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The University of Toronto campus in Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
The University of Toronto campus in Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

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Will these ideas reform higher education? Add to ...

Can universities and colleges adapt fast enough to meet Canada’s demands? This week, academics and policy makers gathered in Toronto for a pair of overlapping conferences, looking for answers. Schools have been under pressure from students, governments and businesses to revitalize teaching, help address Canada’s perceived skills gap and ensure graduates are ready for jobs. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and the Conference Board of Canada led a range of discussions. These three ideas could shape higher education in the coming years.

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It’s not all about who gets in

Canadian universities and colleges receive much of their government funding based on how many students they accept – often called the “bums-in-seats” model. But governments increasingly want schools to be accountable for that money. The state of Tennessee has turned heads by adopting a funding strategy based on students’ outcomes. State schools receive money based on how many degrees they award, how long students take to graduate and how many get job placements.

Since the funding formula was first changed starting in 2010, schools appear to have become “far more interested in student success,” said Richard Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Critics have raised concerns – for example, won’t schools only admit the strongest students who are most likely to excel? But Dr. Rhoda has an answer: Schools receive a funding premium for admitting low-income and adult students and showing their progress.

Teaching innovation – it’s not always about technology

A flurry of recent efforts to revamp teaching have grabbed attention with promises that online and digital technologies will revolutionize learning. But Eileen Herteis, director of the Purdy Crawford Teaching and Learning Centre at Mount Allison University, argues a course isn’t innovative just because it reaches many people online, like massive open online courses, or incorporates the latest computer software. “A lot of money” is poured into teaching innovation, she says, and nearly all of the “rewards and awards” go to those going digital.

But many innovative teaching strategies use little or no technology, such as experiential or service learning through which students do projects with local schools or community organizations, study abroad or launch their own venture. And making the best use of these strategies is mostly about rethinking the makeup of a course.

“What we call a course right now is kind of an administrative convenience. It’s as if something magical happens in a student’s brain after 39 hours over 13 weeks in a classroom,” Ms. Herteis said.

Arts education must evolve

A debate is raging about whether higher education is fuelling a skills gap, mismatching students with the needs of the labour market by enrolling too few students in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math – as well as college programs and apprenticeships aimed at unfilled jobs.

Higher-education leaders argue that masses of students major in classics or history because, in most cases, they really want to. “The reason we have big faculties of arts is not to annoy our government,” said Carl Amrhein, provost at the University of Alberta, who is now working with the Conference Board.

But arts and humanities students must have the same opportunities as science or engineering majors. They want to learn skills like entrepreneurship and leadership, and branch out beyond their own disciplines to take courses in other faculties, Dr. Amrhein said.

“The message [from students is], make it possible for us to study what we’re passionate about, but at the same time, make it easy for us to do other things that hedge the bets,” he said.

Follow on Twitter: @jembradshaw

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