Mike Mahon: Universities in a changing world and changing Canada

November 15, 2018
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Text on screen : [Mike Mahon, Universities Canada board chair and president of the University of Lethbridge]

Text on screen: [Address delivered at Universities Canada fall membership meeting, October 24, 2018.]

Mike Mahon, chair, Universities Canada and president, University of Lethbridge:

(In Blackfoot: Oki, ni Kso Koo wa wa.) A Blackfoot welcome to say at the start of my address. This is a welcome we use at the University of Lethbridge at all of our activities and events, and all of our governance meetings start with this greeting, which is really translated to say welcome to our friends and relatives. I say this welcome to reflect and respect that we are on traditional lands, as has been spoken to. And yes, my Blackfoot name in English is Morning Star. In Blackfoot it’s Iipisowaahsiiyi. It took me a while to be able to pronounce that and to remember, but it’s now on my business card, so if I forget my name I can always look at my business card.

So thank you all for joining our 2018 fall membership meeting. It’s great to see so many familiar faces, and of course many new ones. I’m especially pleased to welcome friends and partners in higher education. Thank you for joining us today. I have to say I’ve been really looking forward to this. It’s been about a year since I took over as chair of Universities Canada, and this is my first opportunity to speak a little more formally to all of you. The hard part, of course, is deciding where to start. There’s a lot to talk about.

I think people are always inclined to look around the world that they’re living in and say these are interesting times. The persistence of change more or less, however, guarantees that change is 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 certainly 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 are actively pursuing. And, however, there are other changes 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 impact of climate change could displace more than 140 million people by 2050, adding to the millions of course already displaced and others fleeing abject poverty.

In reaction to these massive human migrations, we are seeing countries close their borders. The politics of division are all around us. As Canadians, we may have a tendency to think that we’re protected from them. But we have our divides too, and, in some cases, they are getting wider. With everything that’s at stake, it would be easy to be either dismayed or even fearful. That’s where Canada’s universities can make a difference: by creating opportunities for people to listen to each other, to learn from each other, and work together to make sense of the changes that are all around us.

This year’s trans-Atlantic dialogue on higher education that took place in Florence – unfortunately, I had to have a new hip, so I wasn’t able to join folks in Florence – but seven Universities Canada members did attend those meetings, and what was highlighted was the extent to which and the role that universities play 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 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, get 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 and in all areas of focus and expertise. And we also 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 actually is just down the highway. Montreal has ranked consistently in the QS list of top ten best cities for students worldwide, but last year it landed the number one spot. This recognition is due in part to how the city’s many universities and colleges, both Anglophone and francophone, integrate with the community. However, it doesn’t just happen in Montreal, as we know; it happens all over this country in communities small and large.

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 the federal research funding after the Naylor Report came out in 2017. We believe that our advocacy had a direct impact on Budget 2018, which set up the biggest investment in science and university research funding in Canadian history. Allocating almost $4 billion, including of course multi-year commitments, Budget 2018 sent a clear message that university research really matters. We were especially to see that it included explicit support for women, researchers in their early career stages, 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 will 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 for that is that it also gives us a big megaphone. After all, Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities, and, the last time I checked, it even says that on our website. That doesn’t mean, though, that we speak for our members; it means that we’re here to amplify their voices. It means that we’re here to listen to your voices, whether you’re the president of a university, a researcher making potentially world-altering discoveries, or a student impassioned about the future – and certainly we’ve seen a number of those folks over the last couple of days – 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 those voices, and we will continue to do so.

We also work with our colleagues outside of the country, such as the American Council on Education, the European University Association, the Mexican Rectors’ 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 is certainly true for Canadian students, 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 our 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 (ph), a University of Lethbridge student travelled to South Africa just this past summer, and she described the experience as life changing. Maya joined us yesterday at Homecoming 2000 event with our parliamentarians. However, what is concerning is that only 11 percent of Canada’s undergraduates have a study abroad experience, and most of them choose traditional English- and French-speaking opportunities. Other countries are ramping up study abroad initiatives. Some might say they’re eating our lunch in this area. That wasn’t in my notes. We must equip our students to compete on the world stage. That’s why we’re working with the Community Foundations of Canada, the Rideau Hall Foundation on the Queen Elizabeth Scholars Program. Since the prog—program’s launch in 2014, the QES Program has supported nearly 1200 Canadian students in having learning experiences in 50 countries. And we heard a wonderful description of an experience by one of our students just this morning who was funded by the QES Program.

Last fall, in a groundbreaking report, the Study Group on Global Education issued a warning and a 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 percent of students studying abroad in the next ten 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 trans-Atlantic 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 for certain, 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, health care challenges, and economic changes are just some of the threats faced by the communities that we serve. It is critical for universities and communities to collaborate in solving these problems and preparing our 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 absolutely needed. Just under 11 percent of Indigenous people in Canada have university degrees, compared to more than a quarter of the rest of the population. That is significant because Indigenous people with degrees earn up to 60 percent 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 2013, there’s been a 55 percent 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 on – with Indigenous communities to teach Indigenous languages. And, interestingly, 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 to provide support. And 78 percent of Canadian universities are actively promoting inter-cultural engagement with both our students and our staff through activities such as talking circles and reconciliation training. But there is still an urgent, urgent need for expanded financial support for our Indigenous students to create the kind of equality that is needed to support their potential, and we continue to advocate for that, and I know our Day on the Hill yesterday we talked a lot about this.

When it comes to equipping all students for the future, experiential learning is key. And we heard some great testimonials this morning to in—experiential learning, and I’ve once again said to myself why do I, as a university president, speak to anybody. Why don’t I have our students speak to the world? They’re the most convincing folks we have. Work-integrated learning helps hone students’ creativity, problem solving, adaptability, and communications skills. It also helps to develop vital career – career-building networks. And certainly again we heard the opportunity that co-op programs provides from a network perspective. We’ve joined with the Business-Higher Education Roundtable in calling for all Canadian higher education students to have access to work-integrated learning.

But at the same time, 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 ten years that the skills required to do them will undergo major shifts. More people will need access to up-skilling. Universities are certainly innovating in continuing education to meet those evolving needs, and must continue to do so. 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. And we can think of many, many initiatives that – that can be supported by these kind of aspirations.

All of these changes are taking shape with 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 education, building on the 2015 Principles on Indigenous Education. And this morning at our – at our business meeting, that same community reaffirmed their commitment to these principles.

Our inclusive excellence commitment comes with a five-year action plan. This week we’re advancing that work by bringing together women university presidents and parliamentarians to share experiences and ideas about the particular challenges of leadership in a gendered context. We’re also launching a new online tool for sharing member EDI 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 – I think a bold step for this organization.

Part of the skill shift also involves a broadening of knowledge beyond traditional silos. Trans-disciplinary expertise will open up new avenues of discovery and innovation. There are examples of this everywhere. We’re seeing it happen on my own campus at the University of Lethbridge. We’ve combined our leadership in neuroscience with our expertise in early childhood education in a Master’s program that gives graduates the ability to bring advanced understanding about how the brain works to the teaching of young children.

Our future Canada will unquestionably be different than the one we live in today. The changes we’re already experiencing are dizzying. And when you get a lol—little older, being dizzy is not a good thing. And people are increasingly looking for something they can hold onto, that they can believe in. The great news is Canadians still believe in us, in universities. A recent study by Abacus Research found that 77 percent of Canadians surveyed think that universities do valuable research, and 83 percent said university education has a long history of proving its value to the world. We will continue to work hard to be worthy of this confidence. We will hold fast to our fundamental mission of advancing the wellbeing of society through education, research, innovation, and dialogue and diversity.

In June our board adopted a new roadmap, an outline of our priorities for the next five years. We presented this new schema to our membership this morning and got some wonderful feedback that will help to evolve the schema. It highlights the priorities 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 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 build on a track record of success. Canada’s universities have given the world medical discoveries that save lives, technological advances that help build business, and social innovations that make communities stronger. Our universities are home to outstanding teachers and researchers, including of course our newest Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Strickland of the University of Waterloo, one of just three women in history to win the Nobel in physics. We have the right people, and we have an unwavering commitment to do so.

We also know that we’ll realize our best results through collaboration. To our partners in the 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 very much, folks. Merci.

Text on screen: [Universities Canada logo. The voice of Canada’s universities. univcan.ca]

Mike Mahon, Universities Canada board chair and the president of the University of Lethbridge, shared his views on the future of Canadian universities in an address to Universities Canada members on October 25, 2018.

Tagged:  Indigenous education, Research and innovation, Study abroad

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