents a grand opportunity for universities. And we have a solid foundation upon which to build: currently 400,000 students across Canada are enrolled in university continuing education programs.
The federal government showed vision and imagination when it announced $225-million in budget 2017 to create a new organization that will work with industry to identify skills gaps and address them through continuing education.
The government rightly recognizes that continuing education is central to the postsecondary education process, and essential to meeting society’s and individuals’ needs. But the way universities are currently profiled does not yet reflect this. As long as our current ranking systems remain static, universities will not adapt their behaviour—and continuing education will be left more and more to private sector players.
Taking a more expansive view
Given the pace at which knowledge is evolving, what we know and the skills we use to apply that knowledge need to be continually refreshed.
At the same time, people’s learning journeys are changing. We’re seeing undergraduates in their 30s—people who didn’t simply walk out the door of high school and onto our campuses. We continue to welcome enormous numbers of new Canadians. And throughout careers, people are coming back to university to acquire the enhanced skills and new knowledge that will allow them to grow and adapt professionally.
Meeting both society’s need for skilled, adaptable knowledge workers and the expectations of increasingly diverse learners demands a flexible, student-centred approach to university education—of which continuing education must be an integral part.
“Flexible” doesn’t just mean online options, though of course digital is part of the solution. It also means night classes, weekend classes, compressed courses and flexible timelines. At Concordia, we’ve adopted the mantra of “lifelong learning one day at a time”: the process is continual but the experience can unfold when and as it suits the learner.
Flexibility requires universities to experiment with new models—and to accept the risk that some of those experiments will be less successful than others. The traditional co-op approach is 50 years old now, for example. It’s time for universities to collaborate with industry to create co-op 2.0, as it were.
Government support is key to evolving continuing education. For too long, conventional wisdom has held that part-time students are less expensive to support than full-time students. In reality, part-time students use and depend on many of the same resources as full-time learners, and in a flexible, lifelong learning reality, “part-time” will increasingly mean, “All the time, just not continuously.”
Budget 2017 made important commitments in this direction, including expanding eligibility for Canada Student Grants for part-time students. This change is critical, considering how many lifelong learners need to work around a family or work schedule. More funding is also being offered to students who support families, and students returning to continue their education. These are all positive steps.
The university belongs to everyone
Just as universities are forging partnerships with industry to contribute to innovation and entrepreneurship, lifelong learning also demands that the walls between the university and the community come down.
At Concordia, we’re talking actively to our community about what it needs from us. We’ve launched courses with local partners—for example, a flexible, online and hands-on urban gardening offering with Montreal’s CityFarm. We’re developing proposals for innovative new programs that range from a gamified offering on Big Data to an online engagement tool that will help international students build networks of contacts here in Montreal before they come, while they’re still living in their home countries. All of this draws on a legacy of continuing education that, for us, goes back to Sir George Williams in 1926.
We’re at a crossroads, an unprecedented moment in human history. The world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time, populations and industries are booming while digital connections and communications bring us closer together. It’s a world of great opportunity, and some uncertainty.
With the right approach, with the support of government and industry and a much-needed update to the university performance scoring system, we can help ensure learners of any age, background and experience have the knowledge and skills they need not only to succeed in this new world, but to make that world flourish.
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