Simple Answers for a Complex Question

Background to a Complex Presentation 

Astana – Capital of Kazakhstan

I was asked recently to speak at the Eurasia Higher Education Leaders Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan.  The task I was given was to join three higher education thought leaders and address the provocative title: “What are the Public Responsibilities of Universities”.  I was joined on the conference panel by Cambridge University Professor Dr. David Bridges and the President of Kazakh National Technical University (often referred to as the MIT / CalTech of Kazakhstan), Dr. Zhexenbek M. Adilov.  The moderator for our session was Dr. Robert Zemsky, one of the world’s great higher education provocateurs; an individual who has been contributing to the dialogue for nearly half a century.  Bob happens to be one of my former professors and I will mention that his latest book (A Checklist for Change) is to be released August 1 of 2013.

The difficulty with discussing a topic like the responsibilities of universities is that the real answer to this question is of course, it depends on the context of the institution and the environment in which that institution operates.

In the panel discussion, Dr. Bridges found himself strongly positioned on the side of protector of liberal arts and the humanities. and quite rightly so. Clearly Cambridge has the historical pedigree to maintain its reputation and competitive position for some time.  On the other end of the spectrum was Dr. Adilov who leads the preeminent engineering and technical university in his Country.  In his view, the world needs students to learn less of Virgil and Chaucer and more of the practical contributions of Nikola Telsa and Alan Turing.

This was one of the more interesting, yet difficult discussions I have had regarding higher education.  To summarize a complex question into simple terms and with little time to provide context was for me at least… quite challenging.  I would also admit that the dialogue following our brief opening comments (see below) was interesting, insightful and exciting while also at times somewhat disheartening and discouraging in terms of the narrow position advanced by some well-meaning, but entrenched contributors.

In retrospect, I would suggest that the reason higher education has sustained itself through the ages is in part because of the diversity of our higher education institutions.  Quite frankly, the rightful answer to the question of the public responsibility of universities is captured in the waffling response of “all of the above”.  In fact, the elements that create the response “it all depends” and “all of the above” are partly the reason that of the sixty-six institutions that have been in continuous operation since 1530, some sixty-two are universities.

However, conferences are not a useful place to waffle, and therefore, I did take a stand in terms of what an institution like Algonquin College brings to the market today and why the world needs more Algonquin Colleges.  Never has our institution been so relevant and so important to the economic and social prosperity of the communities we serve.  My opening remarks at the Forum; a gathering of higher education leaders from nearly 30 countries around the world are below.

Eurasia Higher Education Leaders Forum -2013 Astana Kazakhstan

– The Public Responsibilities of Universities –

Robert Zemsky – University of Pennsylvania

Good Morning. Let me first say that it is a pleasure to be sharing this stage with Dr. Adilov and Dr. Bridges – both representing very impressive, important and historic universities.  I am particularly pleased be here with my former professor Dr. Zemsky – one of the world’s great thought-leaders in higher education.

I also want to say that it is a pleasure to return to Kazakhstan; a country that in many ways is similar to Canada.  In terms of geography, it too is one of the largest countries in the world and also like Canada, it resides next door to an impressive and powerful neighbour.  Actually, Kazakhstan is a neighbour to more than one powerful country yet in my view, our respective proximity to the US, China and Russia is a gift to both Canada and Kazakhstan as it keeps us humble and forces us to continuously seek ways to improve and compete on the world stage.

One of those ways both of our countries are seeking improvement is to ask how our universities should operate within the rapidly changing environment of higher education. With that short introduction, I must say that it is quite timely that I find myself back at Nazarbayev University as part of this panel examining the question: “What are the Public Responsibilities of Universities”.


Atrium – Nazarbayev University

In our short time together this morning, I will provide two environmental landmines that most universities must navigate and subsequently two recommendations for your consideration. I am greatly influenced by the role I see Algonquin College playing not only in Canada but literally around the world.  As one of Canada’s leading polytechnic institutions, our expertise has been sought by countries including China, India, Montenegro  Kuwait and Saudi Arabia among others.  We set ourselves apart by the expertise and market knowledge of our faculty and the service orientation of our staff.  I would welcome everyone here to visit us in Ottawa should you ever have the opportunity to come to Canada.

The Responsibilities of Universities – A Pragmatists View

Let me first share that although my Board expects me to prepare our institution for the future, I am also a pragmatist; a pragmatist in that our College must err on the side of a future where our goals and initiatives are practical and measurable.  Most importantly, our purpose and our strategic outcomes must have a tangible impact on the prosperity of our society.

Certainly with the successes that universities have enjoyed through the years, it would seem reasonable that a university’s future responsibilities might best be reflected in those practices reflected in the status quo.  However, universities exist within a global economy that has become ultracompetitive and within a domestic environment that is often resource constrained.  Therefore, I am acutely aware of the deception caused by Higher Education’s Paradox.  A paradox whereby the means in which universities have achieved success today are not necessarily the same means that university will enjoy success tomorrow.

It is this sense of pragmatism along with this higher education paradox that has influenced my belief that the responsibilities of universities must continue to change – and if we are not prepared to change, then we must be prepared to ensure that our strategic priorities become more clear, more prioritized and more clearly communicated.

The Reality of our Environment

This morning I will share two broad responsibilities for universities in the 21st Century.  However before doing so, it may be helpful to frame my position around two insidious environmental trends that are the foundation upon which some measure of university change must be constructed.

1.  Increased Rate of Participation.

In virtually every Country around the world, the number of people participating in higher education has risen dramatically in the past 50 years.  I would argue that of all the afflictions facing educational leaders today – enrolment is not one of them.

As an example, in the 1950s in Canada only 5% of the population participated in higher education.  In the 1970s, we saw this participation rate climb to 20%.  Today there are public and political expectations that 70% of the population will go on to earn their diploma.

When we begin to see a 70% participation rate, there is a basic economic reality that the university’s graduate supply and demand curve will shift to the right.  That is, in some countries there appears to be an over-supply of graduates for a shrinking number of middle-class jobs. What makes this situation worse is the fact that in many countries we are seeing highly educated graduates who have earned – or who have learned – few professional skills or attained practical knowledge to make them attractive to hiring employers, at least in the short term.

In Canada, a nation of only 35 million people, we are facing the reality (excuse me… some are facing this reality) that we now have hundreds of thousands of unemployed university graduates who cannot find work.  Just this month, James Mirza-Davies provided a report to our House of Commons that stated the unemployment rate for those aged 16-24 was 20.5%.  Although down from the previous year, it is a shockingly high number.  Yet, while we have this high unemployment rate and many university graduates appear to be having difficulty finding employment (while carrying debt from four years at university), employers are reporting that we will soon have ½ million jobs that will be vacant because these employers cannot find people with the relevant skills to fill the vacancies.  In Canada we sum this up as People without jobs – Jobs without people and this is a reality that we have seen taking place around the world.

And so we must ask, what responsibility does a university have with respect to this situation?

2.  Funding in Decline

At a time when enrolment is rising, there is a fiscal reality that public funding support for higher education is generally in decline.  Certainly we are living with this reality in Ontario where millions of dollars are being cut from college and university budgets across the Province. However, Ontario is not alone in that we have seen this funding reduction trend in many jurisdictions around the world including almost all European Union Countries including England, Spain, Ireland and Italy.  We see cuts in almost every American State, most Canadian Provinces and many other international jurisdictions.

Beyond the obvious challenges that can occur with when reductions in funding are implemented, these funding cuts have created our own version of a higher education Catch 22.  That is, as public funding declines, the response by many universities is to maintain spending practices by committing to further enrolment growth.  Certainly this helps to offset a revenue pressure.  However, this commitment to enrolment growth at both the undergraduate level, and in what some have come to describe as higher education’s after-sales market; graduate school.  It is in the latter that universities have become particularly proficient at addressing funding challenges.

However there is a myth inherent within this unbounded growth in enrolment.  Simply widening access to undergraduate programs or increasing the number of graduate programs in order to fuel the university machine may be good – and I repeat “may be good” – for the institution in the short-term.  However, as leaders in higher education we must ask about what is best for students who are accruing more debt and what about the tax payers who most often underwrite public universities?

At times of shrinking resources, there is a larger picture that must be viewed. As we enrol thousands of students into programs with no apparent linkage to industry needs or solutions to employment pressures, I ask the question of how long will we close our eyes and continue to enroll students under that premise that education is good… or more precisely, “that any education is good” [emphasis added].

I am not against liberal arts and the humanities.  In fact, it seems that as time passes, I become even more convinced we need to strengthen our commitment to these programs and extend these learning outcomes deeper into professional and skills-related programs.  Yet, at what point will we say we simply do not need more students in many of these programs.  Our communities and our countries expect more from us.  Our students deserve more from us and I believe that we can do better.

And so we must ask the question again; what responsibility do universities have for this situation?

The University’s Responsibility

Within that context, I want to share two themes related to the public responsibility of universities today.  Two perspectives that higher education leaders must consider as we set about adapting our institutions within this rapidly changing environment:

1.   The University as Economic Catalyst

I view universities as the economic catalyst of our times.  Higher education leaders must embrace the university’s responsibility to positively impact long-term economic and social prosperity for the communities we serve. Universities are uniquely positioned to be the community’s economic engine and we must rethink how we power this engine in terms of our learning environments and the programs we offer.

I believe, that in a day of declining resources and a marked increase in the need for highly educated, relevant graduates, a university’s first responsibility is to educate and prepare graduates who can contribute to the economic prosperity of the community the university was meant to serve.

This is not new.  250 years ago Benjamin Franklin – the Father of the Dr. Zemsky’s university – the University of Pennsylvania – told us that “…students should learn those things that are likely to be most useful….  [with] regard being had to the several professions for which they are intended.

Nursultan Nazarbayev – President of Kazakhstan

And we do not have to go back 250 years.  Here in Kazakhstan, I believe President Nazarbayev has it right when he wrote in his vision for Kazakhstan 2050 that “Vocational and higher education should be oriented to the current and prospective demands of the national economy”.

The first responsibility of the university must be to serve the student and report after report clearly advises that students want one, overwhelming outcome upon graduation – a Job.  Better yet – a Career.   The most responsible universities have drawn a direct line between the student needs and a desired career.  This is good as I see this as a primary responsibility of the university.

2.           The University as Innovation Generator

The second responsibility of a university (or at least a high priority responsibility) is related to the fact that the economic and social prosperity of our communities is directly correlated to the ability to create new products and new services.  And so I believe the second responsibility of a university today is that of Innovation Generator.

As higher education leaders, we must reflect the fact that our organizations are uniquely positioned to serve our communities.  They are positioned like no other public or private institution with both the intellectual and capital capacity to drive innovation and therefore national prosperity.

We must continue to invest in research and yet again, I would argue that here to we require a shift in the research priorities that are being funded by the public purse.  Also once again, here in Kazakhstan, I find myself agreeing with President Nazarbayev when he stated, “Higher education institutions should not limit themselves to purely educational functions.  They should create and improve their applied science and R & D divisions”.

It is this applied R & D where we must demonstrate greater leadership and responsibility.  There are too many countries that state their commitment to R & D, yet while they are very good at the Research side of the equation, they are very poor at the Development side of the equation.  As a note, I will say Canada is a good example of this reality and we must do a better job of technology transfer and the commercialization of our research efforts.  This is a priority at Algonquin College and I will say we are making great strides in this area.  Today, we host not one but three Applied Research Days whereby our faculty, staff, students and employer partners come together to show our good work; research that can directly and positively impact the communities we are meant to support.

Why should a university have this responsibility?  Let me share one example. I was recently at a conference whereby I listened to Evan Soloman, one of Canada’s leading media personalities.  Evan shared an interview that he had with Bill Gates – an interview whereby Mr. Gates was in Canada recruiting employees for Microsoft.   Think about that.  Bill Gates is a man who spends most of his time doing philanthropic work for his Foundation, and yet here he was making time for a recruiting visit to university campuses in Canada.

As described by Solomon, when he asked Gates why he would spend so much of his scarce time in the function of recruiting students, he was quite clear in his response (Let me paraphrase Solomon’s interpretation):

While Microsoft is a great company… It missed Google.  That is, a couple of university students by the names of Sergey Brin and Larry Page launched one of the world’s great technology companies (or marketing companies in the view of some people).  How did Microsoft miss this opportunity?

Microsoft is a great company…  But it also missed out on that  social media firm by the name of Facebook.  Once again, a university student launched a billion dollar firm out of a university dorm room.  Microsoft could not see what Mark Zuckerberg was able to see.

Microsoft is a great company… Yet it also missed Twitter; an idea that was inspired when Jack Dorsey was a university student.  Once again…  Darn!

What Bill Gates knows today is that at any time, the success of his company and the success of many communities rest in the hands of a 20 year old with the next new idea. What Mr. Gates also knows is that the best place to find those 20-somethings is on one of our campuses.  Universities are uniquely qualified to provide significant capital assets and intellectual power – it is the university’s responsibility to serve as a nation’s innovation generator.

In Closing

In these times of increased access and declining resources we need to think more broadly about the responsibilities of our universities.  Let me end as I started.  We do not want to create a series of universities that have the same mission and purpose.  Differentiation is not only good; it is necessary.  However, in my mind, if I were to prioritize two responsibilities of the university of today, they would be to serve as economic catalyst and play the role of innovation generator.

Thank you.


About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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