Last week, the Government of Alberta released its widely-anticipated mandate letters to universities across the province, which were widely shared across social media platforms and discussed by families at the dinner table. The letters, which mark a significant transformation in the government’s approach to higher learning, suggest that economic prosperity should be the primary focus of the province’s postsecondary education system. Though the letters are complex and raise many questions about collaboration amongst Alberta’s postsecondary institutions, transfer credits between colleges and universities and research guided by clearly-articulated themes, the portion of the letters that struck me the most fall under the “University of Alberta Responsibilities” section. It is in this section that the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education, Thomas Lukaszuk, outlines four “desired outcomes.” These outcomes range from promoting “lifelong learning” in Alberta students, to ensuring a “skilled and productive workforce,” excellence in “research, innovation, and commercialization” and a “competitive and sustainable” economy.
Not surprisingly, these outcomes focus largely on the sustainability of the Alberta economy. The focus on short-term application of research to the economy is a national trend. But it is also an international phenomenon, and one which originated in Australia in the 1990s. As a way for Australian higher education to differentiate itself on the international level and receive consistent government funding, Australian universities sought to articulate the skills and qualities developed in their undergraduate students. Fast-forward 20 years, and the University of Sydney is one of many Australian institutions of higher education that stresses the attributes of its graduating students, where a distinct emphasis is placed on three qualities: scholarship, lifelong learning and global citizenship. These three main qualities are then supported by a handful of specific learning outcomes, which are fostered through students’ academic and social experiences in pursuing a degree.
Though Canada has been slow to catch on, universities across the country now seem to be engaged in a similar process, whereby they aim to clearly define the qualities developed as a result of a university degree. Simon Barrie, a scholar in the field of graduating student attributes and Director of the University of Sydney’s Institute of Teaching and Learning writes in Higher Education Research and Development that these attributes “seek to articulate the nature of the education university offers to its students and through this an aspect of the institution’s contribution to society.” In other words, these attributes serve an economic purpose, in preparing students for success in whatever fields they enter as employees. However, they play a much more important role: that is, they prepare students for meaningful and fulfilling lives.
This is where the Government of Alberta’s mandate letters go wrong. In reading the four desired outcomes, it is clear that just one of them – lifelong learning – focuses on the human dimension of a university education. This outcome is commendable, for lifelong learning is the essence of a university education and a benefit to Canadians as a whole. However, the remainder of the outcomes reverts to the short-term approach to education that mars much of the rest of the letter.
During the 2011-2012 academic year, while I was serving as the University of Alberta Students’ Union’s vice-president academic, the university struck a committee that focused on outlining several student attributes that could eventually represent what it means to graduate as a U of A student. Among the many qualities thrown around the meeting boardrooms were “engaged citizenship,” “curiosity,” “imagination” and “resilience.” These qualities, while far from measurable in any definitive sense, form the backbone of what it means to pursue a university education. Though nurses, teachers, engineers and lawyers all pursue very different professional programs, they should be united by a common set of aims such as the ones above. University is certainly a means to a job, but the four or five years that one spends on campus are much more than that.
So as we look to the mandate letters and to the Government of Alberta’s outcomes, it is clear that much is left to be desired. Rather than focus on economic sustainability, commercialization or innovation, the focus would be better placed on qualities that prepare one for success in an unknown future, as the University of London’s Ronald Barnett often states. It is through curiosity, imagination and resilience – rather than through commercialization – that a society can truly flourish.
Emerson Csorba served as 2011-2012 Vice-President Academic of the University of Alberta Students’ Union. He is currently in his fourth year of a Sciences Politiques degree at the University of Alberta.