Here is an excellent read by Paul Wells on a topic crucial to Canada’s future. The last several years have seen an increasing focus, especially by federal governments, on the role of universities in the economy. Federal funding has pushed universities to do more and get better at commercializing ideas. Patents and spin offs have increasingly become the measures of success. Funding, not surprisingly, is funneled more and more to those areas which seem to have the greatest chance for quick commercial impact. Bot this approach is, I believe, distorting our system of higher education.
First, the focus on highly practical or applied research, while valuable, can cut into our support for the basic research that will, over the long term, produce the cumulative knowledge we depend on and which lead to the greatest breakthroughs in our thinking. Second, the focus on the relationship between science and commerce can, if we are not careful, deflect us from the crucial and indeed primary role of universities and colleges – producing the talent and skills we need. Teaching matters. Students matter most. And that requires universities to do better at bringing the best of science and scholarship into the “classroom”. That also means greater recognition of the important role of colleges in developing the skills and talent we need. Third and most important, universities and colleges are not just about, or even primarily about, the economy. Of course they play an important economic role. But they are much more than that. They are also about our commitment to equality of opportunity. And they are about forming the citizens and leaders of the future. They are about helping us address our political, social and environmental challenges. And they are about challenging conventional wisdom and creating an environment for social ingenuity. A liberal arts education is a good thing and research and scholarship in the social sciences and humanities are important to us all.
A Canadian strategy for post-secondary education will need a holistic view of the system and its purposes and that, in turn, will need both orders of government to work together and engage Canadians in a national conversation on direction, priorities and funding. Yes, the federal government must be a player. Indeed it has a long and established role in access to post secondary education, science and research, aboriginal education as well as specific interests and responsibilities for the promotion of citizenship and official languages. The federal government has to get over its constitutional timidity and recognize that respect for provincial jurisdiction in education does not mean federal indifference or silence about the role and future of our universities and colleges.