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Stephen Toope, finishing an eight-year run as president of the University of British Columbia, is heading to Toronto. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Stephen Toope, finishing an eight-year run as president of the University of British Columbia, is heading to Toronto. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

UBC president Stephen Toope says universities face five challenges Add to ...

As Stephen Toope finishes an eight-year run as president of the University of British Columbia, he says he’s worried Canadian universities are going to fail to grapple with five major challenges they’re facing.

Although he will be leaving the campus on June 30 to head to Toronto for a new role as director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, Dr. Toope, 56, said in an interview on Thursday that he will continue to worry about the issues he had to deal with as UBC’s leader.

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“They’re fundamental questions for Canadian society,” says the former dean of law at McGill University.

“Universities, in some ways, are a crucible for what’s happening in your society. They are representative, I hope, of the best of our aspirations. That’s why, if we fail in our university sector, we’re failing socially as well.”

The five challenges are:

Coming to grips with new ways of teaching and learning, and new student expectations

Dr. Toope says universities are being challenged by student expectations of being able to access material whenever and wherever they want through whatever device they choose. It is forcing professors to rethink their classroom roles, and universities risk irrelevance if they fail to meet student expectations in this area. Universities have to provide an experience for students that justifies their presence on campus. “Sitting in a big class with someone at the front of the class reading lecture notes is just not flying and so we are fundamentally having to change that.”

Improving our research quality and international influence

Canada has more influence in global research than might be expected given its relatively small population, says Dr. Toope. “But frankly the global pressure around talent is now extraordinary. A university like UBC is competing for top professors and top students also looking at places like Stanford, Berkeley, Oxford and Harvard. We do well, but I think Canada has to be committed to ensuring we can compete for those top people.” Failure to deal with this issue could usher Canada to the sidelines of the international search for knowledge, he says. “That would be tremendously damaging to the future of the Canadian economy and our society.” Concern for this issue, says Dr. Toope, spurred him to advocate for the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, announced in the last federal budget, which promises $1.5-billion in research funding over 10 years.

Resisting narrow views that see universities as glorified trade schools

Dr. Toope says universities must develop enlightened citizens who are also job-ready graduates. “I am quite worried that the discourse confuses the nature of university education for the development of specific skills for the first job. I am particularly worried about the denigration of the humanities and, to some extent, social sciences.” He says universities must aspire to prepare students to effectively contribute to society and the economy but also enrich their lives.

Helping students develop better inter-cultural fluency

Universities have to, more seriously, teach varied cultures to co-exist and work together. “I don’t see this as something about our students being able to work internationally. I think it’s about our students being able to work in downtown Vancouver and in Toronto and even in Fort McMurray.” Students need guidance, but so may professors, through training in intercultural-fluency skills. Failure to help with this issue could create “ghettos” of people not truly interacting with each other, and living in separate places, he says.

Reaching out and including more aboriginal people in higher education

“We simply can’t afford, as a society, not to have this part of our population properly educated,” says Dr. Toope, warning Canada could miss out on generations of potential stars in various aspects of society. He suggests the private sector, universities and government may have to come up with grants, bursaries and philanthropy to cover costs around this goal.

Dr. Toope says he’s not giving up on thinking about these issues. “I’m going to want to pay attention to this for the rest of my life, these five issues. I think they really matter for the future of Canada.”

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