Universities in a changing world and changing Canada

October 25, 2018
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Mike Mahon speaks to Universities Canada members.


Presentation by Mike Mahon, Universities Canada board chair, president and vice-chancellor, University of Lethbridge


Oki, ni Kso Koo wa wa. A Blackfoot welcome we say at the start of each University of Lethbridge ceremony that I say today as a means of showing respect for our being on the traditional lands of the Algonquin people.

Good afternoon.

Thank you all for joining us at our twenty-eighteen Fall Membership Meeting. It’s great to see so many familiar faces — and many new ones, too. I’m especially pleased to welcome our friends and partners of higher education with us today.

I’ve really been looking forward to this. It’s been a year since I became Chair of Universities Canada, and this is my first opportunity to speak more formally to many of you in that role.

The hard part is deciding where to begin. There’s a lot to talk about.

I think people are always inclined to look around at the world they’re living in and say, “These are interesting times.” The persistence of change more or less guarantees that the times are always interesting.

But what makes it specifically true for us today is the complexity and scope of both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us — as individuals, as a country, and as a global community.

Automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning are transforming just about every industry.

Technological advancement, innovation and productivity — those are the kinds of changes we’re actively pursuing.

And there are others that are thrust upon us.

We’ve seen the devastation of forest fires and hurricanes. Sea levels are rising, and the ice fields are shrinking at both poles of the Earth.

According to the World Bank, the impacts of climate change could displace more than a hundred and forty million people by twenty-fifty — adding to the millions already forced to migrate because of conflict.

Others are fleeing abject poverty, in search of a better life.

In reaction to these massive human migrations, we’re seeing countries close their borders.

The politics of division are all around us. As Canadians, we may have a tendency to think we’re protected from them. But we have our divides, too, and in some cases, they’re getting wider.

With everything that’s at stake, it would be easy to be dismayed, or even fearful.

That’s where Canada’s universities can make a difference: by creating opportunities for people to listen to each other, learn from each other and work together to make sense of the changes around us.

This year’s Transatlantic Dialogue on Higher Education in Florence, attended by seven Universities Canada members, highlighted the role of universities as a source of hope. Participants discussed the need for today’s universities to be inclusive, socially engaged and trusted community partners.

These values enable us to contribute to positive cultural change and open, democratic societies.

Universities have always been places where difficult but important conversations can be held — That’s one of the reasons why university autonomy is so critical. As independent institutions, universities support healthy democracies by ensuring important issues don’t disappear — and that everyone, not just the majority, gets their say.

At Universities Canada, we provide what we like to think of as a big tent — room for everyone to participate. We represent universities of all sizes, in all areas of focus and expertise. And we work closely with our partners in the college system, business community, government and community organizations.

The relationship between universities and communities is a vital one — maybe more now than ever before.

There are countless examples across the country of the positive impact universities have on, in and with their communities.

A great one is just down the highway.

Montreal has ranked consistently in the QS list of top ten best cities for students worldwide. Last year, it landed the number-one spot. That recognition is due in part to how the city’s many universities and colleges — both Anglophone and Francophone — integrate with the community.

This phenomenon happens in communities, small and large, across Canada.

Universities Canada advocates for the conditions that will allow higher education institutions to make those contributions as fully as possible.

We did this recently by championing federal research funding after the Naylor Report came out in 2017. We believe our advocacy had a direct impact on Budget 2018, which set out the biggest investment in science and university research in Canadian history.

Allocating almost four billion dollars, including multi-year commitments, Budget 2018 sent a clear message that university research matters. We were especially pleased to see it include explicit support for women, researchers in the early stages of their careers, and other groups that often struggle for funding.

As the federal government looks to diversify and maximize trade agreements, fully realizing our talent potential in research, discovery and innovation is crucial to success.

So we’ll continue to work with the federal government to harness the significant capacity of universities to move Canada forward.

I said earlier that we’re committed to having a big tent. Part of the reason is that it also gives us a big megaphone. After all, Universities Canada is the voice of the country’s universities: it says so right on our website.

That doesn’t mean we speak for our members. It means we’re here to amplify their voices. Your voices. Whether you’re the president of a university, a researcher making potentially world-altering discoveries or a student impassioned about the future.

We’re committed to listening to and amplifying voices that have historically had a hard time being heard: those of women, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and others.

We’ve been listening to all those voices. And we’ll continue to.

We also work with colleagues outside the country, such as the American Council on Education,  the European University Association, the Mexican Rector’s Association and the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education.

That’s because we recognize that our community is a global community. It’s true for us at Universities Canada. It’s true for higher education institutions across the country. And it’s true for Canadian students as well — which is why we need more of them to be forging ties and having educational experiences beyond our borders.

Research has shown that study abroad is highly beneficial for all students — and especially for less-advantaged students such as Indigenous learners, first-generation university students and those with disabilities.

For example, Maya Many Grey Horses, a University of Lethbridge student, travelled to South Africa this past summer and describes her experience as life-changing. Maya joined us yesterday at the Homecoming 2018 event for parliamentarians.

What’s concerning however, is that only 11 per cent of Canada’s undergraduates have a study-abroad experience. And most of them choose traditional English- or French-speaking countries.

Other countries are ramping up study-abroad initiatives. We must equip our students to compete on the world stage.

That’s why we’re working with Community Foundations of Canada and the Rideau Hall Foundation on the Queen Elizabeth Scholars program. Since the program’s launch in 2014, the QES program has supported nearly 1,200 Canadian students in having learning experiences in 50 countries.

Last fall, in a ground-breaking report, the Study Group on Global Education issued a warning and call to action. Business and civil society leaders said Canada is not preparing its young people to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Ultimately, we’d like to see at least 25 per cent of students studying abroad in the next 10 years. And we want to see more of them choosing to go to places like Asia, Latin America and Africa.

I mentioned earlier that at this year’s Transatlantic Dialogue, a key theme was the need for universities to be inclusive, socially engaged and trusted community partners. That was already something on our radar, and is the reason we’ve launched, with the support of the McConnell Foundation, a pan-Canadian initiative to map, measure and increase the social impact of universities in their communities.

Climate change, income inequality, healthcare challenges and economic changes are just some of the threats faced by the communities we serve. It is critical for universities and communities to collaborate in solving these problems and preparing students for the future.

I suppose I should pause on that word for a moment: community. It can become a bit of an abstraction.

We talk sometimes as though there is a “thing” called “the community” when in reality there are only communities — plural, multiple and specific, each with their distinct needs.

Among those are Indigenous communities.

I’m proud to say that Universities Canada continues to take action on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And more action is needed. Just under 11 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada have university degrees, compared to more than a quarter of the rest of the population. That’s significant, because Indigenous people with degrees earn up to 60 per cent more than those without. And importantly, education – which our Blackfoot Community in Alberta call the new Buffalo – presents a pathway for community development in our indigenous communities.

So we’re actively working to advance reconciliation through education. Since twenty-thirteen, there’s been a 55 per cent increase in the number of university programs with an Indigenous focus or designed specifically for Indigenous students.

More than half of Canada’s universities are now working with Indigenous communities to teach Indigenous languages – and a growing number provide non-language courses where the language of instruction is Indigenous. Indigenous mentorship programs are being expanded, with Elders present on many campuses to provide advice and support. And seventy-eight percent of Canadian universities are actively promoting intercultural engagement among students and staff through activities such as talking circles and reconciliation training.

But there is still an urgent need for expanded financial support to give Indigenous students an equal opportunity to achieve their potential. We continue to advocate for that.

When it comes to equipping all students for the future, experiential learning is key. And we heard that this morning from our student panel.

Work-integrated learning helps hone students’ creativity, problem-solving, adaptability and communication skills. It also helps develop vital career-building networks, as we heard from the students.

We’ve joined with the Business Higher Education Roundtable in calling for all Canadian higher education students to have access to work-integrated learning.

We must also give working Canadians the opportunity to refresh and evolve their skills.

Studies have suggested that half of Canadian jobs will change enough in the next 10 years that the skills required to do them will undergo a major shift. More people will need access to upskilling. Universities are innovating in continuing education to meet those evolving needs.

For example, Nipissing University’s Nursing as a Second Career program targets mid-career workers from a variety of backgrounds. With an aging population, nurses are in demand and the occupation faces a low automation risk.

All of these changes are taking shape through a lens of equity diversity and inclusion. Addressing Canada’s labour market challenges means ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity to participate and achieve their potential.

Last year, Canada’s universities made an explicit public commitment to advancing equity, diversity and inclusion across the university community, and more broadly in society. Our 96 members signed on to seven Principles on Inclusive Excellence, building on our 2015 Principles on Indigenous Education.

Our Inclusive Excellence commitment comes with a five-year action plan. This week we’re advancing this work by bringing together women university presidents and parliamentarians to share experiences and ideas around the particular challenges of leadership in a gendered context. We’re also launching a new online tool for sharing members EDI success stories and policy statements.

And later this fall we will launch our first university survey to measure and benchmark EDI efforts and success across Canada.

Part of the skills shift also involves a broadening of knowledge beyond traditional silos. Transdisciplinary expertise will open up new avenues of discovery and innovation. There are examples of this everywhere.

We’re seeing it happen right now at my institution, the University of Lethbridge. We’ve combined our leadership in neuroscience with early childhood education in a master’s program that gives graduates the ability to bring advanced understanding of how the brain works to the teaching of young children.

Our future Canada will unquestionably be different from the one we live in now. The changes we’re already experiencing can be dizzying, and people are increasingly looking for something they can hold onto and believe in.

The great news is Canadians still believe in us: in universities. A recent study by Abacus Research found that 77 per cent of Canadians surveyed think universities do valuable research — and 83 per cent said university education has a long history of proving its value to the world.



We will continue to work hard and be worthy of this confidence. We will hold fast to our fundamental mission of advancing the well-being of society through education, research, innovation, dialogue and diversity.

In June, our board adopted a new road map – an outline of our priorities – for the next five years. We presented this new Schema to our membership this morning. It highlights the priority we place on partnerships, on collaboration and on leading change.

We will keep listening to and supporting Indigenous communities. We will keep championing student mobility, and diversity throughout the university community.

Universities Canada will continue to stand up for the autonomy of our universities. And we will keep our big tent open, inviting in as many voices as possible to partner with us and collaborate to make the best Canada we can make.

So, yes. These are interesting times. And we in Canada’s university community are ready, willing and innovating to make the very most of them.

We’re building on a track record of success. Canada’s universities have given the world medical discoveries that save lives, technological advances that help businesses succeed, and social innovations that make communities stronger.

Our universities are home to outstanding teachers and researchers, including our newest Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo – one of just three women in history to win the Nobel for physics.

We have the right people. And we have an unwavering commitment to do more.

We also know that we’ll realize our best results through collaboration.

To our partners – in this room and across Canada – I invite you to join us in ramping up our collaboration during these turbulent times.

Together we can equip a new generation for a new world.

Together we can build a better Canada.

Thank you. Merci.

About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.

Media contact:

Lisa Wallace
Assistant Director, Communications
Universities Canada
[email protected]

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